In the three years that I have chaired the Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio, it has been gratifying to see the growing awareness of affordable-housing needs in our community. I was pleased to see the Feb. 3 Dispatch editorial “New tax-break rules can be a good start” recognize the significance of the city of Columbus’ proposed new tax incentive policy to encourage the development of more mixed-income neighborhoods, as well the policy’s limitations in addressing the housing needs of residents with the lowest incomes.
This new city policy can benefit teachers, nurses and firefighters. But truly inclusive economic growth will not be achieved if workers in the central Ohio occupations with the most job openings — warehouse laborers, food service, retail workers and health-care aides — cannot afford basic apartments.
Ours is a growing community with growing affordable-housing needs. We have a 54,000-household affordable-housing gap in Franklin County, based on our 2017 Affordable Housing Alliance research. These households, who live in or near poverty, are paying more than half of their income for housing. The affordability gap is the result of economic, housing-cost and demographic trends — and population projections for the area indicate it will only get larger.
This gap might feel overwhelming, but unlike other problems facing our community, we have proven solutions to the challenge.
• Develop homes — construct and preserve affordable owner and rental homes, including private-market properties that are being purchased by out-of-town investors who raise rents.
• Improve existing homes — repair and make accessible homes of low-income seniors and people with disabilities so they can continue to age in place and live independently, and renovate housing as part of neighborhood-revitalization efforts.
• Stabilize households — provide renter assistance linked with services to prevent eviction, reduce homelessness, stabilize senior citizens and other households on fixed incomes, and provide a hand up to people who are completing programs to become more self-sufficient.
The question, of course, is how to pay for an ambitious solution. I believe a bold public/private partnership is called for that commits significant new local resources for affordable-housing solutions.
Columbus prides itself on being a national leader and a top-tier community. In 2001, the city of Columbus and the Franklin County Board of Commissioners took a bold step by forming the Affordable Housing Trust for Columbus and Franklin County and dedicating a portion of the revenue from the local hotel/motel tax and real estate transfer fee to the trust to create and preserve affordable housing for renters and homeowners. This has been cited as a national model for how local governments fund affordable housing.
But more than 15 years later, we are falling behind. The county population has grown by 15 percent and the number of people in poverty has grown by 68 percent while funding for the trust has remained essentially flat. We are now trailing peer communities that are moving aggressively to provide local resources for affordable housing.
As examples of how other cities are addressing this issue, in the past year the city of Austin more than doubled funds for affordable housing, and private investors in that city are establishing a $500 million private-equity fund to preserve affordable rental units. Denver created a first-ever dedicated fund for affordable housing, allocating $150 million over 10 years.
When we talk to other communities, they regret not acting sooner, before housing costs skyrocketed. Their advice to central Ohio is to start now, when housing is still relatively affordable compared with other parts of the country. It is now that we can get the most bang for the buck from investment of resources. They also envy our bench strength — the array of nonprofit and private affordable-housing organizations working collaboratively, all of which have the capacity and track record to quickly make use of new resources.
The alliance calls on all parts of our community — banks, philanthropy, government, the housing industry, nonprofits and faith-based institutions — to join together to invest in solutions that will benefit all of us. Our members and I remain excited to work with other community leaders to get there.
E.J. Thomas is chair of the Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio and chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity — MidOhio.