This is the first of a two-part series on affordable housing in Columbus. Read part two here.
Mattias Minarsch leads a group of about half a dozen Habitat For Humanity volunteers putting the finishing touches on a home in Linden.
“So this is all going to be living area, like I said, and then if we walk over here, we’ve got the master bedroom on the first floor,” Minarsch says.
He continues down the hallway and looks out the back door.
“As you can see it gets a garage, as well," Minarsch says. "Big property for this one here, so they have a big play area if they have kids.”
Affordable housing is a nagging problem throughout the country, and a persistent issue in rapidly-expanding Columbus. The federal government defines "low income" as a household earning 20 percent less than the local median income. In Columbus, low income for a family of four is $61,000 a year.
To get to affordable housing, that family should spend no more than a third of its income on utilities and rent or mortgage payments, which comes to about $1,500 a month.
But many households can’t even afford that, says E.J. Thomas, director of Mid-Ohio Habitat For Humanity.
“We’re the only game in town for home ownership for 30 to 60 percent area median income folks,” Thomas says. “No one else is doing that. We have mortgages at 0 percent so they can afford those homes.”
Funding for affordable housing comes from a variety of sources, but much of it originates with the federal government and flows through the state or the city. Thomas emphasizes SHOP funds—a pool of federal dollars limited to nonprofits that Habitat uses to help prepare sites.
The city doesn’t control those funds, but Kaufman Development president Frank Sasso explains the city offers similar support to for-profit developers, too.
“Streetscape improvements, sewer improvements, signalization of intersections,” Sasso lists off as examples. “In other cities, developers may have to foot the bill for that, which means higher rents. Whereas in the city of Columbus, for the right type of project, that includes affordable housing, includes a significant community impact, the city is able to step up and contribute.”
But Columbus leaders have faced criticism over their deals with for-profit developers, particularly when it comes to tax abatements. A city-commissioned study noted tax breaks in areas like the Short North were too generous. And in some cases, the city declined to punish developers that failed to meet the terms of those tax breaks.
A revamped abatement plan approved last year by Columbus Council reserves 20 percent of units in those neighborhoods for lower-earners in exchange for a tax break, but it also lets builders buy their way out of those requirements.
What’s more, developers like Kaufman often aren’t building true affordable housing. Rather, they’re building what’s known as "workforce housing." It’s below market rate, but it serves people making more than the federal low income standard—usually between 80 and 100 percent of the area median income.
Sasso says they’re working on other ways to support affordability, such as a partnership with Homeport, a local non-profit developer using low income housing tax credits.
“What’s challenging about those projects in an urban context is it’s very difficult to make parking work,” Sasso explains. “The low-income housing tax credit, the subsidy doesn’t provide enough support to build the quality project you need to build, as well as some sort of structured parking.”
Sasso says they’re hammering out a deal to share the parking structure at a Franklinton development in exchange for nearby infrastructure improvements from the city.
On the South Side, Rev. John Edgar’s Community Development For All People has been working on affordable housing since 2005.
“We were looking around in the neighborhood, and there were a lot of vacant blighted properties, and it just seemed as if, wouldn’t it be great if those properties could be fixed up and people would have better places to live,” Edgar says.
Since then, they’ve teamed up with Nationwide Children’s hospital and received a designation giving them access to federal funds that flow through the state or the city. Edgar’s organization has also worked with the land bank to acquire those vacant homes cheaply, but he says their most important source of support comes from city bond funds.
“The sole source of truly city money that comes to us in housing development, I’m not talking about other groups, is bond funds,” he says. “So it’s bond funds, federal dollars that pass through, and it’s the unique and essential benefit of what the land bank can do.”
Voters will consider a new round of borrowing focused on affordable housing this May.
If you have questions about how affordable housing works in Columbus, or if you have a story to share, contact WOSU at firstname.lastname@example.org.