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Securing their home

Thursday, April 12, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:29 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Service coordinator Natalee Wooden jokes with, from back left, Debo Glay, 11, L’ondria Lewis, 7, and Jada Marine, 9, during craft time at the Columbia Square community center on April 5.

Cala Hazlett has lived at Columbia Square Town Homes with her 2-year-old son for just more than a year. As a Columbia native, she knows the area’s troubled history, but, as a current Columbia Square resident, she also recognizes how much it has changed for the better.

When Hazlett tells people she lives in Columbia Square, she said she often gets a less-than-enthusiastic response.

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“People that aren’t familiar with Columbia Square think that’s the way it still operates,” Hazlett said. “But it’s not. Security is out here all the time, and the police are here. It’s not drug- and crime-infested like people think.”

Yarco Cos., of Kansas City, which specializes in low-income housing, bought the 128-unit property off West Worley Street in September 2002 and almost immediately began a two-year, $3.5 million renovation of the 30-year-old buildings. It also restructured the management, created a community center, hired a full-time social services coordinator and enlisted a security company to patrol the area and to enforce a strict anti-crime policy.

By all accounts, Yarco’s efforts have paid off. In 2001, the year before Yarco took over, there were 113 arrests at Columbia Square, mostly for open-air drug sales and shots fired. In 2003, there were only 26. And now police primarily deal with trespassing complaints.

When residents do call police for help, they cooperate when officers arrive.

“A number of years ago we would go to numerous calls there where we got no cooperation from the caller or the suspect,” said Tim Thomason, coordinator of the police department’s Crime Free program. “So we in essence had no victims and could not make an arrest.”

Stuart Hunt, Yarco’s development director, estimates that 70 percent to 80 percent of the 12,000 apartment units Yarco owns and manages are targeted toward low- to moderate-income families and the elderly. These properties stretch from Ohio to Arizona, with the densest concentration in Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Because of Yarco’s reputation and experience, the Missouri Housing Development Commission encouraged it in 2002 to buy the troubled Columbia Square, Hunt said.

Columbia Square site manager Heather Rackers also worked there from 1998 to 2000, before Yarco took over. Then, she said, there were simply no guidelines for tenants or management to follow, and the property was poorly maintained. Wood siding was deteriorating and insulation was minimal. Window locks were broken. Appliances were old, and in many cases the electrical wiring caused circuits to trip.

In September 2002, Yarco bought the property for $2.2 million after winning state and federal tax credits through MHDC. It immediately began fixing the place up. It revamped the insides and outsides of all the apartments. It built a new entrance off Claudell Lane. The driveway winds around clusters of re-sided white and yellow town homes. Paved paths lead to teal doors on each apartment where some residents have converted their small doorways into front porches by putting chairs next to their concrete step.

Anything unpaved is covered with neatly-trimmed grass. Small trees line the sidewalks next to the road. Picnic tables and charcoal grills dot the complex. Inside the apartments, Yarco installed new appliances, replaced cabinets and added insulation and double-paned windows to boost energy efficiency.

Yarco also bought an adjacent property to create a one-acre park with a playground, picnic area and water fountain. And it acquired a building at the entrance to the property for an office and community center.

Julie, who for personal safety reasons asked that her last name not be used, has lived at Columbia Square for four years. She moved in before Yarco had completed its renovations and is pleased with the results.

“I am going to say it’s been beautified,” she said, adding that she and her three children especially enjoy the park and water fountain, a favorite of her 3-year-old son.

Mekhia Thompson, 7, said the park is one of her favorite things about Columbia Square.

“It’s fun to live here because you get to see your friends a lot and you can walk to their houses,” Mekhia said. “And they got a lot of parks to play at.”

Physical improvements aside, Yarco’s rules and guidelines for Columbia Square residents also made a direct and immediate impact on the community. Residents must be at or below 60 percent of the area median income for Columbia, be free of felony convictions and agree to keep the area drug-free. Residents also are responsible for their visitors, who must have no felonies in their backgrounds and refrain from bringing drugs onto the property.

