PI County hopes to start housing program

News Staff Writer

ROGERS CITY – Presque Isle County could start its own housing program to handle grants formerly administered by the now-defunct Northeast Michigan Affordable Housing Inc.

County Commissioner Steve Lang said he’s talked to Michelle LaBar, NEMAH executive director, about administering grants from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. She would work for the county, instead of a third-party administrator like NEMAH. The nonprofit agency is in the process of dissolving after bookkeeping issues that cropped up under a former director prompted MSHDA to suspend it from administering grants.

Starting its own housing department would allow county residents access to county allocation funding grants, which go to homeowners at or below a certain income threshold for home improvement projects, Lang said. MSHDA awards the two-year, $150,000 grants. He’ll meet with her Monday when she’s back in town, and present the idea to county commissioners at their meeting Feb. 28.

“I hope it works, I mean I think it’s a program the county needs,” he said. “It’s something that’s very helpful and needed for county residents who need that type of help.”

Presque Isle County had its own housing program before, Lang said. If it starts one again, the money to run it will come from the administrative portion of MSHDA grants. The county could potentially use these grants to leverage others.

Starting its own program could help the county regain access to a grant previously approved under NEMAH, James Espinoza, MSHDA community development specialist, said. County commissioners said in January the county had about $80,000 for home improvement projects.

“Basically, their funding is in limbo right now because there’s nobody to administer it,” he said, adding there’s a possibility the county may have to re-apply.

NEMAH will dissolve at some point in the future, board President Ann Denis said. She’s waiting to hear back from attorneys to find out how to do so legally. Founded in 2000, the nonprofit handled home improvement grants for Arenac, Montmorency, Ogemaw and Presque Isle counties, and foreclosure intervention and counseling in those four counties plus Alpena County.

Alpena County has its own housing improvement program. Lee Ann Fischer, formerly NEMAH’s senior program manager at the organization’s West Branch office, said she has started her own company to handle home improvement grants for Arenac and Ogemaw counties.

Karen Thompson, NEMAH board secretary and member for Presque Isle County, said the organization was suspended from handling grants because it couldn’t complete an audit required to handle grants involving federal funds. Al West, formerly the organization’s CEO, told board members at one point that NEMAH’s books were in disarray because two different bookkeepers for the organization used two different methods.

“Without some kind of accurate picture of our financial status, MSHDA will not release any of our funds, and without our funds we have no grants to administer,” she said.

Board members also learned in May 2013 that the IRS and the state had contacted the organization because it was behind on paying tax withholdings, according to a release from NEMAH. West offered to loan NEMAH the money to pay the IRS, which the board accepted. They also placed him on unpaid, disciplinary leave, with LaBar and David Farmer taking over as interim co-CEOs.

West did not return an email and phone message as of press time.

MSHDA offered to help straighten out the organization’s books, but an audit firm said it didn’t have enough information to complete the task, according to the release. At that point, MSHDA suspended NEMAH from handling grants.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.