COLUMBIA — Amir Ziv wants to change the way Columbia treats the First Ward. After all, the ward includes downtown, eclectic commercial and residential areas and is home to many of Columbia’s low-income residents. Yet, Ziv thinks the area and its homes are neglected by the city.
“(Columbia) should be rehabbing them, (Columbia) should be helping, but they don’t. It’s just neglected because it’s lower-income,” Ziv said. “And I’m going to try to turn that around the best I can.”
As a freelance TV sound technician, Ziv has worked with camera crews for ABC, NBC, National Geographic and ESPN. That job only occupies about 100 days out of the year, so he started doing real estate in his free time. Ziv is not only looking to create more affordable housing, but he also wants it to look nice. He wants to use different colors and building materials than what is typically seen in the First Ward.
“I like to think I’m pretty creative, and I got into real estate kind of on a whim,” he said. “I just looked into it, started buying some houses and some rentals.”
Now Ziv has turned his attention to an idea that could change Columbia’s views and rules regarding affordable housing. The “Cozy Cottages,” as his plan is called, would consist of three small houses built together around common areas on a double lot on Ridgeway Avenue. The cottages would be as efficient as possible, using PolySteel for the structure and rain barrels and gardens for storm-water management.
To start the project, though, he must have the Ridgeway lot changed from its current duplex zoning to a planned-unit development that would allow for the three small houses.
“I just kind of came to the conclusion that the only way for a developer like me, who wants to fix up Ward One and start knocking some of these old houses down, the only way for us to do it is to build more than one house on these lots,” Ziv explained.
Mike Martin, a writer and blogger who also owns homes in the north-central city, praised Ziv’s creativity, noting that he has already built a moderately priced home out of PolySteel, which maximizes insulation, on Alexander Street. Ziv said it is easy to locate because it’s “the best-looking house on the block.”
“This is not the first time Amir has brought a new building design to Columbia,” Martin said.
Martin and Ziv met each other from their common interest in rehabilitating old homes in the First Ward for low- and moderate-income buyers.
Ziv lives in a rehabilitated house that other developers once considered worthless. After gutting the building, he rebuilt the inside to look like a New York loft, with exposed brick, hardwood floors and wide-open spaces.
Unimpressed with what he calls the “stick houses” built by non-profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Ziv wants to build “cottage style” affordable homes without grants or city money.
“If you rely on the city, then there are too many ties, too many things that you have to comply with, and I just don’t want to do it,” he said. “I want to do it as a developer, as an entrepreneur, just as somebody who wants to help the area and not rely on the city to give me money.”
The city can help, Ziv said, by allowing him to build his houses and then assisting the low-income family buyers.
“The city does have some really great first-time homeowner programs, and that’s where it’s really more important. Because I can build these things all day long, but if they don’t sell and people can’t get into them, especially in today’s market, then it doesn’t do anybody any good.”
First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz supports Ziv’s project, saying it has good density and design.
“When it comes down to it, it’s not a particularly radical proposal,” Sturtz said. “It’s a nice step in the right direction. It’s not going to solve all our problems.”
Columbia city staff and the Planning and Zoning Commission both praised Ziv’s idea but recommended the City Council deny his rezoning request.
“I was very, very shocked,” Ziv said.
After the Sept. 18 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, Ziv said he thinks the commissioners are “not aware” that affordable housing is a big issue in Columbia. Several commissioners and neighbors voiced concerns about the design of the cottage community. The biggest problem they cited is that garages face the street.
Ziv contends he has nowhere else to place the garages in his design and is unwilling to remove them. Garages are necessary to sell real estate now, and they will look better than most of the houses on the block, he said.
Planning and Zoning Commissioner Ann Peters, among others, also worried that three houses are too much for the double lot. Ziv said the commission doesn’t understand that under the existing zoning he could build “one very ugly 5,000-square-foot duplex bigger than the three cottages” and put the garages where he wants without asking permission.
Martin spoke in favor of the cottages at the meeting. He said they’re a good idea for the neighborhood and the city. He suggested that if the city requires Ziv to move the garages, it could, in exchange, lift the requirement of a subdivision-size 8-inch waterline.
“My next step is basically to go in front of City Council and hope they understand the situation more,” Ziv said. Ziv’s ultimate goal is to help developers who think creatively. He wants Columbia to make a new city cottage ordinance so similar projects can be quickly approved, instead of “spending nine months going through committees,” he said.
Still, Ziv is optimistic about his intentions and the future of his project.
“Money is not my bottom line. It’s factored in, but it’s not bottom line,” Ziv said. “I think bottom line is just doing something that is different and challenging. And then the money will come.”