‘Out in the cold’

Public housing residents fear proposed
redevelopment plan will drive them from their homes
Thursday, December 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:57 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cries of outrage from residents of the Park Avenue public housing complex, who fear their homes might be razed in a redevelopment project, are a bit premature, city and housing officials said Wednesday.

“We’re not going to tell them to get out on the street,” said Doris Chiles, executive director of the Columbia Housing Authority.

But that’s exactly where residents of the public housing project were Wednesday morning as they gathered at Park Avenue and Seventh Street to voice concern about the possibility that the housing authority might tear down 70 apartments and redevelop the Park Avenue area east of Providence Road.

The issue came to their attention after the Columbia Missourian reported that the housing authority was seeking an agreement with the city of Columbia to hire a consultant to lead them through the project. The consultant would help the authority apply for funding to finance demolition through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, then offer redevelopment advice. Officials have considered the possibility of mixed-income housing along with retail and office space in the area. The redevelopment would take place under the auspices of the Hope VI program, an initiative started in 1993 by Congress to address severely distressed public housing.

“As we gather in the cold, the people of Park Avenue have really been left out in the cold on this issue,” said Mary Hussmann, lead organizer of Grass Roots Organizing, which orchestrated the event. “No one over the past two years showed consideration to the families to communicate about the demolition planning or asked the families how they feel.”

But Chiles said residents will be fully involved in the planning process.

“This project is three to five years in the making; it’s not going to happen over the next 12 months,” she said.

Officials from the housing authority and the city say they plan to hold several public hearings at which residents will have a chance to speak their mind.

Lana Jacobs, who volunteers at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen in the Park Avenue neighborhood, said she is unsure whether the redevelopment will have a positive impact on the community because city and housing authorities have not been open with their discussion.

“All we’re asking is for us to be at the table,” Jacobs said. “Talk to us. Treat us like human beings. We are people who live and participate in this community and we want to be at the table.”

Chiles said the Park Avenue housing development has undergone little improvement since it was built in the early 1960s, aside from installing air conditioning units in July and bringing several units up to handicap accessible standards.

Assistant City Manager Bill Watkins said talk about the specifics of any redevelopment is premature because the City Council has yet to approve an agreement with CHA to help pay for a consultant to assess the needs of the area. That discussion, he said, will begin at Monday’s council meeting.

“What we’re trying to do is be supportive of the Columbia Housing Authority’s idea,” Watkins said. “The city has long supported affordable housing, and this may be an opportunity to increase the quality and affordable housing in our community.”

Chiles said all the residents would be guaranteed housing if the development were demolished.

Lindy Hern, an MU graduate student in sociology who has done extensive research on Hope VI, said the program’s call for mixed-income developments might make it difficult for current residents to remain in the area.

“Most of the housing becomes co-opted by for-profit developers and upper-income people so that lower-income people are dislocated from their environment,” she said. “The problem with Hope VI is that it becomes profit-driven.”

Hussmann said much remains to be done to resolve the matter and that the story isn’t over.

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