Why is city government giving away houses and "banking" private land?

COLUMBIA, Mo 8/16/13 (Op Ed) -- Many people see city government as a pie, with two huge slices cut out for public safety and infrastructure, and a small third slice for everything else. 

So as the discussion about how to fund more police has dominated the summer, a growing chorus is asking: Why is City Hall so involved with so many non-priorities? 

Take affordable housing and its ugly stepsister, so-called "land banking."  

Affordable housing trap

For years, the City of Columbia has been building -- or trying to build -- affordable housing, often in partnership with non-profits.    These efforts steer staff time, taxpayer subsidies, and local tax dollars away from core enterprises like public safety.  

What's more, they often fail.  

In March, three homes constructed or rehabbed with city and Federal tax dollars -- 711 Mikel St., 904 Madison St., and 411 McBaine St. -- cost too much to build and failed to find buyers.   Rather than lower the asking prices, the owner, City Hall, "donated" them to the Columbia Housing Authority (CHA) for conversion into yet more rentals.  

If the city can afford to give away three new houses, why can't it afford more cops? 

The snafu illustrates another problem.   In the affordable housing space, city government crowds out smaller, more nimble, more innovative players.   Instead, residents and taxpayers get a lumbering bureaucracy, unconcerned with costs, and staffed with people who have little or no experience in residential real estate.

Don't bank on it

City Hall's "land bank" is so open-ended and well-funded, Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp thought a city-built homeless shelter could serve as a land bank deposit
In reality, the Columbia Land Bank is a collection of vacant lots reportedly purchased for "neighborhood stabilization" in mostly central city locations.  

Some lots are single, like 603 N. Fourth Street which the city banked last year.  

Others are in rows or blocks, like 405, 407, 411, and 413 N. 5th Street.  Between purchase prices, holding costs, staff time, and the cost to demolish existing homes, these four land bank deposits cost taxpayers roughly $250,000

Equally worrisome, land banking doesn't meet its goal:  neighborhood stabilization.  The city parks department wants to add the four 5th Street lots to Douglass Park, the same ill-fated idea that has kept the Heibel-March Store -- slated for addition to Field Park -- empty and derelict since the city bought it 15 years ago. 

Fifth Street neighbors also complain of drug dealing, fighting, prostitution, and a continual police presence on the four empty lots since the city bought them.  

The ironies are hard to miss.  A city government complaining it can't afford more public safety, spending taxpayer dollars on a program -- land banking -- that creates the need for more public safety. 

All while the poor infrastructure that destablizes neighborhoods -- backed up sewers; stormwater floods; bad streets and sidewalks -- gets worse under the same "tight budgets" at issue in the fight over more cops.   

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat