By Alyssa Schnugg
This is the first story in an ongoing series that will focus on LOU-Home and the upcoming 15-year anniversary of Community Green.
Almost 15 years ago, a group of local residents came together with one goal — to help save and refurbish unused faculty houses donated by the University of Mississippi and turn them into affordable, new homes for Oxford and Lafayette residents.
Of the 26 homes donated, five were given to low-income families who had land but not the means to build a home, and 21 were moved to what is now the Community Green neighborhood off Molly Barr Road.
Today, that group is called the Lafayette, Oxford and University Home Ownership Management Enterprise, or LOU-Home, and its goal continues to help foster affordable housing opportunities and serve as a community resource for people who need some guidance in becoming homeowners.
LOU-Home has worked with developers to bring much-needed workforce housing options to Oxford, including Bell Rivers Townhouses, and also provides housing and credit counseling services.
This year, the not-for-profit organization has gained a new director, a new housing counselor and a new website.
Brooke Worthy, president of the LOU-Home Board of Directors said the new website, created by Red Window Communications, is the organization’s first-ever official website.
“The Red Window team was thoughtful, thorough and energetic in learning about our non-profit organization’s history and our mission,” she said. “They created a beautiful site that is both informative and functional. We are excited about our website and look forward to its helping us grow and market our mission and provide resources to the Oxford-Lafayette community.”
LOU-Home is currently headed up by Michael Billingsley, who was hired in June of this year.
A Birmingham-native, Billingsley worked for the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunities as a family services advocate for the Early Head Start and Head Start Program.
He has also worked as a FSS coordinator with the Birmingham Housing Authority and the director of client services at the Palm Beach Housing Authority, as well as a counseling coordinator for the University of Alabama and counselor/instructor of education for Paine College.
As executive director, Billingsley searches for grant opportunities for LOU-Home that will be made available to citizens if they are awarded to LOU-Home.
“We have been fortunate to get two small grants to do some things in the community to get people aware of what LOU-Home has done in the past and what we hope to do in the future,” he said.
LOU-Home is also a HUD-approved housing counseling agency and provides free workshops and individual financial counseling.
After moving to Oxford, Billingsley said he noticed the low wages being paid locally and the lack of affordable, workforce housing options – along with the abundance of student housing options.
“Oxford is similar to some other communities I’ve lived in, but many of the apartment complexes are for students,” he said. “That is something that really needs to be looked at. People are wanting to move to the area and it could be a problem for some who are trying to transition here and there are few options.”
Another challenge in creating more affordable housing options in Oxford is the high cost of land in and close to the Oxford city limits.
“With property values so high, that has been one of the greatest challenges of this organization in creating more affordable housing options like Community Green,” he said.
Along with working to find more housing options, LOU-Home Housing Director Forrest Jenkins works with residents to provide money management, housing and financial counseling services.
A Pontotoc native, Jenkins attended law school at the University of Mississippi. She joined the LOU-Home Board of Directors after serving as the staff attorney for the law school’s Housing Clinic, helping families facing eviction or foreclosure.
A HUD-certified housing counselor, she was hired by LOU-Home to be the housing counselor in January after serving on the Board for seven years.
Jenkins provides housing counseling where she works with people to prepare them to be a homeowner and how to budget and plan for the cost of homeownership; financial and credit counseling to provide education on the steps to become better positioned to become a homeowner; rental counseling to help connect people facing eviction to community resources for rental assistance and help people understand their rights as renters; and housing discrimination assistance for those who feel they’ve been denied housing due to race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or disability.
This past October, Jenkins held a workshop on budgeting for food and provided recipes that included healthy food options and created meals that cost less than $4 per person.
“We partnered with Oxford Community Market and those who attended received $15 vouchers to use at the market on fresh, local produce,” she said.
The measure of affordability that HUD defines is that 30 percent of the gross monthly income is the maximum someone can afford to spend on their housing costs.
“The majority of people here are paying more than 30 percent and that means some of their budget is squeezed, and for many, that becomes their nutrition budget,” Jenkins said.
Along with free, public workshops, individual counseling, LOU-Home will also provide workshops to local businesses and groups.
“Housing counseling is not one-size-fits-all,” Jenkins said. “It’s really about me listening to someone and their situation right now. I may need to do some research but it’s about tailoring the process to this person’s actual needs, rather than trying to squeeze anybody into one specific way of doing something.”