Barbara Crockett’s first brush with violence came at 7 years old when she watched from a window as a man nearly beat her teenage aunt to death on the lawn below. At 19, Crockett began a decade-long abusive relationship with a married man who would forcibly remove her from other people’s homes whenever she ran away from him.

In recent years, now on her own, she has suffered many health setbacks. At age 57, Crockett grapples with arthritis, fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease. Her elbows, knees, back and belly are covered in surgical scars from two knee replacements and hernia surgery, among others, that have left her unable to work.

But as she sat in her dining room, in her pristine one-bedroom apartment in Farmington, Crockett said she feels spoiled for the first time in her life. In November, she moved from a century-old apartment building on Farmington’s Sawtelle Lane to newly constructed affordable housing units across the street. On a recent weekday, she proudly showed off her dishwasher, microwave and washer and dryer and a shower large enough to fit a bench to sit on.

“It boosts your self-esteem. It really does,” Crockett said. “I love this place. I wouldn’t change it for nothing.”

Between 2014 and 2016, the town of Farmington secured $860,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds toward construction of the 82 High St. development, where Crockett lives.

Now, the program that helped transform Crockett’s life may soon shut down as President Donald Trump’s administration moves to dramatically scale back federal spending. It is part of a proposed $6 billion cut in the Housing and Urban Development budget, and would represent a 13 percent reduction in the agency’s budget.

The program was created by President Gerald Ford in 1974 as a way to help communities aid low- to moderate-income residents and neighborhoods.

“That grant was an instrumental part in getting (82 High St.) going and leveraged a lot of additional federal funds to do the project,” said Farmington Town Manager Richard Davis. “I would say that without them the project wouldn’t have been able to proceed, or at least certainly not at the level that is has.”

The $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, run by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, distributes block funding to state and municipal governments for local economic and community development efforts from infrastructure and affordable housing projects to microenterprise grants for local businesses, according to the HUD website.

Many of the funds are distributed by the state though large population centers such as Bangor, Lewiston and Cumberland County receive their funding directly from HUD.

From 1982 to 2016, Maine received more than $500 million in CDBG money, according to the Maine Office of Community Development. The state is currently accepting applications for nearly $10.8 million in anticipated funding for the upcoming year, according to the Maine CDBG Program Statement.

Mark Perry, a peer coach at Amistad, right, speaks with Mark, left, Friday in Portland as he walks around downtown as part of his community outreach. Portland Press Herald staff photo by Joel Page

About $16 million a year flows into Maine communities in CDBG grants, most of which is distributed by the state or county government. Several large cities, including Portland, are direct receivers from the federal government.

Critics of the community block grants say the program is an example of excessive federal spending and lack of accountability for how the money ultimately gets spent.

Trump’s administration is not the first to propose cuts to the program — in 2016, the Obama administration sought to decrease its budget by $200 million, from $3 billion to $2.8 billion. But in the 2018 budget the Trump administration presented in March, the White House Office of Management and Budget laid out its argument for cutting CDBG funding altogether.

During its first 40 years, the federal CDBG program has invested $144 billion into thousands of urban and rural communities nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Projects must meet a national objective of either benefiting low- to moderate-income people, aiding in the prevention and elimination of so-called slums or blight, or meeting an urgent need that poses a serious and immediate threat to the health and welfare of the community.

There are 28 eligible activities for which CDBG funds can be used, including infrastructure projects such as sewer, drinking water or safe streets, economic development, code enforcement, housing rehabilitation and social services.

In 2014, the most recent data available, HUD distributed more than $3 billion in CDBG funding, which has been used to improve blighted neighborhoods and bolster social service agencies. The money is distributed to states, counties and municipalities through a formula based on population, poverty and other housing variables.

Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage said the U.S. Congress needs to scrutinize all forms of government spending, including CDBG.

“The sad truth about our current situation is that the federal government has been on a decade-long shopping spree and we currently face a $20 trillion national debt. The Community Development Block Grant proposal is one of many programs that needs to be looked at,” Savage said in an email. “Some CDBG grants appear to be spent well while others appear to be questionable. Should we be adding to a national debt that our children will have to pay off with interest, to plant trees for some communities or to improve the appearance of building facades for private businesses in others?”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a statement vowing to fight Trump’s proposal and calling the block grants an “effective” and “bipartisan legacy.”

“Simply put, this proposal to eliminate CDBG funds would make our cities and communities less safe, less healthy and more expensive to live in,” Setti Warren, mayor of Newton, Massachusetts, said in a written statement. “At a time when cities are continuing to struggle to make ends meet, these funds are critical and cutting them would be a disaster.”

GRANT IMPACT

Mark Perry can relate to people struggling with addiction, depression and homelessness. He’s been there.

After 30 years of addiction to alcohol and drugs, the 46-year-old is approaching five years of sobriety. And now he is trying to help other addicts get their lives back together through a peer coaching initiative at Amistad, a Portland nonprofit that helps people struggling with substance abuse, homelessness or mental health issues.

“I’ve been through it,” Perry says. “I can look them in the eye and say, ‘I know what you’re thinking and you’re (expletive) wrong.’”

