The lobby of the Columbia Housing Authority has floor-to-ceiling windows on the front and back. The front gives a view of the waterslides and basketball courts at Douglass Park on the other side of Providence Road; the back windows show a concrete walkway with a well-kept lawn that leads from the main office to Providence Townhomes, a 294-unit public housing project built 50 years ago.
When the CHA was first established in 1956, this location would have been roughly in the middle of Flat Branch Creek. “Once they undergrounded Flat Branch and built public housing here, it’s really a great location,” says Phil Steinhaus, CEO of the CHA. “It’s right in the heart of town. You can walk downtown; you can walk to MU; you can walk to Columbia College. It has great schools. We’re not on the wrong side of the track.”
Since taking over as CEO in 2006, Steinhaus has been intent on removing the stigma that has plagued public housing since the concept was introduced in the late ’30s: that the complexes are dilapidated and corrupt, a hotbed for crime and a cyclical trap for low-income residents. Columbia’s public housing will step forward this spring as the CHA begins a five-phase, $22 million renovation project that will bring its units into the 21st century — and hopefully give low-income residents the solid foundation needed for mobility.
Moving in, up and out
When Steinhaus applied for his job, after spending 13 years as the community services manager for the city, the CHA was in poor shape. He remembers hearing from one woman shortly after he arrived at the CHA who said she would rather take her 10 children and live on the street than live in public housing. “That really had a deep impact on me,” Steinhaus says. “I just thought, ‘How can that be? We want to help you.’”
Social services are now a core part of the CHA; their mission is as much about creating mobility as it is about putting roofs over heads. They offer job training, money-management classes, early child care services and after-school programs. Despite growing cutbacks in federal subsidies, Steinhaus has expanded the CHA resident services budget from $100,000 a year to $1.5 million.
Wilma Blair, a CHA resident since 2010 and member of the Resident Advisory Board, says these services are suited for residents, many of whom are elderly or without access to resources of their own. “They help take people to different appointments, and we have onsite help,” Blair says. “They have cameras in place to keep us safe. It’s geared for people who don’t have much means for income.”
Their new philosophy is simple: If we take care of the housing, the residents will take care of themselves. “If you feel you have nowhere to turn, no way to feed your kids that weekend, then you might make some bad choices that you regret later,” Steinhaus says. “So if you have the opportunity not to make bad choices, you’ll make good choices. We want residents who can move in, move up and move out.”
Public housing residents pay 30 percent of their household income for rent, with the CHA covering the balance. All units have strict crime-free policies in their contracts, and the CHA grants additional 1,062 Section 8 housing vouchers to qualified applicants, which allow them to rent from any area they want to live in, not just from public housing.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the country’s public housing, has been trying to privatize local operations for the past decade. It has slashed grant money to individual organizations and made housing authorities switch to a new project-based asset management system, which calls for the authorities to prove their worth; if they manage their properties effectively, they could keep any saved money to put toward improvements.
The CHA has capitalized on this, making management efficient and professional. In Paquin Tower, the CHA’s largest building, they installed a new geothermal heat pump system to replace the aging hot water circulation units. Steinhaus says the move saved more than $200,000 in the past two years.
“Who else to be a better leader in affordable housing in Columbia than the Columbia Housing Authority?” he says. “If we can’t do that, I don’t think we’re really fulfilling our mission.”
RAD and running a tight ship
Steinhaus’ first two proposals as CEO — of 39 and 42 units, respectively — didn’t get funded. To be cost effective, such housing projects need to qualify for low-income housing tax credits, which allow developers to cut construction costs in exchange for keeping rent manageable for low-income residents.
“The folks at HUD said, ‘Look, we want housing authorities to be able to apply for low-income housing tax credits,’” Steinhaus says. “But we could never predict how much money we were going to get.” HUD grant money varies from year to year; without a guaranteed income, the CHA was a bad investment.
The proposed solution was the Rental Assistance Demonstration program. Introduced by HUD in 2014, the RAD program allows housing authorities to convert their federal subsidy to a long-term, project-based rent contract, which stabilizes funding and eases the tax credit application process.
Through RAD, the CHA was able to secure the initial funding for the $22 million renovation project that will begin in May. Currently, only the first two of five phases are funded: one part is a lighter touchup of Paquin Towers, coupled with a complete rehab of the nearby Stewart Parker Apartments; the other is a moderate rehab of the 78 units at Bear Creek Apartments.
These are being funded by 4 percent tax credits, which offer more modest help than the lucrative 9 percent tax credits sought by most developers.
“By giving us the opportunity to do a few projects with the 4 percent tax credits, we can show the Missouri Housing Development Commission that we know what we’re doing and can follow through on a project, and we’re going to have to,” Steinhaus says. “We have three more 9 percent projects lined up, and we can’t do them any other way.”
In one sense, the CHA isn’t a business; it doesn’t operate for profit, and it’s funded by federal grants. Poor business savvy, however, is what earned public housing its bad reputation, and solid business sense is the first step in turning that reputation around.
Wilma Blair sees her community changing for the better: “People think we’re just geared for low-income, but we have a lot of different people here. We have a lot of different cultures. We can learn how people do things differently, and that’s really amazing.”