The region's leaders are organizing to get ahead of the lack of available places to live.

Editor's Note: This is an extended version of the story that ran in the September 2019 issue of Columbus CEO.

In early 2018, Maggie Parks was renting a 672-square-foot home in the Linden neighborhood where she lived with her teenage son and disabled mother. She wanted something bigger that she could own and be able to eventually pass down to her son. She searched for down payment assistance programs, which led her to connect with a nonprofit housing developer that helped make one of her life’s most important dreams come true.

The nonprofit was Homeport and the dream was a path toward homeownership.

Today, Parks and her family live in a 1,432-square-foot home in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood that sits just east of the gentrifying Italian Village and northeast of the completely gentrified Short North Arts District. The food services worker and single mom was able to arrange for traditional bank financing to buy the four-bedroom home from Homeport for $48,000.

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“I had to ask them to dumb this down for me— ‘What’s the catch?’ ” says Parks, who originally went to Homeport for homebuyer education classes. “They said, ‘Maggie, there is no catch.’ I just kept thinking to myself, ‘This sounds too good to be true.’ ”

Stories like Parks’ are becoming more common these days across Central Ohio as the government, private sector, financial institutions and nonprofits converge to attack the affordable housing crisis with a level of collaboration never before seen in the city’s history.

Sources interviewed for this article are unanimous in their optimism about momentum surrounding the issue. And they’re also of one mind that much work remains to be done.

“Things are moving”

Homeport has been developing affordable housing across the region since 1987. It helps low-income people by building quality, affordable homes that primarily are financed with private investment leveraged by federal tax credits. Its work is of vital importance to a community with 54,000 families spending at least 50 percent of their income on housing.

Bruce Luecke, Homeport’s CEO, is encouraged by what’s going on within his organization and the region as a whole. The latter includes unprecedented developments that show buy-in from the private and government sectors. The Ohio Housing Finance Agency recently awarded Homeport $565,000 for a 32-apartment senior community in Whitehall, which is a second phase of its Hamilton Crossing apartments, and $899,000 to help finance 50 affordable apartments and single-family homes in North Linden called Kenlawn Place.

That's joined by:

Columbus voters in May committing $50 million to spur affordable housing as part of a $1 billion bond issue. City leaders, foundations and a group of banks led by Huntington committing $100 million to a Housing Action Fund that will be managed by the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County. Franklin County investing an additional $65 million to spur construction of 2,050 affordable housing units over the next decade under its recently released economic development plan. Organizations such as Community Development for All People, which is working with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to develop affordable housing on the city’s south side. Developers in the city’s community reinvestment areas getting tax breaks by setting aside one-fifth of their units for mid- and low-income residents.

On the Near East Side, in conjunction with the Central Ohio Community Land Trust, Homeport is preparing to build 10 homes. A shared equity resale formula will assure affordable housing for the first-time homebuyer and subsequent homebuyers who follow.

“Things are moving,” Luecke says. “I think one of the most important things that’s happened in the past two to three years is just the acknowledgement of the importance of affordable housing. It’s really seen now as a social issue and is not just something to be dealt with by organizations like us. It is being embraced by the whole region. That’s huge.”

The “scramble for housing”

According to a 2017 report from the Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio, “affordable housing is the foundation for all aspects of our lives. It is more than just a place to live for low-income and vulnerable households. It provides stability for good health, employment and education success.

“Quality affordable housing also is a building block for strong neighborhoods, economic development and a sustainable community,” the report says. “Lack of adequate stable, affordable housing has costs and negative impacts for families, employers, schools and the broader community.”

In 2015, the alliance identified that 54,000 gap of affordable units in Franklin County and a goal of cutting that number in half over 10 years.

Roberta Garber, the alliance’s executive director, says a portion of the $100 million Housing Action Fund is “quick strike” money that will provide capital at the ready at below market debt.

“Developers need that,” she says. “They’ll be able to access properties that become available more quickly.”

Garber named three strategies that can help ease the affordability gap.

Development of affordable rental properties and homes for first-time buyers; Repairs and modification, including for low-income seniors; and Housing stabilization, including rental assistance and supportive services. This can include short-term assistance to help transition people out of homelessness or longer-term help for seniors and the disabled.

In addition to nonprofits like Homeport and Habitat for Humanity that are addressing the issue, private developers are in the mix, too. Examples include Woda Cooper Companies Inc. and Wallick Communities, which have made affordable development the heart of their business plans.

Rob Vogt, managing partner of Vogt Strategic Insights Ltd. in Columbus, says Central Ohio continues to add people and there’s clearly not enough housing, which was demonstrated in the recent report his firm prepared for the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio. It determined Central Ohio must build more than 14,000 housing units per year to accommodate an estimated 500,000 new jobs and 1 million new residents by 2050. Just 8,000 units are getting built per year, meaning there is a shortfall of about 6,000 units, or 43 percent.

“As households scramble for housing, they are taking up choices that might have been previously been occupied by lower-income households,” Vogt says. “This is what is causing rents to increase. It’s simple supply and demand.  That has a trickle-down effect to the lowest wage earners who have found limited housing choices in the neighborhoods where they want to live.” 

A champion at City Hall

Perhaps it’s no surprise that there’s palpable energy around affordable housing when the issue has a champion at the heart of Columbus City Hall. Affordability and revitalization of urban neighborhoods have been top priorities of Mayor Andrew Ginther since he took office in 2016.

“That ($50 million affordable housing fund) was a significant flag in the ground for an administration to say, ‘This is a priority for us,’ ” says Hannah Jones, the city’s deputy director of community development. “(Fifty million dollars) alone clearly isn’t going to solve the issue, but at the same time it becomes one more pipeline of financing and it will allow us to leverage other resources.”

The city has been criticized for the tax breaks it gave to private developers in areas like the trendy Short North. That’s been addressed in part by an overhauled abatement plan that says developers in the city’s community reinvestment areas can get tax breaks by setting aside one-fifth of their units for mid- and low-income residents.

Ginther has been a partner and ally of organizations like Community Development for All People, which is working with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to develop affordable housing on the city’s south side.

The city helped the nonprofit build the Residences at Career Gateway Center and the Parsons Village development for seniors. It also helped develop the All People’s Fresh Market on Parsons Avenue to offer residents fresh produce at no charge.

“Last summer, the mayor, at an event at our job training center … announced on the fly he was giving us an extra $5 million,” says Executive Director Rev. John Edgar. “It was more money to link to affordable loan dollars.”

The nonprofit is a Community Development Corp. that uses a variety of funding sources—borrowing from the Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing, federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and city bond financing—to fund new builds, renovations and home repairs. Most units are rented to those with income at or below 80 percent of area median income.

The goal is to make sure people who live on the South Side who want to continue living there are not displaced as the area becomes more opportunity rich. Attractive financing at low interest rates allows the organization to keep rents down as property values rise.

“We’ll end up selling a small portion of the portfolio and then take all of the appreciated value and plow it back in to reduce mortgages on the rest (of the portfolio),” he says. “We’re staying ahead of gentrification pressure and then allowing gentrification to actually fund permanent affordability.”

Edgar believes the model can be transferred into other neighborhoods.

“Any other urban neighborhood with proximity to downtown has the potential of seeing the kind of gentrification pressure you’ve seen in some neighborhoods. … It’s important for the city and the nonprofit sector to come in early and do what we’ve done. … Get rid of blight, reestablish some base of quality housing as a mixture of ownership and rental. As blight goes away, all of a sudden you’ll see the private market come in behind it.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.