Columbus Housing Authority CEO Charles Hillman tackles the affordable housing crisis

Virginia Brown
For Columbus CEO
Charles Hillman, president and CEO, Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority

When Charles Hillman was a youngster, his grandfather gave him advice that stuck with him. “I just remember him always telling me, ‘You cannot get something if you don’t let people know you need it,’” he says.

Today, the 53-year-old president and CEO of the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority keeps that advice in mind as he works to solve the city’s critical affordable housing needs. “We cannot solve the affordable-housing crisis unless we accept it and start working on it.”

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Hillman has spent a lifetime around housing authorities. He was introduced to the field by his father-in-law, who ran the housing authority in Hillman’s native Cincinnati. “I just remember how people valued him in our community, and how well I thought they lived,” he says. “And I remember how interested he was in his work.”

It also helped that he drove a company car, which the young Hillman thought was cool. If his father-in-law’s passion for his career isn’t what hooked Hillman, it’s the mission that kept him going.

“We believe people should have access to affordable housing, no matter who you are or what your situation is,” he says. “And affordability is required across all spectrums ... all levels of our community require affordable housing.”

Hillman’s own work in the affordable housing and housing authority industries began in Cincinnati as development manager for Nelson & Associates. Later, at the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, Hillman developed a quality-control system that increased resident retention by 25 percent.

Eventually he left Cincinnati to join CMHA as assistant director of property management, a role in which he achieved over 98 percent occupancy while maintaining delinquency rates below 3 percent.

After a stint in Chicago where he served as senior vice president for the Chicago Housing Authority, the nation’s third largest housing authority, which manages over 25,000 units, he returned to Columbus in 2010 to lead CMHA.

The move gave Hillman a wider perspective on Columbus. “I remember thinking, ‘This city’s got it going on. They’re very progressive. … I’m a gay, Black man brought back here to work at a housing authority—that doesn’t happen in a lot of cities.’”

It was also a time during which housing authorities in general were evolving into development-minded organizations over custodial ones.

“There used to be a time when you had a maintenance staff and you painted the unit, and you got another apartment ready and you moved people in and out, and nothing ever changed,” Hillman says.

The shift is evident in recent numbers. In 2019, CMHA did more than paint, closing $53 million in development deals, including mixed-income acquisitions, new construction for special-needs populations and the preservation of existing developments.

Through deep fiscal responsibility, Hillman and his team also have worked to overcome a $3 million deficit.

Understanding the scale of the affordable housing crisis

In 2021, the hourly wage needed in Franklin County to afford the average two-bedroom apartment was $19.83, up 24 percent in five years, according to the Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio.

Ohio’s minimum wage, which was just raised in January 2022, is $9.30.

In Franklin County, roughly 54,000 families spend more than half of their income on housing, an issue Hillman fears will only continue to grow with the Columbus metro area’s population on pace to reach 3 million by 2050.

Of the people the CMHA serves in Franklin County, according to Hillman, 50 percent are disabled, 25 percent are elderly on fixed incomes, and about 70 percent are African American. The median income of a family served by CMHA is $15,000.

“The unfortunate part is that everyone’s comfortable with disparity,” Hillman says. “People know that some people are going to make more than other people, and that’s just the way life is. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about an impossibility. …We have an entire community in our community that, without some changes, don’t have options.”

Affordable housing is a complex issue connected to many other facets of a community, including population density, economic development, fair wages and social services. Housing is also at the forefront of employers’ decisions to locate their businesses and how to compensate their staff. Stable housing supports employee productivity, engagement, and flexibility. Keeping these costs reasonable also builds the consumer base that ignites entrepreneurial ventures and fosters innovation.

With so much riding on housing, Hillman wants someone from affordable housing to be at the table of leadership for every development discussion in the city.

“My concern is that the affordable housing crisis in the community is going to grow,” Hillman says. “So we are going to have to have private-public partnerships to be able to create vibrant communities moving forward.”

Working with community partners will ensure that residents have the resources they need–internet, transportation–to be successful long term.

During the COVID-19 pandemic when residents needed to connect with CMHA virtually, Hillman says, “We found that a lot of our residents, in particular our senior residents, couldn’t afford it. … CMHA now pays for broadband for all its residents. We are a barrier remover.”

