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Jefferson City Council’s housing comments create backlash

by Joe Gamm, Anna Watson, Cameron Gerber | September 11, 2022 at 4:11 a.m.
Jefferson City Councilman Ron Fitzwater is seen in this April 2018 News Tribune file photo.


Comments made during a City Council discussion Tuesday about three workforce housing projects shocked leaders of Central Missouri's nonprofit community, who provide services for Jefferson City's poor, young and elderly.

Project developers (private companies) simply went to the council to receive its blessing for their proposed apartments. They hoped a city resolution in support of each would help them receive some state tax credits they can use to pay for their developments.

Developments include: Eastland Hills Apartments, a 48-unit apartment complex in the 1800 block of East Miller Street; Stronghold Landing, a 40-unit apartment complex at Trade Center Parkway; and Oak Leaf Villas, made up of 42 duplexes in 21 buildings off Oak Leaf Drive.

Projects each received a resolution of support from the city, but not before council members became divided and the meeting got heated.

Five members voted for each resolution and five voted against. Mayor Carrie Tergin broke the ties with an affirmative vote.

Something gained from the meeting was each resolution received support, said Darin Preis, executive director of Central Missouri Community Action, a nonprofit that is a partner in one of the projects.

"Democracy works. Council is signing off on a formal resolution," Preis said. "I would admit I was disheartened by comments about renters ... and the heavy disparagement of low-income workers."

Preis was not alone in his surprise over council members' statements.

Several council members said they don't see the need for the projects. They said housing for low-income people isn't needed.

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

He later clarified his statement.

"I said they are not helping us grow," Deeken said. "They help, but some of the businesses and industries have got to pay them better, that is what I meant."

Former Mayor Tom Rackers testified many apartments are available.

"I am told there are 80 units of low-income housing available right now," Rackers stated.

"Where?" the nonprofit community collectively asked following the meeting.

Jefferson City doesn't need more rental housing, Deeken offered. But recent studies the city conducted indicate the opposite is very much the case -- the city needs numerous multi-family properties.

All workers should have quality places they can afford, rather than being run out of town because they make less money than other people, Preis said Wednesday after the meeting.

"I could not disagree more with that sentiment," he said. "Regardless of someone's occupation, they deserve dignity and quality of life and good schools and good places to live. I would like to believe that Jefferson City is one of those places.

"They sure tested that belief (Tuesday) night."

Salvation Army Maj. Justin Windell said housing is the largest challenge his organization faces right now. He said the Salvation Army Center of Hope has 34 beds -- intended to be for temporary stays -- that remain full at all times.

"We are full on a regular basis. As soon as someone moves out -- by the end of that day or the next, the bed is filled," Windell said. "It has been like that consistently since (I and my family) arrived right after the tornado."

The nonprofit community assumes the tornado is a catalyst for the extended extreme housing shortage, he said.

"We have a gentleman with two full-time jobs ... and there's no place for him to go," Windell said. "He'll go and get food from the dining room and then go back to his room to look online for places to go."

But he still can't find an available, affordable apartment.

Another concern Councilman Ron Fitzwater and others brought up was whether people with Section 8 vouchers would be living in the apartments. That is possible, developers replied, but generally not in a high volume.

Section 8 vouchers are offered by the federal government to low-income families, elderly people or people with disabilities. Vouchers are provided to families, not private developers. While the three developers said some units will be offered at a subsidized rate, projects include a mix of market-value units.

"I'm not sure of what the concern is," Windell said. "You'd have to ask those that are fighting against it."

Although the Center of Hope is intended to be a very short-term housing solution, it has allowed tenants to stay longer than they would like because they can't find apartments.

The center has case managers working full time to find apartments for tenants, but the apartment pool is apparently dry, he said.

"At times, it's been 10 or more (shelter residents) who don't have a place to spend that voucher," Windell said. "That is one of the biggest hurdles we're facing right now. We get people in. We now have two case managers to help them set their goals and meet their goals."

But the search is discouraging, he said.

"We do struggle with people getting discouraged. Some people get to the point where they just leave," he added. "They may leave Jefferson City and go find a family member to live with. They were so close and just get discouraged."

Preis said Stronghold Landing will consist of three buildings and a community center, with rent costing $460 or more for a two-bedroom apartment and $750 for a three-bedroom apartment. Preis said they intended to provide housing for the retail corridor through Missouri Boulevard. Its boundaries fall on the border of Ward 4.

A consultant for LRG Consulting and Development pointed out their property, Oak Leaf Villas, is located a mile away from where the tornado destroyed 64 rental units. Located in Ward 5, with 12 two-bedroom and 30 three-bedroom duplexes, developers plan to offer residents home ownership sometime in the future. Each duplex includes a garage space and more than 900 square-feet of living space, a community building on site is also proposed.

Developer Beau West said he, his father and another developer are partnering on Eastland Hills Apartments. He said what's proposed in Ward 1 consists is a mix of market rate value and affordable housing units. Property managers and maintenance will be located on site.

Deeken said the city needs more single-family housing.

That's a pipe-dream, Preis said. Houses that are inexpensive enough for many residents of the city can't be built, he said.

"The guy cooking at the public school isn't going to be able to afford that. Doesn't he deserve a decent place to live?" Preis said.

Angela Hirsch, executive director of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Service, said she sat in the council chambers and listened to what a few of the councilmen said: People shouldn't rent, or everyone should be a homeowner.

"I was rather appalled at some of the things said (Tuesday) night," Hirsch said, and added RACS is in a similar filled-to-capacity situation as the Center for Hope.

Survivors of abuse -- women, children and men -- have come to RACS, she said.

"We don't have a limit to how long you can stay," Hirsch said.

