Columbia moving toward affordable, better housing

The city will hear citizens’ concerns at the Affordable Housing Symposium on Dec. 3 and 4.

The city of Columbia is working on building more single-family housing units and making existing housing options more affordable to citizens.

The city is hosting an Affordable Housing Symposium on Dec. 3 and 4, where citizens and city stakeholders can learn and give input on the future of housing in Columbia. The city’s housing program supervisor Randy Cole, who planned the event, said he hopes to leave the symposium with three to five goals, either short or long term, which will help increase affordable housing in the city.

In Columbia, over 50 percent of renters have a housing cost burden, meaning they pay over 30 percent of their monthly income toward housing costs. For homeowners, about 19 percent have a housing cost burden.

“In comparison to like communities, we’re pretty decent on ownership, but we could still make a higher impact on neighborhoods that have high concentrations of rental properties,” Cole said. “It’s important that we provide affordable housing for our workforce so that we don’t lose certain households of our workforce that might end up moving to Ashland or Harrisburg or Centralia to live because they can’t afford to live in Columbia.”

Cole expects the symposium conversations to also cover catering to those with disabilities or other alternative needs.

“We’ll also talk about the issue of race and how affordable housing can adversely impact different groups of people,” Cole said. “I’m sure that will be part of the discussion, but there are a lot of different subgroups within just race: there’s our elderly population, they have different types of affordable housing needs, as well as the disabled population, versus our lower-income families -- those are pretty different groups of people who have different housing needs.”

A component of the planning efforts is trying to ensure the event would be open to all, Cole said. The city reached out to residents and leaders, as well as bankers, lenders, realtors and social service providers.

Cole said the city has been working on affordable housing efforts since the mid ‘70s, when they started receiving community development block grant funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant was established in 1974 to “ensure decent affordable housing, to provide services to the most vulnerable in our communities, and to create jobs through the expansion and retention of businesses,” according to HUD.

Some of the other programs the city uses HUD funds for are owner-occupied housing rehab, which are zero-interest loans given to homeowners to improve their home; funding to local nonprofit developers like Habitat for Humanity to construct affordable housing; and homebuyer assistance to first-time buyers up to $7,500. However, the work toward affordable housing extends beyond just the homes.

“Housing makes up about half of what we do,” Cole said. “We also fund public works with some sidewalks and bus shelters in neighborhoods that need additional investments, and we fund nonprofit organizations with facility renovations and we provide funds for job training, like to Job Point. We provide funds for a vocational training program, and we fund a microloan program for small businesses. All of our funding is targeted towards low- to moderate-income households or neighborhoods.”

The city has already started on its first plan for neighborhood improvement overall with the West Central Columbia Neighborhood Action Plan, which focuses on land use. The west central area was chosen because of its location and some issues that were pinpointed there, said Steve MacIntyre, the senior planner of the project. Older areas of the city require more redevelopment attention than newer areas, he said, because newer buildings have established uses and are up to current standards. The action plan is not focused on affordable housing, but the issues are related.

“It sort of complements, but it’s a separate process than the neighborhood planning effort,” MacIntyre said. “There’s a lot of overlap between those two efforts and the process of working on the neighborhood plan.”

During the planning process, not everyone was happy with the suggestions the city came up with. After the first set of recommendations was revealed, some residents expressed their opposition publicly, leaving MacIntyre and his team to work throughout the spring and summer to improve the plan.

“I think we did a pretty good job of receiving consensus among residents,” MacIntyre said. “In some cases there was no conclusion or consensus reached, but … I think the end result was that we were able to take a meaningful look at some of the issues that are present in the neighborhood and address them head-on.”

Although this plan focuses on one area in general, MacIntyre said that it has inspired other plans around the city, including an affordable housing project on Lynn Street that Cole is working on and a project for single family homes based on both neighbors’ preferences and the recommendations of the action plan.

“If you want to look at some general benefits of the plan, I think it serves as an example of what we can do in terms of providing clear guidance in a particular area, and hopefully it will serve as a model that other neighborhoods want to get involved in,” MacIntyre said. “(We will) try to encourage other neighborhoods to engage with the city and with themselves to identify what issues might exist in their areas, and we hope that we can work ... to eventually develop neighborhood plans that help to organize their thoughts and desires and goals.”

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