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Affordable housing on First Ward candidates’ minds

Thursday, April 3, 2008 | 5:44 p.m. CDT; updated 10:27 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — All four First Ward City Council candidates agree there’s a problem with the lack of affordable housing in the central city, but they differ on how they would address the issue if elected.

Affordable housing has long been an issue in the First Ward, and across the entire city. The City Council tried to address it in September 2005 by creating the framework for the Affordable Housing Policy Committee, which began meeting in July 2006 and presented a report to the council in February.

The committee included bankers, builders and real estate and financial experts and was appointed by Mayor Darwin Hindman in 2006. One of its first acts was to define affordable housing as “any housing where basic housing costs, including rent, utilities, mortgage payments and home repairs necessary to maintain a reasonably safe and secure home in standard condition are less than 38 percent of household income for home occupants and 30 percent of household income for renters.”

In October, three-term incumbent First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton held a six-hour roundtable discussion with the committee and other council members to determine what could be done to make housing more affordable. Although there was healthy discussion, the meeting produced few tangible results.

The mayor’s committee, however, eventually came up with eight principle recommendations that were included in its February report. Those include:

— Developing affordable housing criteria that could be included in development agreements and modifying the zoning code to allow for higher-density housing.

— Expanding consumer education programs on energy management and conservation.

— Establishing a housing trust fund.

— Creating a private not-for-profit affordable housing development organization.

— Acquiring private rental housing and converting it into affordable public rental housing.

— Adopting universal design in affordable housing to help seniors and those with disabilities.

— Creating a new position for an affordable housing planner to act as a city advocate.

— Conducting a formal survey of the low- to moderate-income segment to ratify findings found in the survey conducted by the committee.

Columbia already offers a range of programs to help residents in need of financial aid to put toward housing. The programs are listed on the city Web site and include assistance with housing rehabilitation, emergency repair, code deficiency abatement, home ownership and rental property rehabilitation. Residents must apply for these programs and meet varying eligibility criteria. The money comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, some of it in the form of Community Development Block Grants.

Here are the First Ward candidates’ thoughts on affordable housing.

KAREN BAXTER

Baxter said affordable housing continues to be an issue as the cost of living goes up.

“People are going to have to spend more of their income in other areas, and it’s going to make it harder and harder for them to pay rent and keep their utilities up,” Baxter said.

Residents with lower incomes should be educated about the city’s affordable housing programs, Baxter said.

“There are programs with the city to help you buy homes, where they give you discounts on down payments and closing costs. I think there needs to be a lot of publicity and education in the media and in the ward.”

In addition to these city programs, Baxter said organizations such as Habitat for Humanity can make housing affordable to residents. In the past, Baxter said she put fliers on people’s doors with information about Habitat and how people can apply for its assistance.

“I think we need to have some ongoing programs like that where you get out in the neighborhood and you give them the information.”

Baxter said living in the central city might not be the most economical choice for residents who need inexpensive housing, but people want to live there for other reasons.

“This is a desirable neighborhood because it’s on the bus route, and it’s close in for people to walk,” Baxter said, referring to her neighborhood on Fourth Avenue. “It’s a convenient neighborhood, and for some people they grew up in this neighborhood and they don’t want to leave it.”

JOHN CLARK

Clark, a long-time neighborhood and community activist, said he has been working for 10 years to encourage the City Council to make a policy about affordable housing.

“The city of Columbia needs to develop a definition of affordable housing and a policy. Start with a policy, and then create the programs.”

Clark said the city should not rely on block grant money but instead on low-interest loans for housing programs. He also thinks it should contract with not-for-profit housing developers.

Developers, Clark said, should work to evenly distribute affordable housing for low-to moderate-income families across the city.

“Distribution of housing is key, and affordable housing is absolutely critical in the First Ward. There is a large number of low-income people and older housing stock that is allowed to completely fall apart because of the high cost of renovating.”

Clark said distributing affordable housing across the city would make Columbia economically sustainable and create social justice by avoiding low-income ghettos and avoiding income-segregated neighborhoods.

“We also need to use sizable amounts of money to make these houses more energy efficient,” Clark said. “HUD definitely needs to include rent, utilities and transportation costs into the cost of affordable housing, so we don’t get houses that are so poorly insulated and use low efficiency appliances.”

PAUL STURTZ

Sturtz said there is an “enormous” need for well-designed, more readily available affordable housing and noted that the issue is interconnected with many others.

“We need to invest in energy-efficiency programs that bring down people’s monthly cost,” Sturtz said.

Sturtz said the city could establish incentives for landlords to maintain property and make it more energy efficient. Energy efficiency, he said, would in turn reduce the need to buy more power from coal-fired power plants, he said.

Sturtz also said investment in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods is tied to affordable housing.

“By virtue of these neighborhoods in the First Ward being near some major employers, we can create affordable housing by investing in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods because people won’t need to spend such a high percentage on transportation.”

Sturtz also said there needs to be an effort to better educate residents about available programs, such as the Home Ownership Assistance Program that helps first-time home buyers with down payments.

“We need to bolster that program and also spread the word. There’s a big information gap. ... People that need to know about these programs so that they can get access to them,” Sturtz said.

ALMETA CRAYTON

Crayton said the way affordable housing is handled in central city is behind the times and suggests Columbia look at how larger urban city centers combat the problem. It starts with builders changing their approaches, she said.

“The types of housing they’re building (in Columbia) aren’t being built no more (elsewhere),” Crayton said. “We’re continuing to be behind because we’re doing it old school and not building to accommodate people’s lifestyles.”

Crayton said she’s seen some progress on affordable housing in the First Ward during her first three terms. Some neighborhoods, she said, are much safer and have undergone improvements.

“When I started out we had a lot of vacant houses,” Crayton said. “We were able to get HUD and the school district to purchase some of the homes and make newer houses, and we were able to help people afford those houses.”

Crayton said it will take money and planning from the city to encourage the development of affordable housing that’s more in tune with people’s lifestyles.

“Encouraging people to stay here means you have to have the money to improve the area,” Crayton said.

Missourian reporters Sean Madden, Jenn Herseim, Anne Hauser and Rachel Heaton contributed to this report.


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