Columbus, Ohio, Stays Ahead of the Curve on Affordable Housing
Through multisector partnerships, the growing state capital is dealing with the issue head on
Columbus, Ohio, and surrounding Franklin County make up one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas not just in the Midwest, but in the entire United States. About 20,000 to 25,000 new residents per year have moved recently to this part of central Ohio, attracted by the many businesses and corporations that are starting up or moving to Columbus. Even online giant Amazon has considered Columbus; it named the city one of its finalists during its search for a second headquarters last year. The Ohio State University, which gives employers access to top-tier research and an educated workforce, as well as Columbus’s geographical proximity to both East Coast and Midwest markets, has emerged as a major draw.
“The city and county look around the country and think, ‘Those cities waited too long to address the issue.’” — Steve Gladman, president of the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County
The new influx of people, however, could lead to growing housing affordability challenges , as other parts of the nation have experienced. And rents have increased over the past five years. But leaders here are determined not to let higher costs drive out current residents. With strong nonprofit and private partners, they’re actively working to make sure housing stays available and affordable.
“The city and county look around the country and think, ‘Those cities waited too long to address the issue,’” said Steve Gladman, president of the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County, a nonprofit lender that provides low-interest loans for affordable housing projects. Here, he said, “The city government and county government actually work very closely together, which makes it easier. It allows them to formulate more of a regional housing policy.”
That spirit of collaboration and common cause was on display in May when the Columbus City Council unanimously voted to spend $5.6 million to increase the housing supply, more than the city and the county spend annually on affordable housing. Gladman’s organization and the Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio administer the funds.
The partners will use about $4 million to finance privately developed affordable housing in parts of the region where funding gaps exist in order to finish projects. The homes being built with this portion of the funding will be specifically aimed at helping Ohioans earning 30% or less of the area median income of $76,400.
“The reality is that to develop affordable units throughout our community, the cost of development is going to exceed the price of what affordable homeowners and tenants can afford to pay,” Rita Parise, housing administrator in the city’s Department of Development, told the Columbus Dispatch. “There is a gap.”
Another $600,000 will go toward renovating seven vacant motels in Columbus’s Franklinton neighborhood and transforming them into 100 apartment homes for homeless young adults and former foster care youth.
‘Highly Invested in the Community’
In addition to leaders highly committed to preserving affordability, Columbus has a base of local apartment owners who provide the city’s largest supply of affordable housing, many of them second- or third-generation owned, according to Laura Swanson, executive director of the Columbus Apartment Association.
“We have overwhelming local [apartment] ownership with people highly invested in the community,” Gladman said, adding that apartment owners provide more affordable housing than any government program or tax credit.
For example, Swanson and association members have worked closely with city council and Columbus Women’s Commission, led by Shannon Ginther, wife of the city’s mayor, on efforts to address a big problem in the region: eviction.
“We make it a priority to engage with the city council and mayor and offer our expertise on housing issues. They see us as a resource.” — Laura Swanson, executive director of the Columbus Apartment Association.
Franklin County’s total number of evictions — 18,000 — is comparable to New York City’s, despite being one-tenth the size; the county had just 4,000 less evictions than the nation’s largest city. The city considered pursuing a registration and inspection system — a fee-based approach to eviction prevention that has had mixed results in other cities and can ultimately lead to higher rents for low-income residents and drive out smaller landlords — but association members educated policymakers and stakeholders on how residents’ inadequate and often stagnant incomes can make them unable to pay their rent.
By working with community leaders and underscoring the importance of this issue, the association’s efforts eventually led to the involvement of the United Way and Columbus Foundation to create a grant program that assists residents at risk of eviction to keep a roof over their heads and provide for their families. The association members’ valuable insights and perspective has been crucial in making sure Columbus is getting ahead of addressing affordable housing rather than playing catch-up.
“We make it a priority to engage with the city council and mayor and offer our expertise on housing issues,” said Swanson. “They see us as a resource.”