For many large housing authorities, the solutions lie in these types of coordinated community efforts, public and private, that position those in need toward a more stable future.

“We understand that housing is absolutely critical, but that it isn’t sufficient in and of itself sometimes,” says Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization that works with 70-member housing authorities across the country. “As housers, we need to connect to service providers, educators, health systems—and our members are actively engaged in that.”

“Charles is a clear leader. He’s innovative, creative and community-minded and very future-minded,” she adds.

Columbus Housing Authority partners with developers to build stronger community

Collaboration will be a key element to the CMHA’s success moving forward, according to Hillman.

“We’ve had really good partnerships with private and nonprofit developers in our community,” he says. “And we have one of the most collaborative partnering communities I’ve ever worked in, and I’m proud of that.”

A creative partnership between CMHA and Beacon 360 Management, Harriet’s Hope, is a $13 million affordable housing community with onsite support systems for survivors of human trafficking, an issue that hits Ohio especially hard.

In December 2021, CMHA announced a $1 million federal grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati’s Affordable Housing Program, a major financial boost to help advance the project from blueprint to groundbreaking.

“There is an urgent need for diverse solutions that collaboratively address the human trafficking epidemic in central Ohio,” Hillman says in the announcement. “We envision Harriet’s Hope as a vessel to bring hope, restoration, rehabilitation and freedom for some of our community’s most vulnerable residents.”

Harriet’s Hope and the partnerships it takes to get an effort like it off the ground is a recent response, according to CMHA Chief Operating Officer Scott Scharlach, to the lack of coordinated housing and social services, namely for the most underserved populations.

The CMHA also recently announced the development of Sinclair Apartments, scheduled to open in 2023, at the site of former music club Alrosa Villa, where, in 2004, four people were murdered and three others wounded in a shooting.

Part of CMHA’s goal is to create 500 new affordable units annually. The Sinclair apartments will offer 180 new units, all ranging in price dependent on income.

Columbus Housing Authority moves towards mixed-income housing

A movement toward mixed-income housing is also part of Hillman’s plan.

“Compounds of poverty aren’t sustainable,” he says. “Mixed income communities do work … People want to be around amenities and the same things that all other striving communities deserve. Historically, none of the communities where our properties were located had access to any of those types of services and amenities.”

And, he adds, they were only made up of low-income residents.

“For years in this country, we have segregated public housing,” says Janet Jackson, a friend and mentor to Hillman and the former president and CEO of the United Way of Central Ohio. “And many times, we’ve put it in the poorest part of a community, without the resources that individuals who live there need to grow and prosper. I am so proud of Charles, because on more than one occasion … he has created mixed-income units.”

In mixed-income housing, people who are entitled to resources provided by CMHA live next door to those who pay market rates. “I think that’s critically important to the way we look at public housing and a pathway for people who are living in poverty to get to greater financial stability,” Jackson says.

Today, Hillman is proud of what he and his team and its partners are creating.

“When we drive to our communities now, they don’t look any different than any other community,” he says. “The goal in all of this is quality, affordable housing. And we can see it; it’s right there. It’s not a study. It’s not a test. You walk outside and look at the building and the people walking around. It’s very fulfilling.”

Now, in his latest chapter of life—becoming a grandfather to Cooper, who turns 2 in April–Hillman says the importance of his work means even more to him.

“I have a photo of him, and he reminds me about my responsibility to make this world a better place,” Hillman says. “It requires me to remain future-focused.”

“It’s been a recharge for me frankly, becoming a grandfather,” he says. “You start to think about what your legacy will be like, how you want people to remember you.”

“Helping to solve the affordable housing crisis—helping to make sure that families have homes, helping to make sure kids have safe places to get back and forth to school—that will be what I’d like to be remembered for.”

Virginia Brown is a freelance writer.

Charles Hillman, president and CEO, Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority

Charles Hillman

President and CEO

Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority

Age: 53

In position since: 2010

Education: Bachelor’s in business administration, Bowling Green State University; MBA management certification, Loyola University Chicago; Next Generation Executive & Emerging Leader program, Harvard University

Family: Married, three children, one grandchild