Columbia Housing Authority board has mixed reaction to redevelopment plan

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 | 11:30 p.m. CDT; updated 12:04 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 18, 2012

COLUMBIA – Consultants presented a report Tuesday evening on the state of public housing in Columbia, which included preliminary recommendations for redevelopment of public housing units and information about partnerships the organization will form to create more low-income housing units.

Instead of tearing down and rebuilding public housing apartments, which many residents feared would happen, the Columbia Housing Authority announced it is leaning towards renovating existing units.

GRO plans public meeting

WHAT: Grass Roots Organizing and Columbia Housing Authority residents have scheduled a public meeting to discuss the authority's plans for redeveloping its downtown apartments.

WHEN: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 25

WHERE: The Old Labor Temple, 611 N. Garth Ave.

OTHER INFORMATION: Housing authority CEO Phil Steinhaus has accepted an invitation to attend the meeting, which is open to the public. For more information, call GRO at 443-4476.

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Ken Nuernberger of ND Consulting Group, the lead consultant on the public housing project, said it would cost an estimated $80,000 to renovate each unit, compared to $120,000 to rebuild one.

"It looks better to renovate the units rather than tearing them down," housing authority CEO Phil Steinhaus said.

The housing authority also is looking into acquiring more properties for public housing.

Michele Duffe, another representative of ND Consulting Group, said her company has been looking for vacant lots and vacant houses to convert into low-income housing. 

"I have been sending out letters and told them that the housing authority is interested in expanding affordable housing," Duffe said. 

She said vacant tracts, some owned by the city of Columbia and the Columbia Community Development Corp. near Sexton Road and Garth Avenue, offer the best opportunity for building more low-income housing. She said 25 units could be be built on the available properties.  She said she also talked with individual owners about the housing authority's property acquisition.

New partnerships, supportive services

At the meeting, the Columbia Housing Authority also announced partnerships with the city of Columbia, New Horizons Community Support Services and the Columbia Community Development Corp. to expand public housing and provide special services for public housing residents with disabilities.

New Horizons is a not-for-profit that helps people with disabilities live independently. The organization and the housing authority will apply for assistance through the Missouri Housing Development Commission's Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. 

Cynthia Duffe, general counsel of ND Consulting Group, said the company has worked with New Horizons on a Jefferson City's supportive service project

One of the properties that has been identified as promising for housing with supportive services is the Deluxe Inn property at 2112 Business Loop 70 E., Michele Duffe said. 

Nuernberger said it would be possible to build 52 two-story townhouses for single families on the Deluxe Inn property. He said the location is attractive because it is close to the bus line and New Horizons. 

"We have a similar project in Jefferson City," said Chi Cheung, executive director of New Horizons. "Our clients want to have privacy in their own apartment without other people's support. It's about 700 square foot for each apartment."

Marvin Kinney, chairman of the housing authority's board of commissioners, said he doesn't think supportive services is the goal of the housing authority. 

"I don't want to jump only because it sounds good," Kinney said. "The problem I have here is there are a lot of details that can't be worked out now. It doesn't mean I oppose the idea. It's just I am skeptical, and I will always be." 

Genie Rogers, vice chairwoman of the Columbia Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, said she thinks there is a huge need in providing low-income housing with supportive services.

"I am amazed by how many people at Paquin Tower called 911 because they need supportive services," Rogers said. "This is their only way to get help."

Michele Duffe said the housing authority will still be the property manager of the new sites it works on with New Horizons. The low income tax credit program requires the applicants to own the property for more than 15 years. She said the housing authority can develop regular public housing and low-income housing with supportive services on the sites. She said the main focus right now is to have control of the sites before applications for the tax credit program are due on Sept. 21.

Community outreach

Michele Duffe said one of the main things the consulting team has been doing to better understand public housing in Columbia is reach out to the community.

When talking to public housing residents, a theme emerged – they wanted more space.

"What most tenants ask for are more closets and more space," Duffe said. 

Some tenants also asked for more space on outside patios to plant flowers, grill and store their bicycles, Michele Duffe said. She said tenants said it would be better to have more space between each public housing unit so that residents would have more privacy.

Nuernberger said the three-bedroom apartments are very small, but the one-bedroom apartments don't have space problem.

Rogers was concerned that creating larger apartments would force the authority to accommodate fewer people. Nuernberger said that's a possibility. 

Other suggestions residents offered included relocated bathrooms and exhaust fans in kitchens. They also expressed concerns about the renovations, Michele Duffe said. The main concerns were whether they could come back to public housing after renovations are complete and whether eligibility criteria for public housing would change.

Rogers said the housing authority has emphasized that the criteria will not change.

Michele Duffe said the company asked residents if they would prefer receiving vouchers that would allow them to go to the open market and find rental properties or if they would prefer to move back to public housing after renovations are complete.

She said almost all residents would want to move back because they enjoy living in the public housing communities.

Looking ahead

Commissioner Max Lewis said he is nervous about the project.

"I don't know how much the project will cost," he said. "What will be our involvement? I don't want to jump in something that we can't control and handle." 

Still, Lewis said he has confidence in the housing authority staff. "I believe they know what they are doing," he said. 

Steinhaus was optimistic about the program.

"We do think we have a good opportunity here," he said.

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