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Jefferson City Council candidates weigh in on housing issue

by Cameron Gerber and Alex Naughton, [email protected] | March 5, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Housing in Jefferson City has been a hot topic of discussion during the past few months, and candidates for city council largely agree it's an issue that needs to be addressed in order to grow the community.

Where they differ is the form the solution should take.

A study released at the end of August identified key findings and opportunities to address a shortage of affordable housing in the Capital City. The study set conversations about housing in motion across the city, but the question of support for a set of workforce housing projects vying for state tax credits split the City Council.

Five members voted for each resolution, and five voted against. Mayor Carrie Tergin broke each tie by casting votes in support. Several council and community members vowed to send letters of opposition to the Missouri Housing Development Commission, and the letters threw the projects out of consideration by the state despite high scores.

The community is still looking at possible solutions, as are candidates for the April 4 election.

The News Tribune asked all nine candidates for the four contested City Council seats their thoughts on the topic.

Ward 1

Ward 1 incumbent Councilman David Kemna said housing was a top priority for him. A supporter of the recent housing projects before the council, he said addressing the housing shortage was vital to the growth of the community.

"We have quality health care, jobs, schools, amenities, etc. The lack of housing is one of the key factors contributing to the lack of population growth," he said.

Kemna said the city and its staff should look at how certain areas of the city were zoned to see if they could be adapted to suit higher-density housing options. He said there needed to be ongoing discussions with staff, community leaders in Cole County and surrounding jurisdictions, and state officials to seek a solution to the problem.

He also encouraged discussions among contractors, home builders and developers for their input on how best to collaborate with the private sector and lessen city restrictions on developments.

"These conversations are currently being held; we still have disaster relief funds available to assist with housing needs. But we need to keep having difficult but healthy conversations to address people's concerns and support housing development," he said.

Kemna said he supported all types of housing, pointing to a limited local market. He said demand for single-family housing vastly outweighed the supply based on conversations with local real estate agents, and encouraging affordable housing developments could draw members of the local workforce that live outside of the community to live here. He said many stakeholders, from business owners to nonprofits, were seeking affordable quality rentals that simply aren't available in town.

"For some people, it's a preference; others are trying to live within their means. But we need to seek all options of housing to maintain a healthy housing market as well as a healthy community," he said.

One challenger, Jeff Ahlers, argued the neighbors and other residents who opposed the housing proposals last year were right to be wary of new apartment projects in their neighborhoods, pointing to a possible rise in crime and traffic in some of the areas targeted by the developers. He said the community had been struck with a series of detrimental events, from the 2019 tornado to COVID-19 and high interest rates that have stuck the Capital City in a housing rut.

Ahlers said tax abatements were an option to look at for housing proposals.

"I think we need to bring everybody to the table, and then sit down and ask what we can do," Ahlers said. "If we do tax abatements, that might hurt the school district a little, but you have people moving into these places who will shop locally, so we are going to get some revenue out of it, just not at all up front. We'll have to work through those issues. I think the best answer is just to get everyone together on this."

He said that collaboration was necessary, while objecting to the lack of notice for council members to dig into last year's projects before they reached the chambers for their consideration. He said the city needed to be willing to accommodate developers who wished to bring housing to the community, but it needs to be an in-depth conversation.

He said the east side of town was a prime candidate for more housing and he hoped to see it happen.

"Whatever we can do to get things going in that area, I'm 100 percent for," he said. "I'll sit down and talk to anybody about it and hear what they have to say and say, 'OK, so what do you envision and what do you see coming here?'"

The other First Ward candidate, Randy Hoselton, did not respond to the inquiry.

Ward 2

Ward 2 candidates Aaron Mealy and Edith Vogel have starkly contrasting views on the housing issue in Jefferson City.

Mealy said fixing housing gaps would be a top priority if he's elected to the City Council. He said the city was experiencing gaps in housing options even before the 2019 tornado, which he said destroyed some 150 rentals in the city.

Mealy referenced a housing study approved by the council last year that showed "major gaps" in the housing market, "including affordable care options for the workforce of our major employers."

Mealy added several large employers, as well as hundreds of community members, have recognized the problem. By addressing the problem, he said, the city can produce stability, grow the community and take the burden off other city resources, such as the police and fire departments.

If elected, Mealy said he would work with leaders and partners in the city to start closing those gaps.

Vogel said it is her opinion that all forms of housing are personal responsibilities. While the city is responsible for enforcing codes, such as those related to the safety and welfare of living conditions in specific rental units, Vogel said "private ownership is just that -- private."

One exception to the privacy of ownership is the covenant of a subdivision, she said.

Vogel also said it should be made easier to build and remodel houses in Jefferson City. She said the city government should make it "non-cumbersome" to build, remodel and add on to new and existing housing properties.

Mealy, on the other hand, said the city, community, developers and contractors need to work together to address the housing issue.

