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Columbia police move in to keep neighborhoods safe.

Columbia, S.C. had a problem. Drugs and crime in certain areas were driving people out of the city in fear and pushing them into the suburbs. Vacant residences had fallen into disrepair and become drug houses, causing area neighbors to live in fear. While Columbia doesn't have vast areas of crime, it does have isolated high crime areas.

"We're certainly not |crime-infested,"' said Columbia Police Chief Charles P. Austin. "But we have been going through the same types of growth pains as other urban cities."

"Neighborhoods came to us and almost demanded that we come help them," said Eric Cassell, loan officer at the Columbia Community Development Department. In response, the city of Columbia developed an innovative solution to tackle the problem: the Police Homeowner's Loan Program.

"It was important for the police force to be seen as having a vested interest in the city," said Austin, noting the perception that the police weren't sensitive to the problems of some communities. "We wanted to establish a presence in the city as a deterrent to crime. In essence, we needed to buy stock in the city."

Under the program, which is headed by the city's Community Development Department, Columbia aids its police officers wishing to buy a home by facilitating a loan to make the home affordable. An the officer needs to, do is choose a home that is in need of major repairs.

Here's how it works. The officer chooses a home that is in need of at least $5,000 worth of repairs. After the home is approved by the city as qualifying for the program, the officer negotiates a price with the seller and the Community Development Department facilitates a loan for the officer.

The loan includes the purchase price of the house, the cost of repairs to the house, and the cost of closing the loan. Terms of the loan vary, but there is no down payment for the officers and only a 4 percent interest rate for a 20-year mortgage.

Costs are obtained for repair work as the loan is closed, transferring ownership to the officer. Once the necessary repairs are completed, the officer moves in and commences payments on the loan. The whole process takes just five to six months.

The program's benefits are many. The vacant house gets an owner. The residence in need of rehabilitation gets cleaned up and repaired. The house's restoration also allows the neighborhood's property values to climb once again.

For the police officer, the reward is the home. Many officers cannot afford to buy a house with their salaries. This program enables them to make an important financial step forward.

But the real benefactors of this program are the neighborhoods of Columbia where these police officers move m. These neighborhoods tend to be in high-crime areas, where the presence of a police officer living on the street is comforting. Residents feel safe again to walk outside at night as crime and drugs dissipate in those areas.

"The whole quality of life in those areas has increased," said Austin. "The relationship between the police and the neighborhood has strengthened so that officers are seen more as citizens than as officers. They are seen first and foremost as neighbors."

The first police officer to try the program was patrolman James Brown.

Since then, eight officers have taken advantage of the affordable loan program and purchased a home, with the ninth going through the process now said Cassell.

The financing plan for the police Homeowners Loan Program has been in place since the program began. Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), as well as city funds realized from bond refinancing savings, are used to maintain the program's operation.

While the program has been very well received in Columbia, and nationwide, with more than 100 cities inquiring about how to adopt the program to their needs, funding to keep the program afloat is being sought.

Cassell said that the original $600,000 used to start the program has been spent. In addition, twelve more officers are on the waiting list to buy homes, but the city has neither the homes nor the financial resources to proceed at this time.

"The program has been an excellent recruitingg tool for us and has been very successful," said Austin. "It has great potential and we would very much like to see it continue."

The Community Development Department is currently recruiting banks for leverage in obtaining more funds, as well as exploring grant possibilities.
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Title Annotation:Columbia, South Carolina
Author:Neff, Andy
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jul 26, 1993
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