Three vacant lots and a dilapidated alley along Third Avenue may soon get a facelift.
The city of Columbia is pursuing plans to purchase the three lots, which back up to the alley, to pave the way for nonprofits to build and maintain affordable, single-family homes for low-to moderate income residents. Additional plans exist at the neighborhood level to repurpose the alley for community space if the housing is built.
Columbia City Council will vote on whether or not to purchase the properties at 7, 9 and 19 Third Avenue at its Oct. 16 meeting. If the city does buy the land, a mixture of funding sources and different parties will work to plan, build and maintain the homes.
The city would buy the lots for $45,625 using federally-provided Community Housing and Development Grant funds. Nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity would then construct single family homes on the lots — with at least partial funding from the HOME grant, another federal pot of money provided to the city to be used for low-income housing.
Long-term oversight and maintenance of the properties would be performed by the Columbia Community Land Trust, an organization that aims to keep homes affordable and owner-occupied. Community land trusts accomplish this by owning the land under the house, and selling the home to the tenant, thereby making the ability to own a home less cost prohibitive.
This sort of model is more stable than renting and strengthens communities, according to Columbia Housing Programs supervisor Randy Cole.
"So far I’ve heard that people want owner-occupied housing," Cole said, referring to the Third Avenue plans. "People do need rental homes. But homeownership helps to stabilize the neighborhood and keep residents invested in the community."
As Columbia has expanded in recent years, the need for affordable housing has as well.
According to Cole, 57 percent of renters in Columbia are housing cost burdened, meaning they spend over 30 percent of their monthly income on housing costs. He said a third of Columbia renters spend over half their monthly income on housing costs.
"If you don’t have affordable housing, you can’t think about much else," Cole said. "Housing is the start of social equity."
Although plans are still in preliminary stages, Cole anticipates construction will begin by spring 2018, and the homes' size and scope to be similar to the plans for the Lynn Street Cottages, another affordable housing project.
The properties were an attractive choice, Cole said, because they were vacant and had clear titles, meaning they were ready to develop.
Many in the neighborhood are hoping that the alleyway, which backstops all three of the properties and most yards on the street, will finally see some long overdue maintenance from the city.
Ridgeway Neighborhood Association Treasurer Pat Kelley, who is "enthusiastically supportive" of the housing construction, said that complaints to city officials about the lack of alley upkeep have long fallen on deaf ears.
"For years, we’ve talked to city officials. They’ve said that the alleys are ‘just paper streets’ or that there’s not enough money to maintain them," Kelley said. "If we’re expected to keep our yards up, why isn’t the city held to the same standards?"
Kelley and other residents of the neighborhood are hoping that if the city does buy the properties, they’ll be more invested in maintaining the adjacent alleyway. That would create an opportunity to repurpose the space for public use.
A survey circulated among members of the neighborhood asking about use ideas yielded lots of positive feedback for native plant gardens or art displays. Other ideas included parking and water runoff space.
"At this point, we’re just collecting all ideas," Kelley said. "We’re not aspiring to think small."