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Columbia’s Fair Housing Task Force finalizes its report

The city of Columbia’s Fair Housing Task Force met for the last time Monday night, as it worked to finalize its report on fair and affordable housing goals and policies.

The task force met for the first time in July 2018. It was formed in order to help the city meet federal regulations to further fair housing in an affirmative manner through analysis. This is a requirement outlined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The task force held 13 meetings and worked to figure out what barriers exist that could affect the city’s pursuit of establishing more affordable housing within Columbia. It also sent out a fair housing survey and held a public engagement event.

Housing Programs Manager Randy Cole said the task force worked on the big picture. It looked at the needs of different demographics and populations and how they relate to fair housing topics.

Cole said the needs include transportation, grocery stores, affordable housing, opportunity, and employment.

“This work will help set the framework of furthering fair housing and doing more for affordable housing from a city policy perspective,” said Cole.

The draft report pulled together months worth of work. It includes background information and data, like maps and the results of a fair housing survey. The barriers to fair housing choice are also outlined. At the end of the 76 page report, the task force lays out its policy statements and recommended actions.

One of the task force’s recommendations that is laid out in the final draft report is that the city should hire a firm to look into more specific incentives and policies to create affordable housing. Those incentives could come from what other communities have experienced.

Cole estimated that hiring a firm could cost between $20,000 and $40,000.

Because the City Council has not approved the final recommendations, no funds have been allocated but Cole said they would ideally come from the Community Development Block Grant funding for next year. Those are federal funds.

“If it looks like CDBG funds could not cover the full cost, we would report this to Council and gain additional feedback on other potential options,” he said in an email.

Columbia frequently uses consulting firms to come up with policies, conduct surveys, or perform other studies.

Ward 2 Councilman Mike Trapp said the task force didn’t have the expertise that a firm would have.

“We’ve made some good, informed decisions about how to spend our federal housing dollars, but we don’t have that specific expertise to analyze what’s going to be the most effective,” he said.

Trapp mentioned that the consultant can look into what incentives the city could offer developers for them to create more affordable units, or if that type of strategy could be effective in Columbia.

He’s also expecting a consultant to look into whether the city can mandate that some portion of a new development be affordable.

“Those are unanswered questions and an issue of serious debate,” he said.

Richard Sheets, the deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League who has been working for the organization for more than 40 years, said working with consultants can be beneficial.

“Consultants are used on special issues like parking, traffic, community planning, and community facilities planning,” Sheets said. “Many cities don’t have these experts on the staff.”

Sheets said a task force is a good way to bring the community to the table to do the initial work and study. That way, the city staff can make sure certain items have the community’s support and that residents have had a chance to share their viewpoints.

“Then, when they (the task force) finally come up with the recommendations, it helps the city guide them,” he said. “‘What do we do next?’ Then we have those folks who have studied that and can explain why they’re doing a particular project.”

He also said hiring a firm can actually save a city money.

“Cities can’t keep these experts on the payroll for a long period of time,” Sheets said.

The Fair Housing Task Force also recommended creating a housing trust fund account within the Housing Programs Division of the Community Development Department.

The full report can be found at the top of this article. It now goes to the City Council for review.

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