COLUMBIA — Grass Roots Organizing gathered public housing residents and leaders of the Columbia Housing Authority to a public meeting to talk about residents' needs and the housing authority's downtown public housing revitalization master plan.
"We want to make this a safe place for public housing residents to speak freely without any retaliation," Grass Roots Organizing Executive Director Robin Acree said at the beginning of the meeting.
Grass Roots Organizing members and volunteers, Columbia Housing Authority CEO Phil Steinhaus, the housing authority Board of Commissioners members, consultants and about 75 public housing residents and Columbia citizens attended the meeting.
During the meeting, residents voiced their opinions and asked questions about the plan proposed by the housing authority and hired consultants. Steinhaus and representative consultants answered the questions.
Public housing renovation
Myron Lewis is a university employee and student majoring in general studies at MU. He has lived in public housing on Park Avenue for six years.
“I know they will redo the units on Lincoln and Unity first. I know they are going to upgrade every unit,” Lewis said. “I think it will be better."
He said after looking at photos of building conditions Steinhaus showed residents, which include problems underneath the public housing buildings, Lewis said he thinks everything needs to be upgraded.
“It was really eye-opening to see things below,” Lewis said. “It’s more than what people realize.”
The grout was "very nasty," Lewis said.
Lewis said the housing authority is making everything more modern by installing new air conditioning, thermostats and energy-efficient appliances.
Lewis said due to energy saving, the light bulbs were switched from regular light bulbs to more efficient light bulbs about a year and a half ago.
"If we use regular light bulbs, we will be charged," Lewis said.
According to one of the recommendations of the consultants, the housing authority will replace gas stoves with electric stoves. Public housing resident Jo-Ann Mitchell asked Steinhaus why the housing authority is going to make this change.
Steinhaus said the housing authority split the utility allowance into two parts: gas and electricity. He said residents are always confused about the billing and that changing gas stoves into electric stoves can help people manage their utility bills.
"I would rather have an electric stove than gas stove for my safety concern," Lewis said. He said he feels gas stoves can be dangerous, and he doesn't think his unit has a carbon-monoxide detector installed yet.
Steinhaus also said that after installing a new geothermal system in Paquin Tower, the housing authority's public housing building for disabled residents, the gas bills decreased almost $60,000*.
"It was a large saving for us and that's the thing we work on," Steinhaus said.
Mitchell said her house only has limited problems.
"I don't have a problem with smoke alarms, staircases," Mitchell said. "Could it be possible to not make me move while you are doing the renovation? I have a lot of things to move."
But Lewis said some people’s units are better than others.
He said the house he lives in is built on swampy land. In 2007, rain flooded his neighbor’s bedroom because of how the property was structured, and houses near where Lewis lives used to flood when it rained, he said. Lewis said he doesn’t know whether the housing authority has solved the problem or not.
Steinhaus said there are a lot of problems with the public housing buildings, so the residents have to move while the housing authority is doing renovation.
"We need to replace pumping, sewage system, floors. When you open the staircases, there will be a fire hazard," Steinhaus said.
Steinhaus said the housing authority will provide public housing residents with three options while their apartments are being renovated:
- Residents can find rental houses with Section 8 vouchers.
- Residents can receive temporary vouchers to live at other places and move back after the housing authority completes renovating their homes.
- Residents can move to another public housing apartment owned by the authority and move back after the renovation is completed.
Lewis said he prefers to stay at the heart of the city.
"For me, I like to be at the center downtown," he said. "It is convenient to meet my friends who are on campus."
Steinhaus said many residents prefer the third option because their children study in schools close to home and transferring schools is a complicated process. He said the third option is also preferred by the housing authority because the cost is cheaper.
"Having the Section 8 vouchers doesn't mean the landlord will accept you," Mitchell said.
There will be four phases of construction to renovate the public housing units on Lincoln and Unity drives. Each phase will take about four months.
Tim Person, a representative consultant, said during each four months, 16 residents will be relocated based on the options they choose.
Steinhaus said the housing authority will pay all the moving costs of the public housing residents.
Multiple people said the housing authority and public housing residents have had communication problems.
The housing authority is "usually on their own because they think they are independent and superior," said Mitchell, who has been living in the public housing for 12 years.
Organizer Mary Hussman said this was the first time the housing authority talked to residents as a whole.
"It is long overdue," she said. "Luckily, they came together. They need to set a meeting like this again."
Planning timeline and other preliminary decisions
According to a flier of the housing authority, if the renovation plan is approved by the City Council, mayor and city manager and goes through other legal processes, the start of renovation might be scheduled for 2014.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.