The LaGrange Housing Authority is one of only two housing departments in the state to receive the designation “Envision Center” from the Department of Health and Urban Development (HUD).
HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson started the program, which according to HUD’s website, is based on the idea that, “financial support alone is insufficient to solve the problem of poverty.”
LaGrange’s designation provides for a hub, a space on public housing property where residents can receive training in four areas, or pillars: economic empowerment, educational advancement, health and wellness, and character and leadership.
Zsa Zsa Heard, CEO of LaGrange Housing Authority, said their residents were already receiving training in these areas, through the education center already on the property. The HUD designation will help expand these programs and give residents more opportunities and resources.
“This will help us get better partnerships with companies, help make renovations, and add more kids programs, like helping students pay for school activities that they otherwise could not take part in,” Heard said. “We are changing the mindset and culture of public housing. We want to remove the stigma.”
One culture change is the creation of a work requirement for public housing. If residents are able to work, they will be required to do so or be part of a Leadership Academy in order to be empowered to work. Leadership Academy teaches soft skills like anger management, health and wellness and budgeting. Topics are practical and include the pros and cons of programs like food stamps.
“We talk through what it is like to be on assistance, and what it requires to get out once they get work,” Heard said. “They may decide it is not worth it.”
Heard said the transition to a work requirement is tied to the Envision Center designation. The requirement became effective Oct. 9.
“If you’re laid off, you have a 90-day timeframe to find work again, though we take each person on a case by case basis,” Heard said.
Another resource to help get work for residents is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WOIA). It allows participants to learn a skillset like becoming a CNA or a pharmacy technician. The program covers transportation to these trainings and pays any fees.
LaGrange College is also partnering with the Housing Authority, providing counseling for residents through interns.
To reinforce these cultural changes, Benjamin Harvey Hill Homes now has a new name: Phoenix. The buildings of Phoenix will be torn down and rebuilt in phases. Buildings on the
Lucy Morgan property will be called Phoenix Way, once that phase of the rebuilding begins.The name alludes to the rebuilding of the property, but more importantly, the rebuilding of residents’ lives.
“We’ve all been in the ashes,” Heard said. “We come into the world with nothing. It takes some longer than others, but we can make it out. And when you come out of the ashes, the wounds do close. Then, you can go on to the next phase of your life. You may get more ashes, but now you have skills to deal with them.”
Heard’s vision for the community extends beyond the public housing property. She wants to see blight removed everywhere it exists in town, especially in District 2.
“It’s a boost to the economy for everyone,” Heard said. “People are paying more taxes, which goes into the schools. Our approach is wholistic.”
Some classes are open to people not living on the property. To Heard, this is an added resource.
“It’s a mixed community, with some working and some not,” Heard said. “Everybody is learning from everybody else.”