Amy Klaben of Homeport Talks Affordable Housing and Urban Development in Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Amy Klaben of Homeport Talks Affordable Housing and Urban Development in ColumbusMarsh Run Apartments — Photo provided by Homeport.
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Homeport has been building and preserving affordable housing in Columbus for over 25 years. Amy Klaben started volunteering with the organization in 1988 (when it was known as the Columbus Housing Partnership), and came on board as President/CEO in 2000.

Klaben, along with VP of Community and Government Relations Maude Hill and Communications Specialist Steve Nichol, recently took Columbus Underground along for a tour of three very different Homeport projects, all in different parts of the city.

The tour served to illustrate the breadth of the work that Homeport is doing in Columbus, while also giving us a chance to ask Klaben for her take on some of the larger issues surrounding urban development and affordable housing in Central Ohio. See below for Klaben’s thoughts and answers to our questions as we drove from Homeport’s Downtown offices to the Far East Side and back again.

Our tour started off on East Main Street, passing by the large empty lot at the southwest corner of Main and South 18th Street, otherwise known as the Buster Douglas site.

Klaben: This is a great example of what we see throughout the city, of not being able to redevelop sites because owners think that the property is valued at a much higher amount than it’s really worth. So various folks, including us and Nationwide Children’s, have tried to get ownership of this site to help redevelop the neighborhood and have not been able to.

We continued along Main, turning south into the neighborhood and passing by a one-story, single-family home built by Homeport.

Klaben: We own property in the South of Main neighborhood, which has a lot of boarded-up houses. To be able to impact these neighborhoods, you need to be able to get to scale, to get control of more than one house. What we’ve found over the years is, if you just do one house, nobody’s going to want to buy it.

The difficulty in getting to that scale is in having enough federal funds. Ultimately, there has to be some private-public partnerships here, in making sure that everyone in our community has a high-quality place to live.

Throughout the city, we have between 450 and 500 single-family homes that we’re renting – we’ve developed them through tax-credit projects. At the end of the tax-credit period, which is 15 years, the resident will be able to buy the home.

We have one-story as well as two-story homes, so we can have handicap-accessible housing. The houses also meet Enterprise Green Communities Criteria standards. So by either renovating homes that are in great need of it, or by building new ones, it’s helping to improve neighborhoods.

As we headed east on I-70, Klaben talked about some of the other areas Homeport is active in.

Klaben: We also develop apartment communities. We have about 1,700 apartments, and we do that so that people have choices, since not everyone wants to live in the central city (the apartment communities tend to be more suburban).

We just purchased the Victorian Heritage properties in Weinland Park and the Short North. One of those buildings (at 1379 North High Street), is a three-story building with no elevator, and it’s been senior housing for a very long time. When we leased up Elim Manor, which has 98 senior units, there were stories from our property managers that some seniors were taking a very long time to get in their application paperwork. Residents couldn’t leave their apartments to fill out paper work, because the elevators didn’t work.

I’m drawing a picture for you on the unseen part of Columbus. Who would guess in our community, that there are these kinds of living conditions? We just don’t hear about the scope of the problems. So what we bring to it, how we think about housing, is that we try to bring very entrepreneurial and innovative ideas.

For Elim Manor, for example, we brought in five or six different sources of financing to create two different ownership structures, to combine the 98 different units into what looks like one complex.

We find all different government sources for funding, because you have to. These are communities where we are charging between $400 and $700 a month for four-bedroom units, and around $600 to $700 for the single-family homes (rents are set for those that income-qualify, at 30 to 50 percent of the area median income).

We pull into Marsh Run, a 184-unit apartment complex at 2393 Canal Bay Way, not far from Eastland Mall.

Klaben: This was under construction when I became the director. We spend a lot of time with our property management companies. When there are safety issues, we hit it straight on, we pride ourselves on handling the issues. We have a lot of volunteer participation to make this all work – volunteers have done the painting, put up fencing, the residents asked for trash cans, so we put those in.

We’re really proud of our programs – it’s not just about the housing. You start with a clean, decent, safe, affordable place to live, but when the average income here is $12,000 a year, and 90% are single-parent households, you need to provide other opportunities to improve people’s lives.

We have a woman on our team who’s our Community Engagement Specialist – her job is to develop Community Builder groups in each of our apartment communities. These are volunteers that come together to build the essence of their neighborhood. The way to build a safe community is to build that kind of network, and it has made a big difference in how people feel about the neighborhood, and in their willingness to work together as neighbors.

We take a tour of the learning center, which is located in a building in the middle of the complex.

Klaben: We have homework help after school, which unfortunately we have to limit how many kids can sign up because we don’t have the funding to add more staff. Our challenge for these types of programs is always raising the money.

We also provide an evening meal, through a partnership with Children’s Hunger Alliance. There’s a summer camp, in partnership with Columbus Recreation and Parks. And our Bright Idea Book-bank, with free books for every kid that signs up, we have that twice a year.

Klaben takes questions as we head to East Broad Street to see Homeport’s newest senior housing development.

CU: You are in your 15th year as President/CEO of Homeport, can you talk a little about how the organization has changed and grown during that time?

Klaben: Over the past 15 years, we’ve grown from 10 staff members to about 65. When I first came on board we had about 800 apartment units and homes – today we have about 2,200.

The program side of what we do has grown enormously – we’ve always had the philosophy of connecting homes with programs, but we’ve done it much more, and much more strategically, over the years. We’re also doing the community revitalization in a much more strategic fashion. Before, there were periods where we were building some houses for sale, but not at the scale that we are doing now.

The need for senior housing is a big change – the data is showing us that there are 10,000 people a day turning 64 in our country, and 50% of them are poor or near-poor – they can’t afford market-rate apartments. And they’re living on social security — we know how little savings some people have. That’s why people are working longer, and sometimes moving in with their children. There is a problem, so keeping up with the need for more affordable senior housing is huge.

CU: How important is it to have senior housing going forward that’s in walkable places, so access to a grocery store, for instance, does not require a long walk or a car ride?

Klaben: That’s important, it is very important, but in our community, many people have to have cars – there’s just not a lot of accessible public transportation. I think the challenge we’ll have for low-income seniors is the cost of land – there are not many opportunities near shopping centers and grocery stores to develop affordable senior housing. I think our community planners talk a lot about walkable communities, but they’re not talking about affordable housing being incorporated into it.

CU: It could be incorporated — it is in some places.

Klaben: Yes, it could be, and it is in some places in the country – where they have mass transit is where you really see it, and the cities that are progressive are buying land or making the developers incorporate affordable housing – it’s called inclusionary zoning.

Dublin, for example, they’re doing this whole big master plan, with a walkable downtown — but where’s the conversation about affordability? Worthington, same thing. And their idea of affordability seems to be geared toward recent college grads who want to live near Downtown. We’re not talking about the tellers who work at the bank, who are making 10 dollars an hour… we’re not talking about the people who live in our communities… or the seniors on Social Security.

People do take the buses in our developments – they are on the bus route, and we coordinate with other agencies for transportation for seniors. Marsh Run is an example of an apartment community near areas of employment.

It’s really the story of the Midwest – there’s not a lot of development where you can easily walk to a grocery, and most are not even set up to walk to. We just don’t live in a community that has access to transportation to easily get you to where the jobs are. I mean, one of the disconnects we have is that the low-paying jobs are farther out – the warehouses, distribution centers – and they can’t get employees. If you’re making 10 dollars an hour, and it’s part time, the transportation always doesn’t line up easily enough.

CLICK HERE to continue to part two of our interview and tour.

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