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Coalition Hopes to Elevate Affordable Housing as Key Issue in Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Coalition Hopes to Elevate Affordable Housing as Key Issue in ColumbusThe Marsh Run Apartments are one of Homeport's affordable housing communities — Photo by Walker Evans.
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Columbus has received a lot of attention for its diversified economy, low unemployment rate, strong housing market and high rankings in various national lists. It has also never been more clear, though, that not all are sharing in the city’s prosperity.

Two different studies this year judged the Columbus metropolitan area to be one of the most economically segregated in the country, and a recent report found that the number of homeless families in the city had more than doubled since 2010.

Eleven local housing organizations have banded together to address what they see as a key root cause underlying these issues. The Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio hopes to draw attention to the additional 54,000 affordable apartments that they say the are needed in the Columbus region. That deficit could be cut in half by adding 2,700 units year for the next decade, they say.

Habitat for Humanity President and CEO E.J. Thomas, serving as chair of the alliance, explained that educating decision makers about the wide-ranging impact of the housing shortage is a good place to start.

“Looking at it through the lens of being a former legislator, I understand that folks come in to talk to you about so many different issues… it’s hard to know about everything,” he said. “What we thought would be helpful is to lay out housing on a continuum – start with the homeless shelter, and on other end is market-rate home ownership – and cover everything on that line, advocating for needs all across the board. That’s much easier for them to get their arms around, and more likely to generate passion from the legislators, commissioners, city counselors, policy folks, the business community, etc.”

Homeport CEO Amy Klaben, who spoke to Columbus Underground at length earlier this year about the work of her organization, is serving as vice-chair of the alliance.

“We came together to educate and elevate the issue, to advocate for resources to meet the need,” said Klaben, adding that a working group — which will be formed early in 2016 and made up of representatives from the business, government, and nonprofit sectors — will work to examine possible funding sources, and also look to other metro areas for best practices.

Although the construction of new housing will certainly be a part of any plan put forth by the group, both Klaben and Thomas stressed that there are plenty of potential strategies that focus on existing housing, in all types of neighborhoods.

“We have a growing population of seniors, how do we ensure that we have appropriate housing so people can age in place gracefully?” asked Klaben. “It they can stay in their homes, that is less expensive than moving to assisted living or a nursing home.”

“That could mean a new roof or a rehab with handicap access,” added Thomas.

The revitalization — and repopulating — of existing central city neighborhoods is likely to be an initial focus of the group.

“If you look at any of the neighborhoods that have fallen into disrepair, they were at one time thriving and vibrant communities, and we’ve seen the ability to bring those back,” said Thomas. “Weinland Park is an example, where Chase and others made big investments.”

Thomas also cited MORPC’s Insight 2050 — which illustrates the choices confronting the region as it prepares to add half a million people in the next 35 years  — as further proof of the need to rebuild existing neighborhoods.

“There are a couple ways we are going to assimilate 500,000 folks,” he said. “Either by continuing to develop land mass, and expanding as we have been doing, or, as a part of the solution, we focus on redeveloping neighborhoods.”

Other strategies proposed by the alliance include a focus on workforce housing, a possible rent subsidy program and new incentives for the construction of rental housing.

With early support from Mayor-Elect Andrew Ginther, both Klaben and Thomas are hopeful that the the group can make a real impact on the lives of those struggling to make ends meet in Columbus.

“We’re at the front end of an exciting process here,” said Thomas. “Who knows what the future holds, but we think that together we can figure out a way to crack the code on this… and to really move the needle.”

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