As you turn onto Lynn Street, the components of an idyllic neighborhood are immediately noticeable. It’s a 72-degree day, so the thought of throwing Frisbees and igniting the grill in the city-engineered backyard of six Columbia Community Land Trust homes is appealing.
“Even if you’re not gonna go out and get 5,000 units of affordable housing that are gonna change the whole city for the better, having those little wins adds up,” Randall Cole, Columbia Housing programs supervisor, said. “We’ve got a win happening on Lynn Street right now.”
Cole walks around the neighborhood in a celebratory mood. He’s helped plan and execute the building of eight homes — seven on Lynn Street and one on Oak Street — through the Community Land Trust in an attempt to increase social mobility, or the ability to move to a higher class, and homeownership for low-income people.
In a sense, Lynn Street is a microcosm of Columbia’s efforts to mend the negative effects of housing segregation and the opportunity gap in the city. According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Data, the remnants of segregation continue to grip Columbia, especially to the north of Broadway. For example, the area from Wilkes Boulevard to Fourth Avenue is 41 percent black and accounts for 10 percent of Columbia’s black population. Similarly, in the direction of Interstate 70, black populations are much higher than the 9 percent of total population black people constituted in 2017.
Most striking, though, is the concentration of black people in the center of the city. In the areas surrounding downtown and the city’s outskirts, 98 percent — or higher — white populations are common.
The nonprofit land trust, created by the Columbia City Council in September 2016, owns the land underneath the Lynn Street homes. The eight homes being built on Lynn and Oak streets are in one of the areas targeted for development by the city’s most recent strategic plan. Cole said he hopes Lynn Street can provide a replicable model for the city, and already has designs to build 12 homes on North Eighth Street and two more on Third Avenue.
Still, community activist Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, city officials such as Cole and James Whitt, researcher Rachel Brekhus and Deacon Larry Monroe, former resident of the Sharp End, are all painfully aware that there is no one antidote to segregation.
Racist history molds today
The practice of housing segregation has been rooted in Columbia’s history for decades.
MU librarian Rachel Brekhus has been researching restrictive racial covenants that explicitly barred people of color from living in specific areas. According to Brekhus’s findings thus far, this practice is pervasive throughout the city’s history.
The grantors or grantees of these covenants include such Columbia luminaries as former MU President Albert Hill and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Club of Missouri.
An example of the language used in such a covenant comes from one granted by the Rollins family in 1926: “Ownership by anyone other than the White Race prohibited.” A popular phrasing also banned “a person of the negro race” from being “deeded, leased, or mortgaged” any land.
“One of the things I wanted to see was, how did we get from whites actively writing these covenants to massive disparities in family wealth,” Brekhus said. “These made it very hard to achieve social mobility.”
Brekhus has listed more than 100 of these covenants into a document and expects to find many more over the course of her research.
Fixing housing segregation in Columbia is more nuanced than simply integrating evenly. As Cole says, breaking up neighborhoods is not constructive. Ultimately, it’s an issue of mobility and opportunity.
“We want to make sure people have the choice of where they want to live,” Cole said.
While Cole acknowledged the “bad intent” of housing planning in Columbia historically, he also said the past isn’t completely to blame for the present. It’s hard to undo intentional efforts, but Cole extolled the efforts of the Land Trust and the doctrine of incremental improvement.
“The thing I like about this project is that it’s thinking in the long term,” Cole said. “We’re building the houses to last, for it to last beyond our generation.”
Cole also believes the homes on Lynn and Oak streets will negate gentrification and stabilize home values in the area. With new trees planted, a purposeful community feel, solar-paneled roofs, new sidewalks, recently-installed underground electricity and the adjacent Centro Latino, a cultural, health and education center meant to empower Latinos in the area, the Columbia Community Land Trust is on its way to achieving its ambitions.
Still, some of Columbia’s black community leaders say that segregation and social inequity in Columbia are the result of racist laws and policies, as well as a history that overlooks the black community and living situations that created an opportunity gap with no foreseeable way to move up the social ladder.
For example, Columbia’s historic black community and business district, the Sharp End, was squeezed into an even smaller space situated at what is now the Columbia Daily Tribune’s loading dock during a period of urban renewal in the 1950s.
“It was not the greatest facility, it was crowded,” James Whitt said of the designated business area. “It was a free-for-all and a race to the bottom.”
Monroe’s mother owned a Sharp End restaurant, Aunt Vi’s, but it was lost to urban renewal. She was too stubborn, according to Monroe, and resisted moving into the smaller business space with other owners when the process of “renewing” the Sharp End started in the 1950s.
“One man came along and built this long building and said, ‘This is open to you guys if you want one,’ and they all jumped in there,” Monroe said. “My mom chose not to go and consequently went out of business.”
