Turning around a long and senseless struggle
COLUMBIA, Mo 1/27/16 (Op Ed) -- I've invested a ton of time, money, sweat, and tears in Columbia's First Ward, renovating over a dozen problem properties since 2002.
That 14 years has provided countless insights on the city's most diverse and interesting neighborhoods, including downtown, the Columbia College area, the former Sharp End black business district, and a broad swath from Providence Blvd. west.
The First Ward is chronically shortchanged, by City Hall, well-meaning but clueless non-profits, slumlords, and opportunistic corporate types, most notably student housing developers.
Turning this neglect around should be a top community priority. Here's a ten-point plan for city leaders on how to get that done.
1) Fix the infrastructure, especially storm flooding and sewer backups.
Water buildup plays havoc on the many wood-structured homes in the area, feeding mold, termites, and rot.
I offered to donate land to fix a storm flooding problem between 6th and 7th Streets engineers spelled out nine years ago. City government never responded. Countless other central city residents/property owners have struggled for decades to get City Hall off its class-obsessed ass. More lip service about "income inequality" and "affordable housing" we don't need.
The First Ward instead needs its fair share of taxpayer-supported resources.
2) Use CDBG grants to supplement, not replace, city tax dollars.
Need sidewalks built in Thornbrook? City Hall pays the bill. Need sidewalks built in central Columbia? The Federal government pays the bill, with Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)
I know of no other city that uses Federal money to replace
local tax dollars in low income neighborhoods. CDBG was established to supplement
-- add to -- local taxes to accelerate improvement in areas that need it.
Replacing local tax dollars with CDBG money (against which the city gets to charge administrative fees) is a slimy practice that's straight outta Ferguson.
3) Reform -- or scrap -- the 40-year-old Rental Unit Conservation Law
. The First Ward has a lot of rental property, both good -- and terrible. City Hall has turned what was a reasonable code compliance program into a Fergusonian money-making scheme that seeks revenue over safety
, ignoring slumlords but not their program fees.
The Rental Unit Conservation Law doesn’t apply to all the city equally (why firefighter Bruce Britt is dead), and doesn’t focus on the #1 hazard (fire inspectors are absent from the process). It's also enforced in ways that violate the US Constitution and other city ordinances.
Good compliance programs take time and resources; Columbia has dispensed with both in recent years for more profit.
4) Roll back the non-profit welcome mat.
Council and staff should have MUCH more oversight of activities like Turning Point, the Wilkes Blvd. United Methodist Church's inadequate homelessness service.
According to Columbia police dispatch logs, there were 129 police calls to the church over the last year, for overdose, larceny, harassment, assault, outstanding warrants, disturbances, drunk and disorderly, trespassing, vandalism.
The stress that concentrated, non-profit social services cause already-struggling neighborhoods cannot be over-stated.
Unless they can demonstrate clear expertise and a solid plan, nonprofits should NOT receive city money to build and sell houses, either. The foul-ups, at Central Missouri Community Action, Job Point, etc., are costly and many. The houses are invariably over-priced, ignore neighborhood dynamics, and end up sitting unsold -- or returned to the city or the housing authority.
5) Get City Hall OUT of the low-income housing business
. Because it can wield eminent domain, and is administered by non-neighborhood residents, city government has a warping influence on central city housing
6) Make it easier to open small shops and businesses.
Jefferson City has these enterprises in the heart of its central city, including some fairly large supermarkets. Columbia has starved its central city of these opportunities.
7) Turn control of neighborhood parks over to neighborhood park boards that don’t rely on city administrators -- many of whom don’t even live in Columbia -- to make decisions about neighborhood-centric places like Douglass Park.
8) Better monitor what’s driving the latest Federal money craze to hit low-income neighborhoods. The Feds are passing out big bucks to solve homelessness, hence: homeless Veterans homes, homeless drop in centers, etc. A few years ago, it was homeless teens. 50 years ago, Urban Renewal. Getting ahead of this curve will help planning, while keeping out the slimier players.
9) Don’t speak for or meddle in the black community. White First Ward Council Members, particularly Fred Schmidt and Ginny Chadwick, repeatedly step in shit with paternalistic, race-based rhetoric and program ideas. White folks who want to help the black community would help it best by leaving it the hell alone.
10) Get the School District (CPS) engaged. Drug-related shootings next to Hickman: Council person speaks. Mayor forms Crime Task Force. Media up in arms. Superintendent and School Board – silent. Crime and drugs hit kids, parents, and teachers HARD. Far better to work on resolving these thorny issues than on next year's tax increase.