Written by Mike Martin
CoMo city manager led massive public housing sell-off in Des Moines, Iowa -- Part 1
COLUMBIA, 3/5/12 (Beat Byte) -- Another constituency worried about City Hall's city-wide Blight Decree is questioning a Des Moines, Iowa fire sale of public housing led by Columbia city manager Mike Matthes (left) when he presided over the Des Moines Municipal Housing Agency (DMMHA).
The move reminds local affordable housing advocates of a failed 2006 plan to demolish public housing around Columbia's Park Avenue to redevelop the area under a blight designation.
"Was Mr. Matthes hired partly because he has experience in the demolition and sale of public housing?" asked Linda Green, a proponent of programs that help low-income and disabled families. "Is there such a plan for Columbia? Is such a plan a partial explanation for Garagezilla's having been built so close to the public housing area on Park Avenue?"
Green's concerns mirror those of affordable housing advocates who protested a 2001-03 plan Matthes led to sell off Des Moines' entire stock of single family houses and duplexes -- 517 units, leaving DMMHA with 390 apartments. Nationwide, public housing experts called the sale "unprecedented."
"Government as a landlord is not working as well as the private sector," Matthes told the Des Moines Register in 2002. The DMMHA faced a growing budget deficit, he explained, forcing privatization. "The bottom line is that our budgets have to balance," he said.
The Columbia Housing Authority (CHA), in contrast, mostly owns apartments. The agency uses Section 8 vouchers to place qualifying low-income residents in privately-owned units. Developed by Swope Consultants of Kansas City, the 2006 plan envisioned demolishing 70 CHA-owned apartments and five houses around Park Avenue under the Federal Hope VI redevelopment plan, which required a blight designation.
"Swope consultants are straining to prove 'blight' on Park Avenue because to qualify for Hope VI funds and many other sources of potential funding, a neighborhood must be blighted," Green wrote in the Columbia Daily Tribune with Courtney McCoy and Virginia Bzdek. "The truth is Park Avenue buildings are quality buildings in good shape, and are of better quality than similar buildings being built today."
The city's current Blight Decree is linked to a business tax incentive called an "Enhanced Enterprise Zone," or EEZ. But under Missouri state law, blight designations are broad-spectrum entities, qualifying blighted property for many different incentives and eminent domain.
Responding to concerns from predecessor Almeta Crayton on a KOPN talk show Saturday, First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt insisted no Federal funds are involved in the EEZ plan. That may be, but Federal money supports programs all over Columbia, from matching bus transit funds to central city block grants.
Crayton told listeners she was tired of City Hall joining with business interests to use poverty and racial statistics to get money, then taking the money and running.
Much of the KOPN discussion centered on the continuing poor economic state of the black community, starting with "urban renewal" around Douglass High School between 1956-66.