Federal grant program reaches Columbia's urban housing

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COLUMBIA- This year the City of Columbia received almost a million dollars from the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) to improve urban housing. But those with the Department of Community Development said not enough people know the money is available to them.

"We have a lot of programs," Columbia Housing Specialist Eric Hempel said, "Unless people have a direct encounter with the city or a major problem or need,  they aren't aware of the resources we offer".

Hempel said the city has developed several housing improvement type programs from the city's CDBG fund that have evolved over the years.

The Owner-Occupied Housing Rehabilitation Program is one of them.

"Thanks to the changes in technology our programs have changed as well," Hempel said. "The biggest changes are just being able to effectively help more people and to do it much easier."

Hempel said the program aims to promote neighborhood stability by making low-interest loans to low-and-moderate income property owners.

"This program really changes the quality of living for people, but not enough know about it,"  Hempel said."I want to see more people on our waiting list, well, more people applying for the program".

There are several application rounds per year and up to six home improvement projects are selected each round. Homeowners can apply through the city's Community Development Department.

"My house is not livable," Columbia resident Hoang Jo said. " I hope the program will at least help me get the house up to code."

Jo plans on applying for the program in the next application round.

The application requires the homeowners must live in the home and meet a certain income requirement.

If approved, homeowners can receive up to $35,000 to make repairs or improvements to their homes.

The CDBG grant program was developed in 1974 to ensure and maintain affordable housing, and to help stimulate the economy in low-income neighborhoods and communities. CDBG is one of the longest continuously run programs funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and provides annual grants to more than 1,200 units of local governments and states.

HUD determines the amount of each grant by using a formula composed of several measures of community need, including the extent of poverty, population, housing overcrowding, age of housing, and population growth in relationship to other metropolitan areas.

According to HUD all CDBG funding must benefit low to moderate-income households.

"A lot of people obviously can't afford to keep their house up and maintain it, or know if there is actually any problems with their home," program contractor Rob Begeman said.

There is one more round of applications for this year, which will close in the fall. Hempel said as with any federal program, the application process is daunting but the outcome is worth it. The city is also hosting a free informational workshop on homeowner maintenance at 9 a.m. on July 26 at Columbia City Hall.