WHILE COLUMBIA should celebrate the incredible growth projected for the city core, officials must take steps to ensure that poor and moderate-income people aren’t priced out of the market in the process.
The city’s developing core is attracting more and more upscale living options as well as businesses and restaurants, along with high-wage earners to support them. There will be countless options for students as well, with student housing being built at an unprecedented rate. Practically everyone will have a place in the city’s renaissance. But not enough affordable housing is in the works to ensure that working families can remain in or even near downtown, where they can have access to jobs, key resources and the many coming amenities.
Unless something changes, downtown will be reserved for those who can make pricey mortgage or lease payments. Although the growth is welcome, the city must be intentional about making sure that access to downtown living is open to all, not just the well-off.
One of Columbia’s greatest assets is its diversity. That strength could be greatly diluted — or even lost — if city officials don’t take steps to make sure all people have access to housing, regardless of their socio-economic status.
The influx of private investors to the city’s core threatens to further widen the gap between what the rental market charges and what the working poor can pay. Beyond that, some who live in established neighborhoods will feel pressure from development around them. Concerns about gentrification are sure to escalate.
There won’t be an easy solution in a booming market, where land prices are escalating quickly.
Fortunately, entities such as the Midlands Housing Trust Fund are working to increase the affordable housing stock. But their reach and resources are limited. It’s critical that City Council and private developers work together to create opportunities for more affordable housing to be included in the mix. City government can help by providing incentives and developing zoning rules that encourage a housing mix that includes affordable dwellings.
Brian Huskey, director of the Midlands Housing Trust Fund, which works to create affordable housing opportunities, has suggested that one answer is to adopt inclusionary zoning. Such zoning would require developers to include a certain proportion of units that are affordable to people who aren’t among the highest wage earners. Incentives could encourage developers, and an opt-out fee could help finance affordable housing elsewhere.
But for there to be real progress, the public must embrace the notion of affordable housing, and one or more city leaders must step forward to champion it.
If the city fails, the poor could be pushed out to make room for the affluent, further segregating our capital city by income and turning the city center into a ghetto of sorts for the wealthy. That kind of progress would be hard to accept.