“We probably turned over 60 to 70 percent of existing residents on the property in (the initial) two-year period,” Hunt said. “They either left on their own because they saw that somebody was going to enforce policies or because we asked them to leave for violating their lease terms.”

Many moved to nearby Claudell Lane, making it a “high-call police area,” Hunt said. But in the past three years, Yarco has acquired about 80 percent of the properties on Claudell, spending $2.5 million to buy and renovate the duplexes and fourplexes.

“I guess they’ve gotten out all the riff-raff on Claudell,” Julie said. “My kids used to go to day care back there, and when we would walk by, people would literally be shooting up in their front yards.”

She said she doesn’t see that kind of activity now that Yarco owns most of the Claudell properties.

Rackers, site manager for Columbia Square and the Claudell homes that Yarco owns, said Claudell residents must pass the same criminal background checks as Columbia Square residents. Other rules and regulations are the same, and residents have access to the same services.

In addition to Yarco’s strict policies, Rackers said increased communication has also helped lower crime rates. She knows all the residents by their first names and has an open-door policy at her office.

“I encourage residents if they have a problem to please go communicate with their neighbor,” she said. “And include the management, if necessary.”

Rackers said residents are embracing the “good neighbor policy.” It appears she’s right. As residents pass one another coming to or leaving the Square, they greet each other with a smile and a wave.

L’ondria Lewis, 7, said her favorite part about living at Columbia Square for the past four years are “the friends.”

“There’s a lot of good people around here,” she said.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes Yarco brought to Columbia Square and Claudell Lane came though its partnership with the Phoenix Family Housing Corp., which hired Natalee Wooden to run the on-site community center and to connect residents with local services.

Wooden has a master’s degree in sociology and criminal justice. Through MHDC grants, she’s able to provide programs geared toward children and adults, a 10-station computer lab, a food and clothing pantry, job and GED help and references to other services, all for free. During the summer, the Square offers a free program for children ages 6 to 13 that includes field trips, swimming, gardening and games.

During the school year, a free after-school program is provided Monday through Thursday. Around 4 p.m., children usually start trickling into the community center, tossing their coats and backpacks to the side of the main room. A clipboard for signing in sits on one of the round tables. Back toward the kitchen, a long table has a bowl of snacks and several packages of cookies left over from a health fair earlier that day.

Wooden, in her fourth year as service coordinator, provides a planned activity — a craft, cooking or a game — each day.

Last Thursday, it was arts and crafts. Markers and colored pencils, construction paper, scissors, paper plates and sunflower seeds were spread out on a table. L’ondria came into the community center, grabbed a snack and immediately wanted to know all about the craft.

Wooden explained that they were making flowers. The paper plate would be the center of the flower, and the construction paper petals could be glued around the back. The sunflower seeds were for gluing to the plate.

“Can I eat them?” L’ondria asked.

“Yes, you can eat them.” Wooden answered and she cut open a bag of sunflower seeds.

L’ondria’s cousin, Diamond Lewis, 7, sat right down at the craft table when she came in. She said she likes coming to the after-school program “because you get to make stuff.”

Stefan Harris, 10, showed only a passing interest in the craft. “I like to come here and play football,” he said before heading out the back door to the park with his friends.

Debo Glay, 11, and her sister Patricia, 13, used the computer lab to do homework and surf the Internet. MU service learning students were also available to help.

Nakiyjah Turner, 8, said she likes to come after school because of “the way we have fun here. I come to Girl Scouts every other Thursday.”

Wooden said the most important thing to her is having resources available to residents on-site. Residents seem to appreciate it, she said. They often leave notes in her food pantry log that say things like: “Thank you so much for helping me.”

It’s clear that residents are taking advantage of what the Square has to offer. The neighbors’ proactive attitudes are just as important to the turnaround at Columbia Square as all the new rules and programs, Rackers said.

“I admire a lot of them for what they’re doing: seeking out education, seeking out employment, being great parents and taking pride in the community.”v


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