Whitt compared the urban renewal of the 1950s and ’60s to the economic development plans Columbia is implementing today. He said that the community is wary of this new wave of economic development; they worry it’s a dressed-up term for urban renewal or gentrification, even though black people were explicitly involved in the process this time around.
“There was just a total lack of trust” between black business owners in the Sharp End in the 1960s, and the people representing the redevelopment, Whitt said.
Monroe said he sees Regional Economic Development Inc. as a critical resource for minorities in Columbia today. He said he thinks that if REDI had been around in the 1970s or ’80s, after the demise of Sharp End, there would likely be a black shopping center today in Columbia.
The continued struggle
Whitt, one of the city’s strategic planning partners, said he wants to confront sundry social illnesses plaguing Columbia, many borne from housing segregation and the opportunity gap between the black and white population.
“Supplier Diversity is part of the strategic plan the city has,” Whitt said. “They’ve identified, how do we create living-wage jobs for everyone in the city.”
Whitt is the director of the city’s supplier diversity program, which encourages the growth of businesses owned by minorities.
Actions targeting underserved communities through the supplier diversity program include networking expos trying to match contractors with women- and minority-owned businesses and a roving group of community leaders visiting similarly sized cities to Columbia to discuss topics such as the Sharp End and economic development.
Whitt said their most recent trip was to Lexington, Kentucky.
“Lexington has this area settled years ago by blacks and Asians. It’s a historic community. They decided to put a highway through there,” Whitt said. “So they went through eminent domain, took the property, ran the highway through there.”
Whitt said the representatives from Lexington told him that residents who were displaced “moved someplace else.”
Whether it’s the “chicken coop” black business owners were herded into during urban renewal, the Sharp End itself or today’s aftermath of largely segregated neighborhoods, “Everything was designed to oppress the black man,” Monroe said. “You want to know the history of Columbia? That’s it.”
“Everything was confined in ‘that area,’” he added. “There wasn’t much moving around. It basically killed the mobility of the black man in Columbia, it stymied it, it shut it down, because what you did is you put a community in one block.”
The legacy of the Sharp End today is “a parking garage and a post office,” Monroe quipped, referring to structures that now stand on the old Sharp End.
Another mechanism of controlling segregation, according to Monroe, who was on the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners for five years, is the adjusted rate system used in public housing. In Columbia Housing Authority subsidized apartments, tenants are expected to pay 30 percent of their adjusted household income for rent to balance rent that’s made up from a subsidy that the CHA receives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Monroe questioned this practice, saying “once you put in public housing, the design of it is to keep you there. Every penny you earn in an increase, public housing takes a portion of that. You had generations after generations trapped.”
Columbia Housing Authority CEO Phil Steinhaus challenged this assertion, pointing to CHA programs promoting self-sufficiency as well as utility allowances, which are subtracted from rent.
“I cannot build enough affordable housing units in our community to warehouse people permanently in poverty,” Steinhaus said. “As residents return to the workforce and start making more money and their share of the rent goes up, any increase in rent from when they started the program is matched in an escrow account, which they cash out when they graduate from the program and move out.”
Steinhaus wrote a $13,000 check for someone who recently moved out of public housing, he said. More than 100 people are currently in the family self-sufficiency program. He detailed the work of self-sufficiency coordinators who meet with residents to develop plans to improve their lives, whether that means getting further schooling or a job. These coordinators then “connect them with resources,” according to Steinhaus.
Steinhaus does not see the adjusted rate system as an overly burdensome practice.
“My dad told me when I went off to college, housing’s gonna cost 30 percent of your income, so you better budget for it, and that’s a pretty good rule of thumb,” Steinhaus said.
The Columbia Housing Authority has renovated some of its properties and now has a subsidy that goes with those units through a project-based voucher, Steinhaus said. The CHA pays the balance of the rent via the landlord in what’s called a “housing assistance payment.” While residents still pay 30 percent of their adjusted monthly income, the voucher gives them the chance to choose affordable housing in the community.
Generational wealth and homeownership are closely related to housing segregation. If the city has a chance to provide solutions to the problem it created, these two factors will be a focus, community leaders agree. Battling segregation that in some ways is linked to the founding of the city — and Missouri’s history as a border state during the Civil War — is difficult. As Brekhus noted in an email interview, the 1968 Fair Housing Act supposedly put an end to what, for centuries, had been America’s racist standard operating procedure for housing.
An empty meadow on North Eighth Street encompasses the hopes and failures of Columbia’s ongoing segregation and opportunity gap narrative. The Columbia Community Land Trust envisions 12 homes built atop this field, and with Lynn Street’s success thus far, the model is easier to sell this time around.
“We want you to have access to good neighborhoods and decent housing, but we’re not going to rent you a condo on the golf course. You don’t necessarily get a swimming pool.” Phil Steinhaus Columbia Housing Authority CEO