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Homeport Addresses the Future of Affordable Housing in Columbus

Brent Warren Brent Warren Homeport Addresses the Future of Affordable Housing in ColumbusEastway Village Senior Housing — Photo via 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.

CLICK HERE for part one of our interview, or see below for Klaben’s thoughts and answers to our questions in part two of the interview and tour, as we drove from Homeport’s Downtown offices to the Far East Side and back again.

CU: Where do you see Homeport building in the next 15 years? It sounds like you’d like to be Downtown or close to Downtown, but you can’t afford to be, and the programs and policies aren’t there to facilitate that. Is that fair to say?

Klaben: It’s not an either-or situation, the strategy has been – our sweet spot – is to find a piece of land, in the City of Columbus, but in a better school district, or in an area where kids have easier access to a higher-quality school.

So we’re in the Pickerington school district, Southwestern City Schools, Hilliard… we were trying to develop a site in Reynoldsburg but couldn’t get the housing development funding.

Again, there have been changes in the community – 15 years ago, 10 years ago, even five, we could not talk about the quality of the schools, that was like a no-no conversation. Columbus has had failing schools for a while, but, politically, we could not talk about it.

But I think that’s important, because what’s happened is that low-income people were forced to live only where there were poorly-performing schools, and you cannot get out of poverty without access to quality educational opportunities.

So, where do I see us in the next 15 years? It is opportunity driven – when we put deals together, ultimately we have to have the financing to make it work, and so we will seek sites to meet the growing family and senior housing needs.

And we will be continuing our redevelopment like we’re doing at NoBo and in other neighborhoods – every pocket of our community has housing that needs to be revitalized.

We pull into Eastway Village, located in Whitehall at 4221 East Broad Street.

Klaben: This is our newest senior community. It will be done by the end of February – tomorrow we’ll begin taking applications for the 32 new units, the 66 existing units leased up immediately.

The seniors here love it, with their Community Builders conversations they have had fundraising to raise money for projects, and they have a lot of activities.

Another area of need we’d like to pursue in the future is more linkages to health programs. We know that families use emergency rooms, that seniors need on-site access to health care to age in place.

We’re developing partnerships with different providers to ultimately find ways that seniors can stay in our apartment communities as long as possible – it’s better for them, and it’s less costly to the health care system than going into a nursing home.

CU: What about projects like the Barrett School redevelopment – is there an affordable housing component to that?

Klaben: There’s a small affordable component, but a lot of that is actually to raise funds for our mission.

CU: Do you see Homeport doing more projects like that in the future?

Klaben: Definitely, finding various ways to be entrepreneurial to support our mission. What’s exciting about Barrett is it’s an empty school building – it’s been a vacant building within a neighborhood, and that’s never good for a neighborhood. And now we’re going to put it to good use, renovating it to historic guidelines, so it’ll be a real value to the community. At the same time it’ll provide housing that provides funding for us.

So I don’t know what kind of other opportunities we’ll find, whether it’s buying apartment communities that can be repositioned, or looking for other buildings like Barrett, that can be repositioned into housing, but we’ll be looking for other opportunities, and we’ll be looking Downtown, but that’s going to take special subsidies or new funding sources.

CU: We’ve written a lot about MORPC’s insight2050 study, which predicts that the region will add half a million people by 2050, and that most of the demand going forward will be for more dense, more urban, and more walkable development – what are your thoughts on that prediction, and how that plays out in terms of Homeport’s future development strategy?

Klaben: People are predicting new urbanism, and I remember when City Councilmember Sensenbrenner was all about traditional development 10 or 12 years ago. And we had some traditional development, but it just didn’t catch on.

I think what I will find more interesting, is when the millennials settle down, and have families, and their kids start school, where will they end up? Are they going to follow their parents’ Midwestern footsteps, go into the suburbs and then come back? Or will they stay in the city? And I think a lot of the 2050 predictions that they are going to stay in more urban areas – that’s yet to be seen.

