Tuesday evening was supposed to be the Safe and Affordable Housing Task force's first joint tenant and landlord forum.
Unfortunately, the community's tenants did not feel comfortable attending, said SAHT member Kellie Pontius, of Central Missouri Community Action.
"We had a lady peeping back and forth at the door to see if her landlord was in here," she said. "It's intimidating for tenants — they're afraid of losing their property if they speak up."
However, after three meetings just for tenants and two just for landlords, the task force believes now is the time to bring both groups together.
"We hope to use shared meetings as the model for now on," task force member and city councilperson Jeff Stone said. "Being able to talk to each other is what you have to have in order to make progress."
Each meeting has made it clear there are plenty of housing-related issues in the county — on the tenant and landlord side of the equation. For one, there's simply not enough affordable housing to go around.
"There was a study done that showed only 1 percent of rental properties in Callaway County are available at any given time," Stone said. "Just because you want to move doesn't mean you can."
Of that 1 percent, not all properties will be suitable or even available for all renters. Complicating factors from budget to pets and disabilities to criminal records serve to further limit options.
Tom Powell, a local probation and parole officer, pointed out that many of his clients struggle to find landlords who will rent to them. That can prove a serious setback as they attempt to reintegrate into society, especially as Callaway County currently lacks halfway housing.
"I've done home visits to places where there's no heat in the winter," he said. "One client is living in (essentially) a shed and has to walk three-quarters of a mile to use a bathroom."
Powell is also a landlord, and said he does understand the reluctance to rent to people who might prove unreliable or even destructive.
Many of local homeless shelter Our House's clientele are in the same boat as Powell's, executive director Misty Dothage said.
"It's hard for me when I've worked with someone until they're the ideal client, but because of their past they can't go anywhere," she said. "There's a big gap in Callaway County for the people I serve."
On the other hand, there are big barriers for small business owners and landlords who might otherwise be interested in developing affordable housing options, County Commissioner Roger Fischer pointed out. The process to access funding for subsidized housing is well beyond the abilities and means of the average landlord, he said.
"We have a nice piece of property that would be great for housing, but I'd be putting all I have on the line," he said.
As Pontius explained, these forums aren't for pointing fingers — they're for finding solutions.
One solution got a step closer to reality at Tuesday's meeting. Landlords in attendance were given copies of a proposed safety checklist, designed for tenants and landlords to use during walk-throughs before renting. The checklist isn't part of a city-mandated rental inspection process; in fact, Fulton has no such process.
Rather, it's meant to empower tenants to assess a property's safety for themselves. The document lists issues to look out for in every room of the house or unit.
CMCA is also working on creating a centralized guide to all the landlords in Callaway County that could be updated to show when landlords have units available. The guide could also include information about restrictions landlords have, such as whether they allow pets or rent to people with past convictions.
The City of Fulton is part of the conversation as well, Stone said.
"In some places, banks will take on some of the (landlord's) risk," he said.
Some banks offer special savings programs designed to help tenants put aside money for deposits and first and last month's rent. And some go a step further: If a tenant reliably pays into that fund for a certain number of months, they'll help pay for the deposit on the promise that the tenant will continue to pay.
Stone said the city is in the early stages of talking to at least one local bank about launching a program like that here.
"We've heard a lot from landlords that they work with people on a case-by-case basis, but that also means people get turned down on a case-by-case basis," he said. "The question is, what else can we do (to help)?"