Editorial: Reducing homelessness is noble purpose for housing agency
St. Louis Post-DispatchBy the Editorial Board
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Today, the Missouri Housing Development Commission has an opportunity to make news for all the right reasons.
The commission is considering a proposal by state Treasurer Clint Zweifel to dedicate one-third of next year's tax credit allocations — $122 million — to projects that benefit people who are vulnerable to homelessness.
This excellent idea fits the ultimate goals of the MHDC and should be approved. Beyond that, it gives the agency a chance to do something positive after a couple of years of mostly bad news.
Its executive director, Margaret Lineberry, recently resigned amid criticism from Republicans that she lived in Kansas and faced personal legal troubles related to her career as an attorney.
Its chairman, Jeffrey Bay, also faced criticism for living out of state, and that wasn't his biggest mistake. No, Mr. Bay put a bull's eye on the state agency earlier this year when he refused to let the chairman of the Senate budget committee address the board over concerns that the senator — Republican Kurt Schaefer of Columbia — had with how the MHDC doles out funds for development projects.
Ms. Lineberry and Mr. Bay, it should be noted, are former law school classmates of Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat. With the MHDC, politics always is part of the conversation. That's unfortunate because the commission serves an incredibly important purpose.
The MHDC deals with hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars, passing them out to developers who promise to build projects that ostensibly help low-income people and senior citizens find affordable housing.
It's an important agency that often gets attention for the wrong reasons, such as when the FBI decided to question its former director a couple years ago about the relationship between campaign donations and the awarding of projects.
Mr. Zweifel, a Democrat, was denied last year when he made a proposal similar to the one the commission will consider today to help the homeless, although the commission decided to dedicate a couple of projects to help such populations, which include the mentally ill, veterans and the disabled.
The concept is a simple one that should serve as a model for an efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Developers partner with existing agencies that serve needy populations to produce projects that house and provide services to folks who need both. This allows groups serving the mentally ill, such as Places for People in St. Louis, to focus their resources on providing services rather than funding new buildings.
Developers still make their profits by selling the tax credits to pay for up-front construction costs. The projects would have a better chance for long-term success because of their connection to agencies that know how to provide the intense services needed by the mentally ill, services that have been cut by the state in decades of short-sighted policy decisions.
That's the concept behind a couple of St. Louis projects, the Places at Page facility on Page Boulevard just west of Union Boulevard, that will serve the mentally ill, and the Salvation Army's new veterans facility in midtown. In both cases, developers will use the tax credits to finance housing for people in danger of homelessness, and services will be provided to the facility's new residents by existing nonprofit organizations.
Missouri has about 24,000 homeless people. Mr. Zweifel's modest proposal will barely make a dent in that number. But it's a start. Leveraging state and private dollars to put a roof over the heads of our state's neediest citizens is precisely the role the MHDC should be playing.