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Canton officials celebrate new approach for fixing public housing

One of the renovated Cherrie Turner Towers apartments
Legal Aid
Michael McCarthy, vice president of the Cherrie Turner Tenant Council, shows a renovated apartment to Greg Olson of Michaels Development, on Oct. 10, 2023.

After years of safety concerns and poor living conditions at a Canton public housing development, officials are calling attention to how local partnerships and a federal program helped make substantial improvements.

The complex, Cherrie Turner Towers in Downtown Canton, is the city’s first Rental Assistance Demonstration conversion – a program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that changes public housing to Section 8 housing.

Using RAD to convert to the Section 8 model allows for more tenant protections and sustainable funding for the operator, said Greg Olson of Michaels Developments, the company that renovated the building and now runs it.

“The idea is that you lock in on rents; you no longer receive federal support in the form of operating and rent subsidies - you just get rent subsidies,” Olson said. “It’s essentially stable for both the operator, as well as HUD. It’s kind of the direction public housing is going.”

The program allows existing tenants to remain in place at the property, he added.

Through the RAD conversion, Michaels Development took over most of the ownership of the apartments from the Stark Metropolitan Housing Authority's nonprofit, Progressive Housing Solutions.

The switch to Section 8 allowed them to use tax credits and apply for additional state and private funding to renovate the apartments, Olson said.

Before the RAD conversion, tenants had grave concerns about safety and structural issues in the building, said Gino Haynes of Canton for All People, a community development corporation. Frequent break-ins and drug overdoses were reported, he said.

Haynes and his team worked with Legal Aid to organize the tenants and create a tenant union, he said. The tenant union advocated to get security staff in the building, he said.

Having security onsite and the apartment renovations have improved tenants’ overall quality of life, Haynes added.

“People can focus on the social elements," Haynes said. "They just had their first Labor Day barbecue ... I think people feel like there is progress and they feel like their reality is shifting.”

Haynes and housing officials hope the success of this project is replicated throughout the city.

Thirty percent of Canton residents live in poverty.

Much of the population is struggling to find affordable housing across the city, said Terrie Lewis, deputy director of the SMHA. To make matters worse, many properties across the city are old and in dire need of improvements, she said.

“We have our work cut out for us,” she said. “Not just focusing on housing – our goal is to replace distressed properties with sustainable mixed-income housing, but we also want to impact the people, not just building homes, but creating environments that support the well-being and growth of every individual.”

Olson, who works on many affordable housing projects in the Midwest, said this project is a prime example of how cities can leverage partnerships to secure funding and improve housing.

It’s not easy, he added, and it takes time.

“It took $15 million worth of effort, and obviously it’s very competitive to compete for the low-income tax credits,” Olson said. “It’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of federal regulations; there’s a lot of competition for the resources. It costs a lot of money.”

Lewis added that it often comes down to funding.

“Being able to secure private funding in order to make it happen. Of course, capital speaks,” Lewis said. “The 9% tax credit is what allowed this project to work.”

The agency recently secured a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant that they hope to use to improve other housing in the city, she added.

Haynes with Canton For All People added that his group is continuing to work with tenants across the city to advocate for better housing conditions and hold landlords accountable.

Most of the Cherrie Turner Towers units are fully renovated and available to lease. Construction of common spaces is ongoing, Olson said.

The renovations are expected to be completed in the spring of 2024, he said.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.