Residents of the shelter generally obtain the resources they need to start over -- and move on with a plan, whatever that might be. Some families need assistance.

"We have several others that don't need assistance -- they just need a place to go," Hirsch said. "They get out there. They start looking. There's nothing there. That forces them to extend their shelter stay."

Affordable housing is exactly what's missing in Jefferson City, she said.

Hirsch said staff would never kick a family out on the street, but prolonging stays prevent new families from receiving shelter and assistance. RACS has nine guest rooms. It can shelter nine families at one time, and it can put as many as four individuals in a guest room, although staff tries to limit guests to two per room.

Having four in a room isn't really conducive to healing, she added. Communal living is hard on survivors -- both adults and children.

"We want to make sure they have what they need so they can heal. Going from one stressful situation into another stressful situation is hard," Hirsch said.

She said a woman with two small children called the other day. The woman is trying to leave an abusive relationship, and is desperate for housing. She and her children are staying with her mother in a retirement community. That can't continue.

"I can't believe community leaders don't see the benefits of these three properties as a whole. I don't understand how you can represent a community and not represent all its people," Hirsch said. "It breaks my heart. It absolutely breaks my heart. How do you have a thriving community that has no services?"

A community is only as strong as its most vulnerable citizens, she said. It has an obligation to ensure that there are resources, services and opportunities for every citizen who lives there.

She said she's not suggesting people should receive anything for free.

But that affordable housing is a necessity. She and her husband lived in an apartment for the first few years of their marriage. Having an affordable home allowed them to save for their first house.

That's what housing for working-class families allows someone to do, she said. It allows them a safe, secure place to live. Then they get to a point in which they can move somewhere a little nicer or buy a home.

The reality, she added, is not everybody wants to be a homeowner. She pointed toward the city housing report, which stated the city's population is aging. A lot of those aging citizens in the city either don't want to, or can't, stay in a home by themselves. They need rental options because they have reached that point.

"I really want to understand where those five councilmen are coming from," Hirsch said. "Their actions are certainly speaking very, very loudly."

The business community

Across the local business community, proponents of the development said it would help ease one of the biggest barriers to a more robust local workforce by providing more accessible housing options.

Among those voicing their support for the plan before the council was Gary Wilbers, a local public speaker and business mentor. Wilbers, who co-owns the property on East Miller Street the developers seek to convert, acknowledged he had a financial stake in the plan, though his support focuses more on the upside potential for the community as a whole.

"The only communities that are growing are the ones that are solving that problem. And so it really comes down to me about economic development and options for our business and manufacturers," Wilbers said. "I work with a lot of small-business owners. It's hard to get workers right now. And we need everything possible to help them stay in our community."

He said the city had seen an exodus following 2019's devastating tornado and affordable housing was a vital ingredient to grow the local economy. While opponents of the plan have voiced concerns about these housing units being placed around more affluent neighborhoods and arguments that the project would be a public subsidy, Wilbers said the homes would be subject to maintenance requirements and that they were funded by a blend of public and private money.

"There's a developer who handles the property, and they have to turn it and be able to make money," he said. "There are restrictions and regulations, they have to be inspected annually, and they have to stay up to code. They don't really understand what workforce housing is, and when you throw every roadblock possible in front of opportunities to grow you aren't being progressive, you're being regressive."

Other business leaders agree with his assessment.

The Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce adopted a position of support for all three projects the morning after the council meeting, with its executive committee unanimously voting in its favor.

Chamber President and CEO Gary Plummer said two chamber committees -- the Workforce Coalition, a joint effort between the chamber and the Jefferson City Regional Economic Partnership, and the Manufacturers Roundtable made up of plant managers and other industry executives -- had identified housing as a barrier to growing the area's workforce.

While Plummer said both rental properties and single-family homes were necessary, he said the chamber supported any effort to address housing shortages across the spectrum.

"I think that we all need to come together as a community and find ways to meet the entire need. And if we don't do that, we're probably going to continue to be stuck in our population level, which has not grown very much in the last two decades," Plummer said. "I think this is real opportunity for the community to come together and support a lot of different initiatives that would end up with better housing and a better community."

Plummer said the chamber was sending letters of support on all three developments.

Luke Holtschneider, president and CEO of the Jefferson City Regional Economic Partnership, echoed the importance of housing to the community and its workforce. He said the area's large industrial employers backed the proposal citing the needs of their own employees, additional support he hoped would help the development's case with the Missouri Housing Development Commission.

While there's a need for more housing across the board, he said the immediate opportunity was too good to pass up.

"I think that's where the need is at every stage. So we need lower-income housing, we need middle-income housing, we need high-income housing, so I think this is a great opportunity right now," he said. "Based on accessibility to some disaster recovery funds to help us with affordable housing, which was impacted most heavily in the 2019 tornado, we have multiple developers proposing developments to bring new, affordable housing into the community, and so it really is a unique opportunity to begin to address that."

C&S Business Services President Paula Benne said she had fielded plenty of calls from people hoping to move into the area for work, but who are faced with a lack of housing options. She said it was a challenge to attract new workforce to the area, while former residents are moving out of the city for housing elsewhere in the tornado's wake.

Benne said there was untapped workforce potential for those exiting the Jefferson City prison population as well; inmates from Algoa may be interested in staying in the area for its low cost of living once they are released, but their affordable housing options are limited.

"They have to go back to St. Louis or Kansas City, and they really don't want to go back to those areas," Benne said. "They would like to stay here, and that's a good population of workforce. If we had housing, they could stay. That's our population that we need to attract, but we don't have the housing or transportation for it."

See also:

Public questions Jefferson City Council at housing meeting

Worker stays in shelter due to rental shortage


photo Jack Deeken

 



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