COLUMBIA — The discussion at the affordable housing round table yesterday was as heterogeneous as the group that participated.
About 50 people gathered at St. Luke United Methodist Church to discuss present and future affordable housing in Columbia. The talk, organized by First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton, drew concerned citizens, developers, bankers, nonprofit organizers, city officials and members of the Affordable Housing Committee, among others. Participants brought diverse perspectives to the ideas and complaints that made up the bulk of the six-hour discussion.
“What I want to do is put the cards on the table, find out what the issues are that are keeping us from having affordable housing,” Crayton said. “We need to figure out what we can do and what we can’t do. We need the information.”
The meeting ended without a concrete plan for action, but the discussion was lively.
Nonprofit organizers and developers offered different approaches for increasing the affordable housing stock.
Skip Jenkins of Job Point described Youthbuild, a program funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that enlists young people to learn construction skills by building houses.
Developer Rhonda Carlson, a member of the Affordable Housing Committee, advocated the board’s “supply-side affordable housing” strategy of driving down housing prices by increasing supply. Ideas for accomplishing that include offering incentives to developers and increasing housing density in the central city through changes in zoning requirements.
“We need to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to make builders more excited about building affordable housing?’” Carlson said.
Utility costs play a major role in the affordability of housing. While renters might pay less than 30 percent of their incomes for housing, shoddy insulation and other energy inefficiencies built into their home can mean enormous utility bills, said Randy Cole, a program coordinator with Central Missouri Community Action.
One of Cole’s jobs is to help people with high utility debt make their homes more efficient. In his experience, energy inefficiency is a widespread problem, especially among renters who have little control over the construction and upkeep of their housing. Responsibility for improving energy efficiency in rentals falls to landlords, he said.
Energy costs have risen 9 percent this year and are expected to rise by the same amount in 2008, Cole said. That means it’s time to pressure landlords to improve energy efficiency in their buildings.
“Is it affordable to make incentives for landlords, or should we regulate them more so they can’t get away with that?” he asked.
Excessive energy costs are hardly the only problem plaguing low-income renters.
Dilapidated housing leased to people with low incomes sometimes is overlooked. Apartments leased through Section 8 are inspected once a year, said Phil Steinhaus, CEO of the Columbia Housing Authority. But other rental properties are inspected every three years by the city’s Protective Inspection Division, said Sam Abdullah, an inspector with the city’s Community Development Division.
Between inspections, renters who have trouble with their housing are sometimes too afraid of eviction to complain, Steinhaus said.
Lack of other affordable housing can make the fear of eviction acute.
“How can I tell people to get out of that rat hole if we don’t have anywhere for them to go?” Crayton said.
Though the discussion was relevant to all of Columbia, it often targeted the central city.
Affordable housing is an important topic to the population of poor people concentrated in central Columbia, 75 percent of whom are renters, Crayton said. Anthony Stanton, a contractor and member of the Affordable Housing Committee, attributed developers’ interest in the area to what he called the “doughnut effect.” He explained it as the tendency for development to expand outward, neglecting the inner city, until it meets the edge of the city’s infrastructure. When that happens, developers’ interest returns to the central city.
“Central Columbia is a hot spot,” Stanton said. “Everybody wants a piece of the central city.”
In a discussion during lunch, Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade talked with Carlson about what he hopes will come from the Affordable Housing Committee’s report. The committee was appointed by Mayor Darwin Hindman in May 2006.
“You need to put the pieces together into a package that pulls them together,” Wade said. “You need to give the council direction to act on things.”
“Policy that we make now will affect us for the next 50 years,” Stanton said. “So it’s important we understand the intentions behind the policy.”
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