Amistad is just one of the social service agencies around Portland and the state that rely on federal funding known as Community Development Block Grants. The funds flow through virtually every corner of the state and support a wide range of local initiatives, from housing construction and rehab to street and sidewalk improvements to new business development.

Amistad’s executive director, Brian Townsend, is among those worried about what will happen if the service’s funding stream goes away. Amistad received about $50,000 in CDBG funding this year, which he said is a small but important component of the nonprofit’s $1 million budget. “This pot of money looks small,” Townsend said, “but if we had lost it, the (peer coaching) program would have closed.”

If Congress agrees to eliminate the CDBG program, the move could also profoundly affect towns like Farmington. Since 1982, Farmington has received nearly $5 million in CDBG funds, using much of the money to upgrade core infrastructure such as the town’s water system and the town’s business district with concrete sidewalks and decorative lighting in an effort to attract new economic development.

Davis, the town manager, points to Farmington’s thriving downtown as proof of the program’s benefits. There were vacant storefronts up and down Main Street 30 years ago, but today it’s lined with restaurants, shops and other businesses. Davis argues that de-funding the program would make it more difficult for towns to take on new projects.

“Without these grant funds we rely heavily on the property tax to do any sort of improvements in our town,” Davis said. “The property tax is already being strained a great deal so we tend to be falling behind on our infrastructure.”

Though a recent change to the program’s income limit calculation eliminated Farmington from eligibility for some grants, Davis said, the town could still apply for funding for areas it designates as slums or blight. He acknowledges that most people would object to having their neighborhood labeled a slum but says if some areas are in urgent need, it would be helpful to have the CDBG funding option.

According to Maine Department of Economic and Community Development records, since 1982 Franklin County has received $13 million in block grants, or 2.7 percent of all state-distributed CDBG funds. By contrast, Aroostook County received more than $102 million, or 20.6 percent, while Kennebec and Somerset counties have received more than $39 million and $32 million, respectively. Waterville alone received more than $7 million in block grant funds in the same 35-year period.

STILL DOES GOOD

Deborah Johnson, director of Maine’s Office of Community Development, which administers the grants for the state, argues that much of the difference in funding levels between counties comes down to whether or not towns are applying.

“We don’t dictate who applies for the funds,” Johnson said. “Typically, when I’ve done this before it’s pretty much come out that the more the people apply, the more they’re going to get or the more projects they have.”

Johnson notes that Maine’s CDBG funding is already on the decline: in 2001, the state received $16.4 million for the program, and by 2015 that had dropped to $10.7 million.

The former building where Barbara Crockett lived on Sawtelle Lane before moving in to the newly built “82 High Street” development at 112 Sawtelle Lane through CBDG funding Friday. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

But Johnson maintained the funds have still been used to good effect. Over the last five years, the department has directed $13.4 million into economic development projects across the state, generating $27.1 million in matching funds and that generated 1,070 jobs, Johnson said. In the same time period, it helped fund 26 sewer projects with $14.4 million in grants that were then matched by $36.5 million in local, federal and private funds.

CDBG funds also help nonprofit agencies leverage other sources of funding. For the fiscal years of 2010-2012, recipients reported that every dollar of CDBG funds leveraged an additional $4.07 of other funds, according to HUD.

Mark Swann, executive director of the Portland-based social service agency Preble Street, said block grant funding is a “critically important” piece of a “jigsaw puzzle” of revenue sources that allow the nonprofit to maintain its shelters, soup kitchen and other services.

Darryl Sterling, an economic and community development specialist, who has worked with towns across Maine for more than 25 years to secure grant funding for local development projects, has been following the debate over cuts to the block grant program for years and noted that more recent discussions of the Trump budget have called for halving the program’s funding rather than eliminating it.

“I’ve been seeing the ebb and flow of the funding. The funding used to be a lot more back in the day, but it still does so much good,” Sterling said. “Without it certain projects wouldn’t get done.”

Sterling described the block grants as “multipliers” that can help towns attract additional investment for a project or fill its last funding gaps. He described how a $400,000 grant helped the town of Wilton secure another $1.3 million in investment for a downtown revitalization project that included new sidewalks, streetscapes, lighting and parking improvements. Sterling said those changes are starting to attract new businesses, including a hardware store and a new restaurant on Main Street. Wilton is currently applying for at least two more CDBG grants for next year on behalf of a pair of local businesses looking to expand and engage in workforce training programs.

But Sterling admits the program is not completely immune from abuse, saying he has seen cases where companies walked away with CDBG money, leaving towns with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. He insists the vast majority of the funds go toward positive work. Even so, if CDBG funds dry up in the future, Sterling believes, towns will simply have to find new funding streams.

“There’s still opportunities to do things in a different way and not be solely dependent and reliant on that program,” Sterling said. “I don’t want it to go away. I see it as very helpful. At the same time, c’est la vie if it goes away — you find another way to deal with the issues.”

Portland Press Herald staff writer Randy Billings contributed reporting.

 

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

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Twitter: @KateRMcCormick