A nonprofit headed by a Muscogee County School Board member will receive just over $10 million in tax dollars to help build an affordable housing community in south Columbus after months of debate.

The Columbus Council voted 8-2 to grant NeighborWorks Columbus roughly $10.2 million in tax allocation district (TAD) funds to help fund 229 housing units off of Victory Drive. Councilors Charmaine Crabb and Toyia Tucker voted against the measure.

The development project, called Elliott’s Walk, is a partnership between NeighborWorks Columbus and First Baptist Church to build 43 single-family homes, 130 affordable apartments for residents 55 years and over, and 56 multi-family houses at 1104 Leslie Drive.

Developers previously said the TAD funding was needed to offset the cost of “extensive infrastructure required for streets, drainage, sewers” and other items to keep the housing units affordable.

The homes range from $120,000-$160,000 in value and will be developed in phases. The TAD funds represent nearly 19% of the project’s total construction cost, according to NeighborWorks and council documents.


Legal debate

At the center of the monthslong debate is the involvement of Cathy Williams, NeighborWorks CEO and county school board member.

Councilors Tucker and Crabb as well as Glenn Davis and Bruce Huff have expressed their support for affordable housing, but previously questioned the legality of the deal. They cited state laws that bar certain elected and appointed officials from acquiring property, contracts or performing other transactions in the district.

However, Columbus City Attorney Clifton Fay and unofficial guidance from Assistant state Attorney General Zachary Johnson have said that the laws governing TAD funds don’t apply to Williams in this case. Fay has previously said that the city is the development agency, and the school board is an independent entity.

The new development is located in the South Columbus River District TAD. In a TAD, a base property tax rate is set. Any revenue collected above the set rate is placed in a fund and can be used for infrastructure needs within the district.

The Columbus Council approves the tax districts. The council then seeks the participation and agreement of the school district, but the council can create TADs without Muscogee County schools.

Williams recused herself from school board debates regarding the tax district, and during the project’s TAD committee hearing, the two school board members who served on that committee did not vote, citing a possible conflict of interest with Williams.

“Because the Columbus Consolidated Government is the political subdivision which is exercising redevelopment powers in this instance, it appears that the School Board has no applicable association that would present a possible conflict of interest,” Johnson wrote to Fay in 2021.


Changing votes

Huff and Davis flipped their votes Tuesday night after the measure failed to get six “yes” votes earlier this month. Davis proposed requiring NeighborWorks to submit its annual audit to the city as part of the deal, and councilors agreed to the amendment.

Huff previously said he supported the project but wanted questions answered about the deal before he could vote for it. Both Huff and Davis met with city officials before Tuesday’s vote.

While there were elements of the deal that he did not like, Davis said he didn’t want to stand in the way of something that could change the lives of residents and bring investment to a much-needed area.

The roughly $10.2 million in TAD funds will be paid out over nearly 20 years. The first scheduled payment is $49,505 in December 2023, according to council documents.

Development begins next week, and if everything goes according to plan, the first residents could move in at the beginning of 2023, Williams told the Ledger-Enquirer.

“I am very pleased that the City has embraced this public/private affordable housing partnership,” Williams said in a statement. “They did their due diligence, they were thorough in asking their questions and ultimately they recognized the benefit of this development to our community.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.