I’m not an expert, but frankly, what I’ve heard over the last 15 years, is – schools matter, and it affects property values, and it affects choice. It’s a circle, it’s chicken or the egg – you need the people who care about the schools to stay in the city and fix the schools, and speak up. I think we have a fabulous new direction, with (Superintendent) Dan Good, and I think that’s going to make a tremendous difference. But it’ll take a while.

So, I don’t know, I think there’s clearly going to be a growth of new urbanism, and more people wanting to be more centrally-located, but I think people are going to continue to live in neighborhoods like the one we were just at (Far East Side), and we need to provide the quality housing for them.

To get a sense of the work that Homeport has done in the King-Lincoln District with their North of Broad initiative (NoBo), we start by turning onto Miami Avenue, taking in the vacant lots and mostly run-down housing north of Long Street.

Klaben: This is a good example of what 21st and Long looked like before we started. I think we had six to eight occupied homes on 21st Street when we got started. You can see there are a lot of boarded up houses, and then every now and then you’ll find one being taken care of.

We then drive down 21st Street, which from Mount Vernon Avenue to Long is lined with dozens of new and fully-rehabbed homes.

New homes at NOBO — Photo via Homeport.

New homes at NoBo on 21st Street — Photo via Homeport.

Klaben: So you talk about what our vision is, well every street should be like 21st. You see the new-builds we did – including the city’s first LEED-certified home – as well as the renovations of existing housing.

We got a grant that helped existing homeowners to make repairs to their homes – that helped the existing owners understand what we were doing. There was an empty lot here that was a junk yard, with tin fencing around it – we worked with city code enforcement to get owner to clean up, then made a grant to them.

We began doing beautification projects in the neighborhood with volunteer groups, Leadership Columbus did the pocket park at the southern end of the block, using art from the kids at Champion Middle School.

Here on the corner (of Long and 21st) is our NoBo on Long condos, there is just one left, all the others have sold.

So it may take a while, to get to where we’re at that market equilibrium. We’ll keep going until we are, and then the private sector will be interested, and then we’ll move on.

CU: What’s next for NoBo, do you plan to move on to other streets?

Klaben: The plans are dependent on the subsidy. What we know is that the cost of acquisition and renovation or new-build is high. We’re in conversation with PACT about the area around the redevelopment of Poindexter Village. Our hope is that the private sector recognizes that there’s an importance in getting involved in this kind of renovation. Individuals just can’t afford to come in and renovate to the standard needed.

CU: We just wrote about the renovation of the row houses on 11th Avenue in Weinland Park – that’s a private developer doing this sort of work, with the help of tax credits…

Klaben: And other kinds of help, too… yes, that’s one example of private sector, but all of the major corporations in this community, they support the Scioto Mile, the Commons, the other beautification projects – and we need those investments, that’s important – but we also need a neighborhood where people can live like this.

CU: You mentioned that you have some houses in Linden, are there any plans to do something large-scale like NoBo in Linden, or any of the other neighborhoods in the city that are struggling but not getting a lot of attention?

Klaben: Unfortunately, no, because that’s where you get into what are the city priorities and where will they put the funds. We’re very much in lock-step with the city in terms of where their priorities are, and where they are willing to invest. And in fairness to them, there’s a limitation to where the funds can go – they have to concentrate in certain areas, because it doesn’t help anybody to say, “we did five houses and we’re done.”

CU: Any closing thoughts, things our readers should know about Homeport?

Klaben: Well, you asked where are we heading as an organization, one response to that is that we’re really trying to get our message out. Our community needs to understand the whole continuum of housing. We’ve been focusing as a community on shelter, and how important it is that nobody lives on the streets, but that’s a band aid.

We need to ensure that you have high-quality housing across a continuum, until you get to market-rate housing that people are able to actually afford. What we are doing in our community is putting people into market-rate that cannot afford it, so they cycle back into the shelters, because we don’t have enough quality affordable housing.

So we want to elevate the importance of affordable housing, and its connection to food and health and education and employment, because it’s a hidden problem. We won’t solve other community problems without solving the housing issue.

We have a lot of volunteer opportunities, people can get involved in a lot of ways. We need people for everything from tutoring and educational programs to the beautification programs, to donating books – there are so many ways that people support us.

For more information, visit, www.homeportohio.org.

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