PMHA celebrates 75 years of history

August 22, 2013

Joseph Pratt

PDT Staff Writer

The Portsmouth Metropolitan Housing Authority (PMHA) celebrated its 75th birthday this week as they welcomed the public to an open house where they donated a piece of Portsmouth history to an impressive out-of-state museum.

Saul Himelstein, director and representative from the the National Public Housing Museum, from the University of Illinois, accepted the plaque that used to embellish the Wayne Hills complex, and plans to house it in the Chicago museum. Himelstein said that this celebration was history in the making Tuesday, as he accepted the plaque from PMHA executive director Peggy Rice.

The PMHA currently houses nearly four percent of Scioto County and has a long history of playing a major role in local government and the economic system. The PMHA began their 75-year run after the 1937 flood when a good portion of Portsmouth was left homeless, and has since built to their 3,000 available occupancy in Scioto County and 300 capacity in Lawrence County.

Seventy-five years later, Rice believes the need for public housing is still here and PMHA is necessary, “It started out with a group of people meeting because there was no decent housing and no one was working. Does that sound familiar?”

Rice made the comparison by referring to the 23 percent of Portsmouth locals who were left without homes after the flood. Portsmouth and six other cities in Ohio were the first built for public housing by a program sponsored by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which transformed the U.S Department of Housing Authority. The department is now known as the U.S Department of Urban Development. It is for this reason and historical significance that Himelstein has been seeking the Wayne Hills plaque for the museum for the past five years.

Housing has always been PMHA’s mission, since they see housing and shelter as a human right, but they’ve also tried generating revenue and creating more local jobs throughout the years. They currently employ 44 people, all who contribute to local taxes.

“The Housing Authority has put people to work from the beginning,” Rice explained. “There were construction workers with no work. Building here gave us the opportunity to hire a lot of construction workers. We still have local people who are working because of the construction we have today. We might not be building new, but we are always renovating. Our budgets allow us to hire people and fund everything from trash pick-ups to landlords who pay property taxes and spend rent in restaurants, local department stores and gas stations. Most spending is kept local to help generate revenue and all money is handled through local banks. We touch a large population of the area. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 450 landlords who are receiving rent subsidies from us. We have about 200 local vendors that deal in paint supplies, plumbing, different supply chains that have business with us. Even the city benefits from us; we spend nearly $100,000 a year on the sanitation department and other utilities. There is a lot of sustainability going on quietly behind the scenes that no one really sees.”

Rice said that the 2014 fiscal calender, which started July 1, has 13 separate budgets that total $9.4 million that goes to mentioned costs and more.

Rice said that she respects all of those she serves and defends those who have to take residence in public housing. Many of the people in public housing get painted with the same brush as criminals and people who abuse the system, but Rice said that it isn’t true; a lot of successful people have been in public housing at one point.

“We are taking pride in what we do. We are very honored to represent those we do. So often people think we represent only those who live with us, but we represent the entire county. We have survived for 75 years. We have survived on a lot, on little, and through strict restrictions. We are very necessary to this community. We give people a soft place to land so that they can get back on their feet, find employment and get themselves in a better place. We’ve had a lot of people that are going through nursing school, are raising kids alone, working, and trying to pay for everything with these busy and hectic lives. So, we have been a catalyst for a lot of people to get through school; we’ve helped a lot of people graduate school.”

Himelstein himself grew up in public housing, which fueled an interest in helping those people who live in Section-8 and public housing. He began a business based around inspecting and providing safe and adequate public housing nationwide and later got involved in the National Public Housing Museum. He does a lot of work in Ohio and is president of The Inspection Group, which is based out of Westerville. Before recent budget cuts, he also did work with PMHA, which is why he is interested in local history and seeking a place in the National Public Housing Museum for Portsmouth.

“This is a pretty historic area for public housing,” Himelstein said. “Its a perfect scenario based on the flood of ‘37, which supersedes 150 years on the Ohio River and along it and the inspiration of the federal government to help those who were displaced and lost their homes. Portsmouth is very representative of public housing all over the country and I want it to be known.”