TUSCALOOSA, ALA.—IN THE LATE AFTERNOON ON APRIL 27, 2011, an EF-4 tornado more than a mile wide touched down in this west central Alabama city, leaving a 5.9-mile path of destruction, destroying 1,257 residential structures, and killing 52 citizens.
In the twister's direct path was TBG Residential's newly built, 56-unit affordable seniors development, Chastain Manor, where two residents died. The project was only 40 percent leased at the time of the storm, which Rick Jones, regional vice president of property manager Lane Co., says is a blessing since more tragedy could have occurred if it would have been fully occupied.
The community, which was destroyed in just minutes, wouldn't remain a pile of rubble for long. Atlantabased TBG Residential took immediate action and was able to rebuild and get placed in service within seven months.
Jones says it was within days after the disaster that TBG said they wanted to get the rebuilding done by the end of the year. “We thought it was a great goal but didn't think realistic,” he says.
A lot of owners would have waited to receive the insurance proceeds covering the losses to the building and the rent losses, but TBG continued to move forward.
“We're an affordable project so we had low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) to deliver to the investor and compliance issues, so we got on-site the same day as Lane did,” says TBG President Kevin Buckner. “We took a look at it and immediately within a week or two were in demolition mode. ... Because of the devastation, we needed to move forward and worry about the proceeds from the insurance company at a later date.”
A TEAM EFFORT
Buckner credits his team, including the city, state, investor, property manager, and network of contractors and subcontractors, for the quick turnaround. He says the city of Tuscaloosa signed off on approvals, as did the Alabama Housing Finance Authority (AHFA), the LIHTC allocating agency. Regions Bank, the LIHTC investor, also laid a lot of the groundwork to make it happen. The Regions team told Buckner to get the project rebuilt and they would worry about the delivery of tax credits at a later date.
“We thought it was important for us to do. It represents our core values,” says Brian Coffee, manager of affordable housing debt and equity for Regions. “There certainly was a tragedy involved. We were trying to make the very best of a bad situation.”
With all of the partners' support, TBG started to rebuild and negotiate with the insurance company. Chastain Manor, which had originally been completed in October 2010 and financed with LIHTCs, HOME dollars, and Tax Credit Assistance Program funds, had to be rebuilt from the slab. “These were wellbuilt brick buildings,” says Coffee. “It was a very powerful storm.”
Because the buildings were only a few months old, Buckner says it was easier to rebuild rather than reenvision an older community. It was rebuilt to its original specifications, with one exception. The owner added a storm shelter as a safety precaution.
Since the project took a direct hit, much of the surrounding natural landscaping also was decimated.
“We've had to go back and relandscape the whole project. We put in larger trees and larger shrubs,” Buckner says. “But it's impossible to put back what was taken out.”
The total development cost for the rebuild was slightly under $5 million and financed completely through the insurance proceeds.
The last building at Chastain Manor was fully placed in service Jan. 11.
“Had we waited for the insurance proceeds and the file settlement, it would have been a lot longer,” says Buckner. “It's the right thing. We're impressed with our team that we [received our certificates of occupancy] as quickly as we did.”
The first resident moved in Nov. 23, and the project was almost 50 percent occupied as of press time, with an additional 12 units pre-leased.
“Our leasing pattern is far better than what it was [the first time in late 2010 and early 2011,]” says Jones, a testament to the demand for seniors housing in the area. Full occupancy is expected by the end of April.
Between the tornado and the opening, the property management staff stayed in contact with the residents and their families. So far, eight of the 26 original residents are returning.
Many of the seniors have been living with families waiting for their housing to be rebuilt.
The residents who have returned so far love it, Jones says. “They've been thrilled to come home and be reunited with some of their friends.”
He adds, “There's a sense of pride in getting it back online as quickly as we did. It was a very traumatic event for all of us.”
More recovery work from the 2011 tornado outbreak remains throughout the city and the state.
To aid the long-term recovery in Alabama, in January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allocated $55.6 million in Community Development Block Grants. The state will receive $24.7 million, with at least 80 percent of that targeted to Tuscaloosa, Marion, Jefferson, and DeKalb counties. HUD also is directly providing the city of Tuscaloosa with $16.6 million, Jefferson County with $7.8 million, and the city of Birmingham with $6.4 million.
The AHFA also made some changes to its qualified allocation plan to address rebuilding in the hardest-hit areas, says Jeff Little, a multifamily underwriter for the agency.
The agency removed some of its safeguards used to distribute the credits across the state. In Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties, it removed its twomile radius requirement. Normally, it wouldn't take applications for a project within two miles of a prior-year allocation unless it was 90 percent occupied. It also is allowing up to three projects in those two counties to be funded.
In addition, the agency looked at the number of housing units destroyed in each county (43 of Alabama's 67 counties were declared disaster areas) and are giving point preferences to the 13 counties that had the most housing units destroyed by the storms. 2012 funding applications will be accepted in March.
The rebuilding of Chastain Manor helps the recovery of the 12.6 percent of the housing stock that was lost in Tuscaloosa. LaParry Howell, the longterm housing recovery coordinator for the city, says Mayor Walt Maddox has made housing a No. 1 priority.
“It's a long road ahead, but we're on the road to recovery,” Howell says.
Are You Prepared For A Disaster?
With spring around the corner, AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE spoke with two property management experts about their emergency preparedness tips for owners and managers.
“Most important is to have a mind-set that it could happen at any minute and be prepared for that,” says Gianna Solari, vice president and COO of Orange, Calif.-based Solari Enterprises, Inc., which manages 63 multifamily communities.
She says to ask yourself if you're prepared for something as simple as a rolling blackout to more major disasters like a fire or an earthquake.
“Make the time to make a preparedness plan,” Solari says. “It's easy to go to the Red Cross or the city where your property is located to create a plan. You don't need to recreate the wheel.”
Solari says emergency response procedures are reviewed twice a year with staff at her company, and then the property managers provide the same information to residents biannually.
She adds that it's also important to review evacuation plans, especially in mid- and high-rise developments. “We don't want to scare people, but we want to prepare people.”
In the event of an emergency, Solari property managers keep a binder that has all of the on-site resident information, the evacuation plan, the procedures, who to contact in the event of an emergency, the property's utility information, and notes on residents who would need special assistance to give immediately to emergency responders.
Karen J. Newsome, vice president of compliance for Bostonbased WinnResidential, says it's crucial to take extra precautions with low-income housing tax credit properties because resident files are so critical for compliance. She says WinnResidential, one of the nation's largest multifamily property managers, makes sure to keep original files off-site as well as on disk. The company also uses Yardi property management software so all of the information is additionally stored there.
Newsome says that a valuable resource for property owners and managers is your insurance company. “One of our biggest partners in preparedness is our insurance companies,” she says. “They have the time and resources to prepare a wealth of information that they freely give to us. We tap them to get a list of the most current information.”
WinnResidential uses information from the insurance companies to create brochures that are part of move-in packages.
In the event of a natural disaster, both Solari and Newsome say communication is important.
Newsome says all of the WinnResidential properties have a matrix of everybody on the call list with home and cell phone numbers.
Solari adds that with more residents getting smart phones, her property managers are starting to obtain e-mail addresses so they can update residents on an emergency in a variety of ways. The company also encourages residents to look at the communities' Web sites, where they can log in to get updates.