With over 100,000 waiting for public housing, lawmakers reconsider tax credit

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Columbia resident Zandra Taylor-Ross, right, shows her current living space to Jodanna Bod-Proctor Columbia resident Zandra Taylor-Ross, right, shows her current living space to Jordanna Boyd-Proctor, left, on March 6 at Salvation Army Harbor House. Taylor-Ross shares the space with her husband and two of her three children.

As Zandra Taylor-Ross dropped another stick of butter into the mashed potatoes that would feed the 70 other residents of the Salvation Army Harbor House on a recent Monday afternoon, she paused to consider how a stable living situation would impact her family.

“It’ll make us stronger and strive for more,” she said. “We’ll rely on each other and not everybody else around us.”

Over the five months that she, her husband and their three kids have stayed at the homeless shelter in Columbia, Taylor-Ross has been searching for something that continues to elude many Missouri residents: affordable housing.

Taylor-Ross is one of more than 100,000 people on various waitlists for affordable housing throughout Missouri. Since getting off these lists can take between six months and three years, she has opted to rent from a private landlord rather than continue to wait for public housing.

With the help of Love INC, a local interfaith network, her family plans to move into a rental property in April.

“I look at it as just keeping a roof over my kids’ heads because when I’m not happy, they’re not happy,” Zandra-Ross said.

Despite the high demand for developments that provide reduced rent to people whose income falls below a certain threshold, fewer affordable housing projects have been built since the Missouri Housing Development Commission’s vote to freeze the state’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program in December 2017.

Public housing sits on the intersection of Providence Road and Switzler Street Public housing, which Zandra Taylor-Ross and her family opted out of, sits on the intersection of Providence Road and Switzler Street. More than 100,000 people, including Taylor-Ross, are waiting between six months and three years on multiple waitlists for affordable housing throughout Missouri.

The decision came after years of sparring over the program in the state legislature. Its critics, including former Govs. Jay Nixon and Eric Greitens, contend that the state program gives too much money to developers, who apply annually for projects through the MHDC.

Without the state’s dollar-for-dollar matching of federal tax credits, only about two-thirds of the normal number of affordable housing projects — including a plan to renovate Columbia’s Providence Family Townhomes — have gained approval, according to Columbia Housing Authority CEO Phil Steinhaus.

“The tax credits are really a great investment in our communities,” Steinhaus said. “There’s a huge affordable housing crisis across the country, particularly in Missouri.”

Gov. Mike Parson, a longtime supporter of the tax credits, called for “total reform” of the program last June, according to previous Missourian reporting. Last month, the Missouri Senate approved a bill that would restore a limited version of the program, which had been the largest per-capita in the country prior to the freeze.

Senate Bill 28, which is sponsored by state Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, would lower the program’s match from 100 percent to 72.5 percent of the annual federal amount if it gains approval from the Missouri House of Representatives and the governor.

Hegeman, who originally proposed a 50 percent cap on the state program, repeatedly described the outcome as a compromise during Senate discussion of the legislation last month.

“This is not necessarily where I would ideally want to see the program, but I think it reflects a fair deal on both sides,” Hegeman said.

Although the Senate approved SB 28, some legislators echoed the criticisms of Greitens, who repeatedly characterized the program as inefficient and overly generous to developers.

Many still want the cap at a lower level than 72.5 percent. In the House, a bill has been filed that would cap the state program at $5 million — 34 times less than the amount given by the state in 2016.

During lengthy debate over Hegeman’s bill in the Senate chamber, state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, said that while the program does some good, he would have preferred a cap on the state match closer to 50 percent.

“There’s an old saying: ‘Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered.’ And these developers have gotten very fat over the years on this program,” Onder said.

Onder pointed out that only 15 states currently provide any sort of matching funds with the federal tax-credit program for low-income housing.

Other senators and housing experts have argued the program is necessary because of a lack of other state housing programs in Missouri. During discussion of the bill, state Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, said projects funded through the tax credits serve as anchors in their communities.

Employees and residents occupy the main entrance to the Salvation Army Harbor House Employees and residents occupy the main entrance to the Salvation Army Harbor House on March 6. Informational posters and flyers for ride services, pastoral counseling, safety guidelines, shelter procedures and weather forecast are available in the main entrance.

“The reality is that as a state, from general revenue, we don’t provide money for housing like other states do,” Curls said. “This has become our housing program.”

Jeff Smith, executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which includes nearly 200 development groups and housing authorities statewide, agreed with Curls, saying that other states do a lot more on affordable housing than Missouri.

“People don’t realize that because we have a large (tax credit) program, but other states use grants, loans, tax credits and bonds and some fund affordable housing through direct expenditures,” Smith said.

Although there is substantial need for affordable housing in urban areas — more than 27,000 people signed up over the week that the St. Louis Housing Authority opened its Section 8 waiting list in 2014 — the freeze of the program poses particular challenges to rural parts of the state. Smith said smaller cities and counties often have fewer resources to fund low-income housing.

“A lot of rural Missouri is really hurting,” he said.

The shortage can also hurt an area’s ability to recruit businesses. According to a 2017 report from the Governor’s Committee on Simple, Fair, and Low Taxes, Branson has about 1,000 jobs left unfilled because of its lack of affordable housing for would-be workers.

Parson, who has seen the effects of the tax credits in his hometown of Bolivar, was in the minority of the commission that voted against the freeze in 2017, marking a rare moment of disagreement with Greitens.

During the meeting in which the commission voted to freeze the state credits, no public comment was allowed. Steinhaus, Smith and others in the housing sector were opposed to the commission’s decision.

“My initial reaction was that’s gonna be tough,” Steinhaus said. “It means less affordable housing for the state, less investment in housing for low-income children, family and seniors.”

Jordanna Boyd-Proctor, Salvation Army Harbor House director, right, and Kelli Van Doren, and Extra Mile coordinator, left, read over a binder of guidance information with Zandra Taylor-Ross Jordanna Boyd-Proctor, Salvation Army Harbor House director, left, and Kelli Van Doren, Extra Mile coordinator, right, read over a binder of guidance information with Zandra Taylor-Ross on March 6 at Salvation Army Harbor House. The binder, provided by Extra Mile, contains information on dietary health, emotional support and tips in order to successfully transition into new housing. Taylor-Ross and her family are ready to start a new chapter in a new home come April.

Homeless populations are also among those that benefit through the program. Taylor-Ross said that most of the 70 residents at Harbor House are on some sort of waiting list for affordable housing. Before their ongoing stay, she and her family had also been momentarily homeless, stationing themselves in a drug house until they decided to go to a shelter.

“They need to start giving people second chances, because you have a whole lot of homeless people out here on these streets,” Taylor-Ross said.

Kaye Bolin was at Harbor House for four months before moving into the Oak Towers apartment complex in 2011. Situated in central Columbia, the apartment complex, which is designated for people who are 55 or older, was renovated through low-income housing tax credits in 2017.

After experiencing homelessness in Missouri and California, Bolin said she would likely still be on the streets without a place that offers reduced rent. It also offers her a sense of community.

“I got friends here,” Bolin said. “We sit out there in the summertime on the patio and just have a good ol' time.”

The facility brings her a certain sense of peace. When she can’t sleep, Bolin goes outside for a breath of fresh air.

“Sometimes a bunch of us are sitting out there around midnight,” she said. “I really love this place.”

A laundry facility for Providence Family Townhomes residents sits empty A laundry facility for Providence Family Townhomes residents sits empty on March 4. Free books, utility sinks and multiple vending machines are also available at the townhomes, one of several affordable housing properties managed by the Columbia Housing Authority.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu.

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