If a resident approaches First Ward Councilperson Pat Fowler on the street, they will be handed a pamphlet that reads “22 Ways to Step Into the Housing Crisis in 2022.”
Fowler said she will ask those who take the pamphlet to do three things.
“You read it today, in its entirety. You read it tomorrow in its entirety. And then one more time,” Fowler said. “Because then you will truly understand that you and everybody else you know can do one small thing to make a difference.”
This should not come as a surprise to city residents, as Fowler told members of the public during the April 4 City Council meeting that she was actively looking for housing options around Columbia. Fowler also noted that she would be distributing the pamphlets and encouraged other members of the Council to do the same.
“If you see me wandering about, that is what I am doing most of the time,” Fowler said during the meeting.
The pamphlet gives 22 different examples and actions Columbia’s citizens can do to help with the affordable housing crisis. The options range from donating furniture to Love Columbia all the way to asking developers to consider building affordable housing units.
Fowler’s passion for affordable housing comes from her own life experience. When she brings up her childhood she makes a point to express gratitude to the cooperative housing community her divorced mom and her siblings were a part of in Greenbelt, Maryland.
“I grew up with this idea that we all lived really close together. We knew that our parents owned an ownership interest in our housing and that ownership interest helped define who we were,” she said.
The community land trust that was in Greenbelt gave a way for members of the community to buy their homes, but not in the traditional sense. The owners would buy the physical home but not the lot it was on or exterior walls as they were owned by the Greenbelt Homes Inc.
“If you wanted to increase the value of your house and sort of the features of your house, you went from frame to cinder block to brick,” Fowler said.
Fowler’s mother owned a 99-year lease on one of the row houses in Greenbelt, and while it appreciated in value there were some controls on how much the owner could sell the lease for within a certain number of years after purchase.
Upon her mother’s death in 1984, both Fowler and her sister managed the sale of her mother’s lease in addition to the sale of her other assets.
Greenbelt Homes Inc. was started in the late 1930s, with its goal to address the housing shortage in addition to providing more affordable housing.
Columbia has a similar scale of this exact housing model. The Lynn Street Cottages are located in the First Ward, and are a part of the Columbia Community Land Trust.
The homes on Lynn Street have separated the ownership of the land from the physical structure. This separation allows the homes on Lynn Street to have a lower price than other homes in the neighborhood.
“The family buys the house, the land trust maintains the land, and you pay a ground lease of a very small amount of money every month,” Fowler said.
There is a formula at which the price of the home can appreciate at; if a family wants to sell their home they have to share the appreciated value up to a certain dollar amount. This system makes sure the homes stay affordable.
“So really, you need to stay here seven years before you start to see the appreciation,” Fowler said. “But for that seven years, you’re not paying rent, you’re paying your mortgage. You own it. It’s your space.”
Organizations like the Columbia Community Land Trust are a key part of the expansion of affordable housing in Columbia. The other piece of this is maintaining the small homes within the First Ward.
Fowler spends her Saturdays walking through the First Ward and looking for affordable housing units. This ranges from looking at abandoned homes, homes for sale and rental properties being advertised.
When Fowler sees a home that is either vacant or being advertised as for rent, she will take a picture of it and make a note of the address and any noticeable issues of the home.
“So if there’s something like the roof has, you know, sloped, looks like it’s in disrepair, then we know that it’s probably not the best,” Fowler said.
Fowler sends this information to Love Columbia, and from there the organization handles the details. She calls herself the “bird dog” within this operation.
“They’ll call them and say, ‘Hey, I have an address that I understand that you have on a for lease, would you be willing to do X? Would you be willing to do Y?’,” Fowler said.
Conrad Hake, Side-By-Side Coaching program manager at Love Columbia said that when Love Columbia receives that information, the operations director at Love Columbia along with contractors and interested landlords would review the information. Once they review the information, they will determine if it is a viable option for a unit.
“If it’s a situation where the property would need to be knocked down, it doesn’t really make financial sense to get into to purchasing that property and doing the development as necessary,” Hake said.
Hake said that these interested parties work on a case-by-case basis. Hake also noted that the information that Fowler gives to them is handled differently depending on the situation.
“We have kind of a small informal group that includes Councilman Fowler, ourselves, a couple of contacts with industry, legal services and a couple of other community members that really has an interest in addressing black land loss and vacant properties,” Hake said.
Depending on the circumstances, different interested parties will aid in what needs the property has. This could mean having a legal team step in to ensure they possess ownership in the event of a death in the family.
“Our goal really is to either help a family as they navigate the probate issues that they’re facing and members of Legal Services works alongside them to to help keep that property and that wealth within the family,” Hake said.
The viability of the affordable housing located in the First Ward lies on many different things — quantity, condition of the structure and most surprisingly the storm sewer system.
The storm sewer is something many might overlook but Fowler made a point to stop and point out multiple issues with storm sewer drainage problems during her walk.
Jefferson Middle School, located in the First Ward, is currently constructing a new gymnasium on the property, which is only a few steps from Fowler’s home. Fowler said that this space is filled land and CPS decided to use the property as the athletic fields for the junior high.
When the land was filled, it shifted the direction of the underground stream that ran through Fowler’s neighborhood, which moved the flow of the water underground. This change led to problems with the infrastructure of the houses as the stream started to run into the basements and crawl spaces.
“That’s when the flooding began. And the people that lived in my house at the time said they came down the cellar stairs to 18 inches of water,” Fowler said.
Since most of the houses in the First Ward do not have a basement, they instead have small crawl spaces. This means that during heavy rainfall, the physical structure is not far off the ground.
This, combined with the poor drainage from the storm sewers, residents could have standing water in their living spaces if the water cannot drain properly.
“If you’re on either a tiny crawlspace, or you’re on a slab, that water is in your first floor,” Fowler said.
Fowler said the issue of flooding is huge for the houses located in the First Ward because individuals who have young children or respiratory conditions cannot live in a home that is prone to mold.
The First Ward has the largest concentration of affordable housing in Columbia, and Fowler said that this is a key part of the continuation of affordable housing in Columbia.
In order to preserve the housing in the First Ward, Fowler said, investments need to be made to make sure that the current structures do not go into disrepair. This includes maintaining the current homes and preventing further damage from flooding.
“All of this is important, and you can’t have this kind of stuff happening and expect these houses to stay,” Fowler said.