Can Columbus, Ohio Become a Model for Equitable Community Development?

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In many ways, the city of Columbus, Ohio, is an outlier among its peers. It’s the most populous city in Ohio (with 886,000 residents) — despite Cleveland and Cincinnati being perhaps better known — and its metropolitan area, with 2.1 million, leads the Buckeye State as well.

And unlike many other cities in America’s so-called “Rust Belt”, Columbus has proven itself more than well-prepared for the transition to the knowledge economy. As a state capital and the home of the Ohio State University, Columbus is well on its way to embracing the new economy.

Though most of its historic grow occurred in the period between the end of World War II and the 1980 recession, Columbus has never experienced a decade of population loss like its peers have. Its fastest-growing sectors are in corporate management, health care and social assistance, educational services, transportation and warehousing, and finance and insurance. Sitting within a day’s drive of more than 47% of the US population, the city is perhaps the most efficient distribution point in the US.

Like in many university towns, technology-sector growth has driven a transformation in Columbus. The U.S. Department of Transportation named Columbus the winner of its 2017 Smart Cities Challenge — an accolade that came with $40 million to improve quality of life, drive growth in the economy, provide better access to jobs and ladders of opportunity, become a world-class logistics leader, and foster sustainability.

Now, the city is now enjoying a sustained period of urban revitalization. Renewed interest in urban living has translated into the re-birth of several of Columbus’ core neighborhoods, as well as a decade of strong job growth. The Columbus region is forecast to welcome 1,000,000 new residents by 2050 — half of whom are expected to live in its central city.

No part of Columbus symbolizes Columbus’s urban revitalization better than the Short North, a downtown-adjacent neighborhood near the convention center. Once considered the city’s red-light district, the Short North is situated along a corridor connecting downtown and the Ohio State University. It suffered from prolonged disinvestment, crime and gang violence as residents moved out to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s.

But what began as a low-cost artist revival in the 1980s is now a major destination replete with art galleries, specialty shops, pubs, nightclubs and coffee houses, and is attracting a ton of mixed-use development and private investment.

Much of this growth occurred under the 16 years of leadership of Mayor Michael B. Coleman, the city’s first African-American mayor. When Coleman decided to not run for a fifth term in 2015, then-City Council President Andrew J. Ginther campaigned to be his successor by promising to continue the city’s remarkable growth, but with an eye on ensuring that its benefits also accrued to the people in parts of Columbus that are still struggling to attract investment and economic opportunity. During this growth period, real household incomes fell on an inflation-adjusted basis and have yet to recover to their pre-Great Recession levels in 2008 levels, making housing affordability more challenging for many households.

In addition, though some neighborhoods have recently seen significant revitalization, others still struggle with attracting new investment: the Columbus region was ranked the fifth-most segregated large metro area by income by the Martin Prosperity Institute, indicating there is more that can be done to ensure that its economic prosperity is shared by all.

After he won the 2015 election, Mayor Ginther’s focus on equitable growth in his first State of the Cityaddress caught the attention of the Rose Center for Public Leadership at NLC, and we invited him to be in the 2017-2018 cohort of the Daniel Rose Fellowship. The mayor’s focus dovetailed with the concerns of key City staff about what was lost in the Short North: namely, market-rate affordable, or what planners and housers sometimes refer to as “naturally occurring” affordable housing.

While the transformation of the Short North was successful beyond anyone’s dreams, policymakers and planners realized that the loss of its affordable housing stock would not result in an inclusive city if this model was replicated in other Columbus neighborhoods. So for their land use challenge, the Columbus team asked the Rose Center how the city could ensure its neighborhoods include housing and opportunity for economic mobility for a broad spectrum of people as it continues to grow.

The City team selected a study area including parts of the Near East, Near South and South Sides that is representative of Columbus neighborhoods left out of the recent wave of growth and revitalization.  Adjacent to Downtown, German Village and Merion Village, with the growing Nationwide Children’s Hospital anchor institution in its northwest corner, this area is where new investment appears to be on the horizon and serves as a place to plan for and examine potential policy changes to implement a mixed-income neighborhood strategy.

