Official wants to turn vacant schools into apartments

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LAWTON, Okla. (AP) — Bill Bright is working to end homelessness among veterans in Lawton. The director of community planning and development with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said he'd like to turn unused elementary schools into apartments.

Vouchers from two federal agencies would cover costs to run and maintain apartments and could also provide revenue for the school system, he said. Ideally, homeless veterans and their families would have new apartments at low to no cost, and social workers would be on-site to provide mental health services, Bright said.

The plan is in the early stages, and he has several obstacles to overcome. Lawton Assistant City Manager Jim Russell said he supports Bright's plan, but the city can't contribute to it, The Journal Record ( ) reported.

"I think it is a great concept, and I would love to do something for our veterans, especially our homeless veterans, but the city doesn't have the funding or the buildings," Russell said.

Bright hasn't yet proposed the idea to officials from Lawton Public Schools, which owns the property and must approve the building sale. However, the school district is willing to consider any potential buyer, spokesman Keith Mitchell said.

The empty schools need renovations to turn classrooms into apartment buildings. Bright is helping coordinate a task force to formalize the plan, including working with United Way of Southwest Oklahoma. If nonprofit organizations gathered donations and businesses donated labor and materials, they could help keep costs low, he said.

Lawton Public Schools closed four elementary schools and one high school for at-risk students at the end of the 2014-2015 school year as part of a consolidation plan. The B.C. Swinney Elementary, Brockland Elementary, Park Lane Elementary, Wilson Elementary and Gateway Success Center buildings all are empty.

"The plan is to sell those buildings, and if an entity such as HUD or the VA is interested in purchasing those and rehabbing them for use, we'd certainly be open to that," Mitchell said.

Bright met with Shelly Farrar, a Lawton city planner, recently to discuss possible solutions. Farrar drove around the city and mentioned the empty school buildings. Bright said his office is willing to provide the technical assistance needed to help make the project feasible.

The White House launched an initiative with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2010 to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Both the VA and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can provide housing vouchers for homeless veterans. The HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) grant program announced June 26 that $7 million is available for up to 1,000 units of project-based housing.

The program would provide enough funding to cover the majority of the cost to maintain the units for a yet-to-be-determined time period and could provide revenue for the school district, Bright said. The schools-to-veteran-housing project would also be eligible for HUD's community development block grant to install solar photovoltaic panels on the roofs. The renewable energy source could provide much of the electricity needed, further reducing costs and increasing the projects likelihood for long-term sustainability, he said.

Russell said Lawton officials recognize the importance of Fort Sill, servicemen and servicewomen, and veterans. The city attracts retired veterans because of the services available. He said it is important that Bright's plan is implemented properly to become successful.

"We have to make sure we take this through the right steps and it is able to be sustained and kept in operation for a long time," Russell said.


Information from: The Journal Record,

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