Mealy went on to say the already existing locations in Jefferson City that are zoned for various types of housing would be good areas to develop. He said quality housing options should pair with opportunities like transportation services and parks.

Options such as multi-unit construction, adaptive reuse of vacant buildings, duplex style homes and filling vacated areas all play a part in the community, Mealy said. He pointed to some specific projects, such as the Oak Leaf project, the Stronghold Landing project and a project at the former Simonsen Elementary School as examples of these various housing options.

Vogel said she would be remiss if she didn't acknowledge Habitat for Humanity. She said the organization "helps private citizens become responsible homeowners by working alongside the volunteers to build their homes and take pride in their ownership."

Ward 3

Ward 3 incumbent Councilman Scott Spencer noted the housing issue ranged beyond the city limits of Jefferson City, spreading out across the country as a whole. He said the lack of housing impacted everything from education and the workforce to health care and transportation.

New housing developments have stagnated since 2000, while businesses and commercial building has continued. With a vast majority of the area's homes built before the turn of the century and many homes decimated by the 2019 tornado, Spencer said the focus needed to shift and balance out different kinds of developments.

"There has been for too many years a lack of focus, vision and policy to encourage residential development," he said. "The focus has been more on commercial development. We need to be a community that can promote a balanced approach for both residential and commercial."

Spencer said he advocated for a "balance of responsible and manageable growth for Jefferson City," noting the city's borders have not grown for several years.

"We cannot be dependent on state and federal subsidies and tax credits to drive development. City Hall has to realize that it has a major role in how we can encourage and be a willing partner to help our community grow," he said. "I have brought developers to the table, but unfortunately, they have not been met with open arms."

He advocated for streamlining plan reviews and permitting at the city level to remove barriers for developers and their single- and multi-family home projects, more public-private partnerships for financing. He said an aggressive infill plan, which would look at vacant lots across the city, could spur development in areas of the city that are connected with public transportation and commercial areas.

Challenger Treaka Young said she would tap into her experience as a board member for groups including the United Way and Habitat for Humanity if she won the seat. She said she'd had a front-row seat to the housing issue in her time with the groups, with large businesses struggling to expand capacity due to a lack of housing.

She said the lack of housing was a hindrance to the city's growth and decried the split in the council during last year's proposals, saying it ultimately cost the community the developments and the revenue they would have brought with them.

"Those who do choose to work in Jefferson City are forced to find housing in local communities such as Holts Summit, Ashland and even as far as Columbia and are taking their money with them. That's not OK," she said. "It's time for a change. It's time that we look out for all residents here in Jefferson City, not just those who are homeowners."

Ward 5

Ward 5 candidates Alicia Edwards and Mark Schwartz both felt housing was a top priority.

Edwards said she would "definitely" campaign for housing issues if elected. Those issues, she said, have affected her personally.

She said she has constantly heard about housing struggles from the community in her position on the Jefferson City Housing Task Force and as the executive director of Building Community Bridges, a nonprofit organization. If elected, Edwards said she'll advocate for workforce housing developments to be considered across Jefferson City.

She's learned the lack of housing options is making it hard for workers to get to their jobs, Edwards said, and many people have to travel from outside the city to get to work.

"Housing is one of the major reasons why our city is not growing economically, and since the tornado, it has only gotten worse," Edwards said.

Schwartz shared a similar sentiment about growth. He said any city wishing to grow must have housing as a top priority. He also said the city has to be involved in a diverse spread of infrastructure to produce a business-friendly environment that brings in more and better-paying jobs.

However, he said, the city must move from a government-financed option to a solution from the private sector since proposals made to the Missouri Housing Development Commission were rejected.

Schwartz said this includes investments by developers in low- and moderate-income housing, as well as paying wages that keep up with inflation.

"I believe we have a supply and demand issue on housing, one that will only be fixed by investors willing to produce housing that is currently in high demand," Schwartz said.

Schwartz also said it's his belief the government should not hinder the private infrastructure growth the city needs. One of the reasons he's running for City Council, he said, is to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used wisely and "bureaucratic delays" are not holding up the "benefits of private sector growth."

Schwartz said it seems like city residents don't agree on what sort of housing will work best, and he doesn't believe his role as a councilman is to dictate where private investment takes place. Citizens, however, should have a powerful voice if investors plan on using government financing tools or zoning changes to build in neighborhoods, he said.

Edwards said those who don't understand that affordable housing is not low-income housing need to be educated on the subject. She said there is a stigma around affordable housing that "housing that is affordable means ghettos in my backyard" and that stigma needs to be removed.

Most residents in Jefferson City, she said, aren't earning living wages at their jobs. These employees are constantly making sacrifices just to provide for their families, she said.

"The City Council is elected to work together for the people of Jefferson City. If elected, I promise to make sure to keep the people, our community, first!" Edwards said.

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