City Council candidates talk about expanding student housing

Three City Council candidates express their opinion and future plans in face of increasing student housing in Columbia.
Maneater File Photo

Four businesses closed to make room for student housing between June 2015 and February 2016, with two more closing in the upcoming months. Problems associated with the growth has prompted public discussions on topics ranging from affordable housing to infrastructure.

The Maneater sat down with three City Council candidates to discuss their stance on increasing student housing. Daryl Dudley, Fourth Ward City Council candidate, could not be reached for comment.

Ian Thomas, incumbent Fourth Ward councilman

Thomas thinks businesses closing to make room for student housing is a function of the economy and said the government should limit intervention in those property decisions.

“I do hope and I expect that a bar or restaurant will be built (where Bengals Bar and Grill and Casablanca used to stand) afterwards,” Thomas said. “I am a very big supporter of requiring retail and restaurants on the ground floor of an apartment building, which makes the whole community much more livable … (and) vibrant and it helps the local economy.”

He said he considers parking a controversial issue and said the parking condition downtown changed a lot over the past few years. One way to solve the problem is to develop a more efficient bus system, he said, but the city would need more money to do so.

“No criticism of the staff that run the bus system,” Thomas said. “They do the best they can with a very limited budget. But we put between a third and a fifth as much money in our bus system as Lawrence in Kansas, Ames in Iowa and Champaign in Illinois — all college towns, very similar to ours in other respects.”

All the cities fund their bus system mainly with students’ fees, which he said is around $100 each year per student.

Thomas is working on promoting the bus system. He hired a consultant from Olsson Associates who will provide information about how bus systems work in college towns and help design a long-term plan for the bus system to maximize its efficiency.

“We need to continue to educate students, we need to educate University of Missouri staff and administrators, and we need to educate the community about the benefits of this to get that program started,” Thomas said.

For Thomas, selling cheap land to student housing developers is protected by America’s strong emphasis on property rights. However, he said some efforts could still be made to increase affordable housing.

The city is now preparing a potential solution called Community Land Trust, a non-profit organization that will operate independently from the city, Thomas said. The city will provide some funding to start and the organization can acquire lands and build affordable housing. People who buy the houses can only own the houses, not the land, and must sell the houses at a price below market level.

“It will take a long time to get there, but that will increase affordable housing,” Thomas said.

Karl Skala, incumbent Third Ward councilman

Between 2010 and 2013, when Skala was not on City Council, Brookside Downtown apartments opened in Columbia. This was the first large-scale student housing complex downtown. After that, many student housing developers come to Columbia to seek the chance to develop student apartments in the city.

“I only voted for one of them … it was in the works that they had adequate parking and I thought the infrastructure would have the capacity and so on,” Skala said. “I have voted against those projects, all the rest of them, because I did not think the folks who developed these properties would really play by the rules.”

Although developers know the high density of residential housing will bring many problems with infrastructure, Skala said they still use a loophole in the zoning code to construct the apartments without contributing significantly to the infrastructure solution. Now the city is facing housing bubble point in student housing.

“I will not support them, unless someone can convince me that they are willing to contribute significantly to the infrastructure cost,” Skala said.

For him, the infrastructure is not only “hard infrastructure” like sewer, electricity and water, but also “soft infrastructure” like police, fire and all other items that support the development in general.

“I am not anti-growth,” Skala said. “I am pro-sustainable growth. Most of these large-scale developers, once they have all the leases in and other companies come around and buy their property, then they get out and develop some place else. Meanwhile, everybody in this community has to pick up tabs for all of these extra infrastructure.”

Tom Leuther, Third Ward candidate

Leuther said the student increase, especially since MU joined the Southeastern Conference, puts more pressure on parking, an issue the city needs to deal with.

“There were already some suggestions about increasing parking before student housing ever came down here,” Leuther said. “The council did not apply the suggestions then, which could have eliminated some of the parking pressure this time.”

He also said the council’s existing plan in zoning and planning will be efficient if all parties stick with the plan.

“And that is up to the developers to make sure there is enough parking for the housing,” Leuther said. “So I think the current code and zoning is efficient for any new development that will have multiple resident housing inside that.”

As for the student housing occupying cheap lands, Leuther considered it the nature of free market and capitalism. He said student housing is not the main problem here.

“The increased taxes and fees are the reason for less affordable housing because the developers will pass the increased cost back on to the people,” Leuther said. “This is also why Columbia is the highest-cost living city in the state. It all roots in our housing, because certain people believe that we need to increase fees and taxes.”

He also thinks student housing downtown will be good for business.

“I heard complaints about student housing construction keeping businesses away,” Leuther said. “But eventually when it gets students coming in, it will really increase their businesses.”

Edited by Hailey Stolze | hstolze@themaneater.com

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