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First-Time Homebuyers Suffer From Lack of City’s Foresight

By Inside Columbia

As a community, we’ve been giving a lot of lip service to the idea of affordable housing for much of the last 30 years. Those who speak most often of the shortage are usually doing so for political purposes, offering few solutions that could make any kind of a difference. In reality, there’s very little agreement on the reasons why the citizens of Columbia, and primarily first-time home buyers, no longer have access to affordable housing stock.

A couple of things we should all agree on.

First, the surge in Columbia’s homeless population in recent years has little to do with our lack of affordable housing. Due to substance abuse, addiction and a variety of mental health challenges, it would be impossible to accommodate unhoused citizens unless you find a way to provide heavily subsidized housing options. Secondly, if a local police officer or teacher can’t afford to buy a single-family home in our community, we have a significant issue that needs to be addressed. We should be embarrassed by this reality.

To be fair, we actually have a shortage of what we should call “workforce housing” which should be accessible to people who earn at or slightly above the median income in Columbia. The sad truth is that you would be hard-pressed to find a decent home in a safe neighborhood priced under $160,000. Unless you’re earning at least $70,000 in annual income, you’re not going to be able to find housing you’d want to own in Columbia. That’s our present reality.

We recently gathered a group of local leaders from Columbia’s homebuilding and real estate industries for a candid conversation about this issue. It’s a complex topic and, in too many cases, Columbia’s shortage of affordable housing is a self- inflicted problem. Increased permitting fees, infrastructure inadequacies and a lack of skilled trade workers are a big part of the problem and, frankly, could have been avoided.

Some of our guests at this luncheon were already putting their money where their mouth is by building a small number of homes and selling them, at cost, to deserving families. This was accomplished with no grants or government subsidies or without any type of discounts in permit fees or utility hookups from the city of Columbia. This private sector effort initially began with three houses and is expected to expand in the coming months.

Speaking of local governments. There is tremendous dissatisfaction with the city of Columbia and Boone County governmental entities who have only exacerbated our problem of affordable housing. Dramatic increases in permit fees along with making builders wait as long as nine months to set water meters at building sites drives up the cost of construction which, of course, gets passed along to the end user. In spite of the fact that the city of Columbia gets a windfall every time a new utility customer is added, not to mention their share of new property taxes, city officials insist on making home buyers pay more than their fair share of associated infrastructure costs.

The lack of sewer capacity in most parts of the city and county is also a significant detriment to affordable housing. Instead of taking the lead and being proactive in their efforts to direct reasonable growth by building out sewer infrastructure, the city puts that burden on developers who can’t amortize the associated costs in the way that a public entity could. As a result, the exorbitant up-front costs of putting in sewer capacity gets added immediately to the cost of a home.

There’s little that can be done about soaring material costs and supply chain issues, however, Columbia and Boone County have missed several opportunities to address one of the most prevalent issues affecting housing costs … and that’s the lack of skilled laborers for the homebuilding industry which already accounts for more than 5,000 jobs in our local labor force. We’ve done a lousy job of setting up vocational education opportunities for those interested in the building trades. Even though most laborers will earn more than the median household income in their first year of employment, there’s still a reluctance to direct kids into something other than the four-year college education path. There seems to be a collective shame in this community with regards to earning a living without a bachelor’s degree. This must change.

Unfortunately, the increases in the costs of housing in Columbia and Boone Columbia have outpaced the growth
in average income in our community. There’s little that can be done to expedite wage growth, so this problem will likely continue to haunt our local quality of life. In the meantime, surrounding communities like Hallsville, Centralia, Mexico, Boonville and Fulton will reap the benefits of Columbia’s inability to provide its citizens with affordable housing. That’s a disappointing outcome for first-time home buyers who would have wanted to call Columbia home.

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