A decision by the USDA state director that would cost Van Buren the Rural Development loans that allow low to mid-income families to purchase land and build a home without a down payment has been postponed.
In a letter to U.S. Senator Mark Pryor, USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack agreed to provide a one-year delay on "rural in character" designations pertaining to USDA Rural Housing Service single family housing direct and guaranteed loan programs.
"When making these decisions, the USDA must consult stakeholders; they failed to do so in this case," said Lucy Speed, press secretary for Pryor. "When Sen. Pryor heard from concerned Arkansans, he immediately called on the USDA to include folks in the state in the process."
Vilsack made the decision after being contacted by Pryor, who is chairman of the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies.
Speed said Van Buren residents were "extremely important" in encouraging Sen. Pryor to action.
"We heard from all five counties that were going to be affected, but Van Buren residents reached out immediately and that definitely had an impact," Speed said.
A one-year delay will ensure the USDA contacts and works with the affected communities to hear the impact on residents and the local economy, and determine what is "appropriate and common-sense criteria," Speed said.
During a July 31 meeting with Cheryl Ivy, Single Family Housing Program director for the USDA in Arkansas, local residents were told Van Buren’s ineligibility for the program was already decided.
Karen Phillips, housing and development director at the Crawford-Sebastian Community Development Council, and others affected by the change were very upset, and said there was no clear reason for the change.
When the 2010 Census results came out, growth in Van Buren put it in danger of being cut from the program based on previous population limits.
"When it was going to happen before, there was a whole list of communities that were going to be affected and Van Buren was on that list," Phillips said in a previous interview.
Legislators passed a new federal farm bill earlier this year, raising the population number for loan eligibility up to 35,000, something many thought would keep most Arkansas cities clearly within the loan requirements.
But according to Ragon Clements with Ronald-Ragon Development Inc., Ivy and Lawrence McCullough, USDA Rural Development state director, made an arbitrary decision under the legal stipulation that a city must be "rural in character."
During the July meeting, Clements said that Ivy used a Google Maps areal view of Van Buren to show tightly packed rooftops and lack of green space, and that the city is contiguous to Fort Smith, as evidence that the city does not meet the rural stipulation.
Pryor was alerted by concerned Arkansans in early August that USDA arbitrarily cut off five Arkansas communities - Van Buren, Russellville, Cabot, Paragould and Searcy - from the program, according to a media release.
"USDA was out of bounds in denying these communities access to rural housing programs," Pryor said in the release. "Suspending its actions is the right thing to do. It allows Arkansas households to continue to benefit from this successful housing program and provides time for stakeholders to be part of the decision-making process. I appreciate Secretary Vilsack’s willingness to ensure the ‘rural in character’ designations are done right."
According to Vilsack’s letter, determinations and designations that would make a place ineligible solely based on "rural in character" criteria will be suspended through Sept. 30, 2015.
"During this suspension, RHS will review and modify its determination procedures," Vilsack wrote in the letter. "RHS will also evaluate and standardize its communications processes to ensure there is appropriate opportunity for public comment and consideration before final designations are issued."
Vilsack noted that factors considered in making "rural in character" determinations typically include population, density, and other data, some of which is subjective, as well as feedback from the public and stakeholders.