It has been losing residents, and nearly one-third of its housing stock is vacant. Median home values ($75,000) are only just more than half as much as citywide, as is household income ($25,175 compared to $47,000 citywide), making its residents potentially susceptible to displacement when new investment does come.

What advice did the Rose Center’s panel of visiting experts have? After touring the study area, visiting some recent projects, and meeting with about 75 representatives of neighborhood residents and businesses, local institutions and philanthropies, housing advocates and developers, and City staff and elected officials, they felt that Columbus could become a model for how US cities can achieve inclusive growth and development in their presentation recommendations, which you can also stream here on YouTube.

Based on the study area’s housing stock being nearly 30% vacant, they saw a great opportunity to allow for new residents without displacement if the City pursued the following recommendations (of which these are just the highlights):

Align zoning regulations to land use goals to allow by-right development and minimize dependency on the variance process.

In a city with at-large Council districts, like Columbus, residents from disadvantaged neighborhoods without a clear representative can sometimes feel like they lack a champion in city government. As a result, local advisory bodies (like Columbus’ neighborhood area commissions) may attempt to fill that vacuum. In the study area currently, there is a disconnect between the zoning, some existing buildings, and the future land use map from the most recently adopted neighborhood plan. That scenario has created a need for new development proposals to seek variances under the existing zoning.

While that gives the neighborhood area commission an opportunity to directly advise City Council, it also makes it more difficult to implement the neighborhood plan and introduces more uncertainty into the development process. The panel observed that additional risk in the development process will ultimately be paid for by the end users—residents who rent and own new housing—because developers will need to recoup their additional time and costs due to the uncertainties seeking variances creates. Not only is this situation at odds with the goal of providing more affordable housing, it presents a roadblock to implementing the neighborhood’s vision, and is not what the variance process is designed to be used for: considering use exemptions due to economic hardship, or other code exemptions due to problems with the parcel’s physical configuration.

They noted another inconsistency between the zoning and the city’s affordable housing goals: the zoning requires 2 off-street parking spaces per unit, but the Census data for the neighborhood indicates 36% of study area households don’t have access to a vehicle. That is likely because many households cannot afford to own a car—transportation is the second-highest household expense after housing.

Requiring 2 off-street parking spaces per dwelling unit when copious on-street parking available is an expensive overkill in the land use regulations and does not reflect the realities of the community today. The panel recommended lowering single-family requirements to half a space per unit or less, and decoupling parking and housing in multi-family housing (and lowering them to 1 off-street space per 4 units), or eliminating parking requirements for them altogether.

Equitable planning and development must have a transparent, inclusive engagement process to create trust.

The City is about to establish a new set of citywide planning policies for the first time since 1993, a process called Columbus Citywide Planning Policies (C2P2), to guide the next generation of growth described by its Insight 2050 comprehensive plan. Some of the neighborhood plans for the study are 8 years old and not as relevant for current conditions and citywide goals, so could be revisited as part of that process. The City also has funding to conduct corridor studies on E Main Street and Parsons Avenue, two key corridors in the study area.

The panel urged the City to use these planning processes as opportunities to engage with stakeholders in the neighborhood and reach out to parts of the community it knows are missing from the process, in a way that creates a continuous feedback loop between city and stakeholders instead of a series of public meetings that may have a more transactional appearance. Achieving an inclusive vision will improve trust and confidence in the planning process. The panel also recommended that after completing the corridor planning for Main and Parsons, the City follow up with a plan for E Livingston Avenue as well, applying the lessons learned from those processes, since it represents the heart of the study area.

The City needs to address the gap between rents (even subsidized) in new or revitalized development and what existing residents of the study area can afford to pay.

