• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Changing the perception of public housing in Versailles

THE HOUSING AUTHORITY of Versailles provides low-income families with affordable housing opportunities with the goal of transitioning those families to self-sufficiency and home ownership, said Executive Director Chantel Bingham. From left are Housing Authority office assistant Kelly Jo Chamness, Bingham, occupancy specialist Jennifer Umbel and administrative assistant Linda Foley. Not pictured are maintenance workers Gaylord Montague, Wayne Johnson and Bob Stromberg. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

When Chantel Bingham became executive director of the Housing Authority of Versailles a little more than two years ago, she wanted to change how people in the community felt about public housing. She also wanted to change the culture of the local Housing Authority for tenants living in its homes.

“I want for people to be able to see this as a safe and secure place to live,” said Bingham.

The Housing Authority of Versailles provides low-income families with affordable housing opportunities with the goal of transitioning those families to self-sufficiency and home ownership, said Bingham.

The Housing Authority of Versailles manages 156 housing units – including town homes on Linden Drive and duplexes on Poplar and Oak streets – at seven different locations in the community.

Bingham said she doesn’t want low-income housing (with rent as low as $50 a month) to ever be perceived as rundown, old and dirty. So she and her staff have done a lot of hard work over the last couple of years cleaning up properties and working alongside community partners – local churches, the police department, health department, parks and recreation, and public library – to improve the quality of life for people living in public housing.

“I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the input from the outside,” she explained.

Community partners are always willing to come into public housing neighborhoods to support or offer programs and activities for residents, according to Bingham. And she said police officers provide extra patrols to ensure safe and secure neighborhoods.

“We don’t want a place where the police get called out every day or twice a day,” said Versailles Mayor Brian Traugott. “That just reflects poorly (on public housing).” He credited Bingham for changing perceptions from the inside-out.

“The Housing Authority is a place where you go when you need help,” said Bingham. She said the Housing Authority receives a monthly stipend from HUD (the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development) to pay its operating expenses.

She said some come to the Housing Authority of Versailles after going through a divorce. Others come to the agency after being displaced because of a natural disaster such as a fire or tornado.

“Those are the homeless,” said Bingham. “We really strive to bring housing to the homeless.”

Disabled veterans and a growing number of senior citizens are Housing Authority tenants. Seniors want to downsize and not “take care of their properties any more so they come here and we take care of the property for them,” explained Bingham, who has been executive director of the Housing Authority of Versailles since Dec. 1, 2015. Also, because they live on fixed incomes, she said, “The elderly are choosing public housing for a better quality of life.”

With 179 children (birth to age 18) living in public housing, low-income families remain a part of these Versailles neighborhoods where a grandma or an aunt may have lived before them.

“We have to break those generational curses and teach them that this is okay to be here, but let’s transition you into self-sufficiency where you can purchase a home for yourself,” explained Bingham.

The Versailles native said she spent countless summers in a public housing neighborhood as a young child staying at her aunt’s house on Linden Drive while her parents worked. “I had great memories here,” she said.

Her administrative assistant, Linda Foley, also has a history with the Housing Authority. She’s worked at the agency for 15 years and lived here too. So she knows affordable housing can be life-changing.

Born and raised in Versailles, Bingham was working at Berea College when she chose to pursue a career opportunity at the Housing Authority of Versailles in part because she wanted to stay close to home for her son Dwayne “D” Depp’s senior year at Woodford County High School and family-oriented activities.

In recent years, Bingham has been a foster mom – before and after getting remarried. And she likes nothing more than giving out Popsicles to children on a hot summer day.

“I’m just all about making sure these babies are being taken care of. That’s where my passion is – young people,” said Bingham.

She viewed becoming executive director of the Housing Authority as an opportunity to restore pride in people living in public housing, and ensure no family will ever go hungry.

“Me and my staff,” explained Bingham, “are doing everything that we possibly can to get people to take pride in themselves, and to get back in the workforce. If they’re able-bodied and can work that’s what I’m doing.”

If a resident disrupts the health, safety and peaceful living environment of their neighbors, she said a tenant can and will be evicted. She also holds residents accountable by asking them to keep their homes clean and by asking them to follow the rules of their lease agreements.

Traugott credited Bingham’s leadership and willingness to enforce the rules for creating a safer living environment for public housing tenants.

“We’ve had a good Housing Authority,” he said, “…and I just think it’s getting better and better. She’s investing in capital projects.”

The Housing Authority of Versailles has a five-year capital fund to pay for maintenance projects. Storage buildings for housing units (with limited closet space) built in 1961 and new sewer lines are recent projects prioritized by need, Bingham said.

“Some of the apartments needed new refrigerators. A lot of them needed new stoves,” said Bingham. She said bids were recently accepted on new HVAC units, which were replaced on four units.

Parking lots on Cleveland Avenue and High Street needed to be replaced so bids were accepted on that capital project, she added.

A mowing contractor cares for yards, while plumbing and HVAC contractors are available when a maintenance staff of three cannot handle a building issue, Bingham explained.

The local Housing Authority has a Board of Commissioners to oversee its operations, but community support plays a large role in making a difference in the lives of families who live in public housing, according to Bingham.

She pointed to the employees of Pin Oak Farm who donate gifts to one of her families every Christmas, or the mowing contractor, Dale Vickers, who has anonymously helped families pay their rent, or students at Woodford County Middle School who donate toys to kids, or the House of Prayer’s efforts in organizing and supporting events such as Praise in the Park.

For additional information about how to apply for public housing, visit the Housing Authority of Versailles’ website: versailleshousingauthority.org or stop by its office at 519 Poplar Street on Monday or Wednesday, from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 2 p.m.

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