RHA anniversary mirrors moon landing

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While many people around the world were talking about the Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago, there was some quieter, but still groundbreaking news taking place in Roxboro.

The new Roxboro Housing Authority was getting off the ground. This year the agency celebrates its 50th anniversary as a public service agency and Executive Director Felts Lewis is taking every opportunity to tout the organization’s mission.

On Tuesday morning, Lewis addressed Roxboro Area Chamber of Commerce members at a breakfast at Golden Corral. Lewis revisited the agency’s creation in 1969 as part of the U.S. Housing Act, beginning with a single apartment community off Mount Bethel Church Street.

Over five decades the Roxboro Housing Authority has grown to four different communities, encompassing 210 housing units for low-income and disabled people. Lewis and his staff of eight maintain the facilities and provide programs designed to help residents get out of public housing and into their own homes.

“There is a lot of stuff going on structurally, but we want to focus on people. If you look at our logo, you see that we have people above housing. That’s really our focus,” Lewis said.

When Lewis joined the staff of the Housing Authority in 2018, he inherited an agency that was struggling with mismanagement and financial woes.

“We faced several challenges, some of which I didn’t know about when I first started,” Lewis said. “But we’ve made a lot of progress. I hope you can leave this room saying ‘I have trust in the Roxboro Housing Authority.”

In an effort to bolster that hope, Lewis noted that the agency has received clean audits in each of the last two years. “We hope that will continue for many years to come,” Lewis said. He noted that the agency brings generates about $1.7 million per year, but spends only about $1.4 million. Included in that revenue is $522,000 in rental fees paid by tenants. “Living in our apartments is not free. That’s a common misconception,” Lewis noted. The agency also has a $1.1 million capital improvements budget. So far this year, Lewis said the agency has already spent about $300,000 of that money on renovations to its apartments and common facilities.

“When we came, we took a look at every single building and every single apartment and made a list of the things that needed to be done and we’ve undertaken some renovations on our community facilities and we’ve been working through repairs at individual apartments. Our people are our top priority. We talked to them and we listened to them about what their needs are,” Lewis said.

But he noted that many of the foundations of public housing are changing. Lewis wants to break the cycle of generational public housing residents. Federal housing officials are encouraging local housing authorities like the one in Roxboro to help residents achieve greater self-sufficiency.

Lewis said the local agency, which is overseen by a local board of commissioners appointed by the Roxboro City Council, has established a number of partnerships with local and regional agencies designed to improve educational outcomes for children and to help adults learn better personal management skills, from financial literacy to family management.

“We have what we call the three A’s: Accountability, Awareness and Attitude,” Lewis said. “We had a number of things we had to grapple with. But we want to make sure we’re doing right by the taxpayers.”

Lewis also said staff has taken a more active approach to awareness. “If we see something wrong, we need to say something,” he said.

Housing Authority leaders are also working to help people break the cycle of living in public housing, by offering escrow programs that allow residents to set aside a portion of their monthly rent in a savings account that will be returned to them when they have enough money to make a downpayment for their own home. Other programs are designed to provide food for children while also exposing them to STEM educational experiences and to help fathers assume more responsibility for their children.

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