The panel believed that the study area offers an identifiable and manageable number of units and residents (today and in the future) to achieve a continuum of affordability that includes existing and future residents. It observed that the majority of current households in market-rate housing in the study area are at lower than 60% AMI, while current tax abatement policy encourages any development above 80% of AMI, which makes them potentially vulnerable to displacement when values inevitably appreciate after investment starts occurring (or even ahead of that, speculatively). So they recommended that the City identify the residents and units that need protection BEFORE incentivizing development, to address this gap.

The panel said the first priority should be protecting existing residents. Of the 4,025 occupied rental units in study area, 1,086 of them were leased to voucher holders who are susceptible to rental price increases. The City’s eviction policy seemed unreasonable to the panel, as it doesn’t even require landlords to appear in court. (And the largest group of evicted residents in Columbus has been single African-American mothers, which exacerbates homelessness and social support needs.) For the 2,268 homeowners in study area, the panel had several recommendations for supporting the ability to keep up their homes and manage potential property tax increases.

The second priority should be attracting new residents to the 2,553 vacant units in the area and new development sites by developing new housing with density for market-rate developments tied to tax abatements and affordability requirements and targets (50-80% of AMI), and looking for opportunities for small-scale land assembly by acquiring and demolishing vacant and obsolete housing and encouraging redevelopment with design standards and amenities endorsed by the community from the planning process.

The third priority should be to address the quality of substandard housing by expanding their existing Healthy Homes repair program and targeting landlords with an apartment improvement program to allow tax abatement for those willing to restrict units to 50% of AMI.

The economic development approach should focus on growing the wealth, skills and assets of the neighborhood.

The panel recommended the establishment of baseline metrics for residents, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the City, and area businesses to measure progress. They said the City needs to better connect neighborhood residents to job opportunities by improving connectivity within the neighborhood and to nearby employment centers, attracting business investment in the commercial corridors, and exploring how the hospital (in collaboration with the Community College system) can better meet the employments needs of the residents and create a culture of shared prosperity, utilize local businesses for hospital-related contracts and procurement, establish a neighborhood-focused minority and small business strategy, and offer special housing assistance benefits for employees that live in the neighborhood.

To enhance the workforce development side of this strategy, the panel recommended utilizing neighborhood libraries as a venue for programs, engaging local businesses to partner with neighborhood schools to provide work experiences for students (beginning in middle school), collaborating with logistics-related and construction industries in the nearby Rickenbacker Airport logistics park to create skills-based workforce training, and for the hospital to expand its job training and internship opportunities.

The City can encourage good actors by intentionally aligning incentives or gap financing for equitable development.

The City has some good existing tools, but the panel felt that what’s missing were city-wide, place-based and people-focused approaches. The first priority should be a commitment to inclusive housing through an inclusionary, mixed-income housing policy applied city-wide; linking density bonuses and tax abatements to the neighborhood context; creating a city-wide, mixed-income financing program (loans or make tax credits, G.O. Bonds); and acting as a resource connector by inventorying public and private tools for housing. The second priority should be accelerating equitable economic development investments through neighborhood rehab tax credits, abandoned building tax credits, enhancing and improving NC(R)evitalization Grants, and protect existing business in targeted corridors.

For neighborhood-based tools, the panel said priorities should be to improve the neighborhood investor ecosystem by establishing an inclusive neighborhood area investment strategy by creating a Columbus-focused Community Development Entity to leverage New Markets Tax Credits program (which is lacking today) and identifying or creating a well-funded, high capacity community development corporation here; promoting ownership among existing residents and business to promote wealth; improving Land Bank operations and strategic partners for acquisition and assembly; and aligning tools and incentives with equitable development to ensure transparency. In terms of people-based tools, the panel said the City should have a goal of ensuring that existing residents benefit from revitalization, both homeowners and renters.

The panel commended Mayor Ginther and the team for trying to get ahead of this challenge and agreed that the City and its partners have a narrow window of opportunity to do site acquisition and assemblage starting today before the market gets hot.

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