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Developers, nonprofits ‘crushed’ by housing commission’s rejection

by Joe Gamm, Anna Watson | December 11, 2022 at 4:02 a.m.

Developers and nonprofits who hoped the Missouri Housing Development Commission would support workforce housing in Jefferson City are angry.

Following the news that the commission rejected multi-family housing projects in Jefferson City on Friday morning, Angela Hirsch, executive director of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service, summed up the feelings of the community.

"I'm disappointed. My soul is crushed," Hirsch said. "It is unbelievable to me that we had four amazing projects that were put forward -- one of which had the second-highest score in the region -- and still didn't get funded because people do not understand what affordable housing is."

Among 115 multi-family housing projects the commission was considering Friday for tax credit financing were four developments proposed for Jefferson City -- Eastland Hills Apartments, in the 1800 block of East Miller Street; Oak Leaf Villas, at Oak Leaf Drive; Stronghold Landing, at Trade Center Parkway; and Simonsen Place, in the 500 block of East Miller Street.

Each would have created scores of affordable rental homes. Together they might have equaled the number of rental properties destroyed during the May 22, 2019, tornado that struck Jefferson City.

The city has been in a dire housing shortage since the tornado. Large employers, such as Scholastic and Unilever, have testified that, although they pay very well, their employees have trouble finding affordable housing in Jefferson City.

Leadership from Scholastic said recently it has shipped jobs elsewhere because there aren't enough workers in the area.

Hirsch said she's disappointed for those companies and their employees because they have nowhere to live.

"(Friday's) decision by the commission does not change the fact that we have a housing crisis in this community," Hirsch said. "That housing crisis is not going away."

She said it's frustrating that some City Council members opposed the projects because they didn't understand the positive impacts the projects could have on the city.

After Friday's commission meeting, Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin said she was informed by some MHDC members that opposition was the leading factor preventing Jefferson City projects from receiving funding. She said she was extremely disappointed in the decision.

"I felt this was the time for us to qualify, because it was disaster-focused, and we lost more than 150 rentals in the tornado," she said.

Late this summer, the city received more than $7 million in disaster funding, and intended for developers to use those funds to leverage the MHDC tax credits.

Three of the projects arrived on Jefferson City council members' radars in early September, when the council was asked to approve resolutions supporting them. Developers went into the meeting thinking they would receive unanimous support. Bo West, developer of Eastland Hills, said he was surprised and didn't expect any opposition at the meeting.

The council supported the resolutions, but only after heated debate lasted three hours and after three split votes, each of which Tergin resolved with an affirmative vote.

Council members Jack Deeken, Ron Fitzwater, Mark Schreiber, Scott Spencer and Derrick Spicer voted against the resolutions. Council members Jon Hensley, David Kemna, Mike Lester, Laura Ward and Erin Wiseman voted in favor of the resolutions.

Members who opposed the projects said they didn't see the need for them.

Deeken said more low-income residents aren't needed because "if they can only make $12-$14 an hour, they are not helping our economy."

Former Mayor Tom Rackers testified that many apartments are available.

Nonprofit leaders questioned where these apartments existed.

On Friday, Susan Cook-Williams, executive director of River City Habitat for Humanity, said she was angry because it's nearly impossible to help people find affordable housing in the city.

Fitzwater and others in September questioned whether people with Section 8 vouchers would be living in the apartments.

Others argued the lack of housing is preventing the city from moving forward.

"I would say it is the number one issue in the city," West said. "What comes first -- housing for economic development -- or economic development, then housing."

He added the projects should not have been a surprise to council members. People interested in housing had awaited the disaster recovery funding used to leverage the MHDC funds for three years.

He said several of the City Council members didn't appear to understand that housing choice vouchers (sometimes called Section 8) are issued to individuals.

"That did not help any of the developments get funding. There is a general lack of understanding of what these developments were or were not," West said.

Darin Preis, executive director of Central Missouri Community Action, which serves eight counties, including Cole, said his staff put a lot of effort into preparing the Stronghold project for Jefferson City.

"I've got counties begging us to be involved in affordable housing issues," Preis said. "It doesn't seem worth it for me to invest my staff's time in something that people may think -- I struggle to get my head around -- that it is a bad idea."

With 115 applicants and only 33 approved applications, there is strong competition for the tax credits, he continued.

"If there's opposition in the community, they are going to turn to the next city that is begging for it," Preis said. "Columbia is getting funding. Fulton is getting funding. If there is any opposition, the MHDC says it's not worth the risk."

He said he, too, is disappointed that with four projects proposed for the Capital City, none -- even his, which was second-highest scoring in the region -- received any funding.

"All of us were denied because there is a group of people who don't see that as a good investment of public money. Other communities are benefiting," Preis said. "It's not public housing. It's just subsidized so people can afford it. It's workforce housing."

There is no housing available, Cook-Williams said.

"Just (Friday), I had a family of seven call me," she said. "They are going to be moved from a house on the 15th. They've been looking for a house, and nobody has a vacancy."

Habitat for Humanity is helping other nonprofits look for a home for the family -- which is made up of two working adults and five children.

Common Ground Community Building gave the family a list of 80 landlords.

The adults work for large companies here in Jefferson City, Cook-Williams said.

"They are trying to find housing on the outskirts, like Holts Summit or Linn. But that means a change in schools," she said. "They don't want to do that. They would have to pay more for gas to travel to their jobs.

"It's either relocate families and find new lives outside Jefferson City, or they become homeless -- and our shelters are full."

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