As a high-end hotel displaces low-income seniors, the Short North wrestles with the impact on the neighborhood's character
Stephen Arthur gets up at 6 a.m. every day, and by 6:45 he's out the door and walking. Until recently, he lived on the eighth floor at Bollinger Tower in the Short North with other elderly residents who require subsidized housing, and his morning walk to Kroger checked three boxes: exercise, coffee (the second of three daily cups) and a mandatory reading of The New York Times.
Arthur, a 71-year-old vegetarian and fitness fanatic, particularly looks forward to the wellness-related stories by Gretchen Reynolds in the Times' Science section every Tuesday. He doesn't just casually read Reynolds. Her stories inform his lifestyle choices. When Reynolds wrote that the new recommendation for the number of steps to take per day was 15,000 instead of 10,000, Arthur looked for ways to up his already-ambitious walking regimen, which usually brought him back to Bollinger between 9 and 9:30 a.m.
On Tuesday afternoons, Arthur participated in a “Bingo-size” class — a weekly combination of bingo and exercise at Bollinger that supplemented his walking and nightly push-ups, sit-ups, weightlifting and balance exercises. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he attends a tuition-free political science class through the Program 60 initiative at Ohio State University — the same school that drew Arthur to Columbus from Mansfield in 1962. And on Thursday mornings he meets one of his previous OSU instructors for coffee and a chat (they take turns buying the coffee, $4.20 total).
Frequently, Arthur attends performances by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, which once employed him in its ticket office, and his close friend of many years, Susanna Robbins, also takes him to the ballet and the opera.
“I appreciate the arts a great deal, always have. And that's why I like being able to take the bus Downtown and go to Columbus Symphony concerts,” Arthur said on a Friday afternoon in early March, surrounded by tables stacked with donated baked goods on the first floor of Bollinger Tower. “The rest of the people in this building don't have any interest in those things. They worry about the bread. But the bread of life is not just that.”
Living in the heart of the Short North at 750 N. High St. — a mile from Ohio State, a mile from the city center — allowed Arthur to do most of the activities he loves by foot or via a quick bus ride. But in late March he was forced out of Bollinger Tower because last year, the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) entered into a contract to sell the building for $14 million to Schiff Capital Group (in partnership with Continental Real Estate). All 98 residents would have to be relocated to other properties.
Less than a dozen Bollinger tenants will remain at the end of April, and by mid-May or so, all 100 units in the 11-story building will sit empty and the low-income, senior residents will be scattered across Central Ohio. After CMHA and Schiff Capital close on the sale of Bollinger this summer, the building will begin its transformation from an affordable-housing high-rise to an upscale Cambria Suites hotel.
Bollinger's sale raises questions for CMHA, Short North residents and businesses, developers and city officials about Columbus' aging population and the need for affordable housing. To what length should a housing authority go to bring in much-needed cash? What is a city's responsibility to its poor, elderly citizens? Is there inherent value in young, condo-dwelling Short North residents running into seniors from a different socioeconomic level outside coffee houses and bars and shops and galleries?
After nearly five years in Bollinger Tower, Stephen Arthur is no longer there. Were he and the other 90-plus Bollinger residents neighborhood outliers? Or essential threads in the fabric of their community?
Bollinger's conversion to a hotel brings the Short North property full circle. In the summer of 1982, CMHA purchased the New Francis Hotel, which the housing authority had previously leased, for $580,000 in order to build affordable housing for elderly residents.
In early 1984, the agency began a $4 million project to raze the hotel and erect “Bollinger Towers,” named for former CMHA Director and Assistant Secretary of HUD Stephen J. Bollinger, who died of a heart attack at age 36 in June of 1984. The high-rise was completed in the spring of 1985, and residents began filling its 100, one-bedroom apartments that fall.
Back in the 1980s and for decades prior, the Short North didn't resemble the trendy, arts-driven enclave and swanky dining haven it is today. Crime was rampant. Headlines from the era speak of armed robberies at the New Francis Hotel. In the early days of Bollinger, residents quarreled over accusations that tenants were bringing in prostitutes under the guise of young, female relatives visiting the tower as guests. As recently as 2004, an 82-year-old Bollinger resident was found stabbed to death in her apartment.
But in the '90s, art galleries gained a foothold in the Short North. Over time, restaurants and retail shops followed. As the neighborhood morphed from slum to hotspot, developers seized the opportunity, adding upscale apartments, condos and hotels. Along the way, Bollinger went from an affordable housing high-rise in a blighted area to coveted real estate in the heart of a thriving, up-and-coming neighborhood.
“It was a challenge to try to figure out a way to get the Short North to feel good about low-income housing in that area, in the heart of it all,” said Jeff Hogle, property manager at Bollinger from 2012 to 2014. “But I think over time, the Short North — the immediate neighbors — realized that Bollinger Tower wasn't such a terrible thing.”
During Gallery Hop, the first Saturday of every month, Bollinger residents would entertain passersby in the front courtyard. “They had some folks who were pretty talented come out and show off their talents,” said Reed Woogerd of Corso Ventures, which operates the nearby Short North Pint House, Forno Kitchen & Bar and Standard Hall. “There was one guy who had an amazing old-school country record collection. He would come out and sing along for people — just these really enchanting, endearing moments.”
The building got an exterior facelift in 2009, and though occasional crime-related quarrels continued (especially since security guards were removed due to federal budget cuts), much of the relational tensions inside Bollinger eased when, in August of 2010, CMHA changed Bollinger from a site that housed senior citizens and tenants of varying ages with disabilities (including those with drug and alcohol addictions and mental illnesses) to an elderly-only facility.
“The elderly residents did not like living with people with special needs,” said CMHA Chief Operating Officer Bryan Brown, citing residents' concerns over mentally ill neighbors and complaints of tenants urinating in the elevators.
At the same time, CMHA also converted Bollinger from public housing (Section 9) to a project-based voucher site (Section 8), meaning that residents' rental assistance would no longer be tied to the building itself.
“With project-based voucher sites, if you live there for a year and you're in good standing, you can move with a voucher wherever you want. You get portability. You get choice,” Brown said. The voucher conversion is a funding-model strategy CMHA is implementing across the board as it seeks to convert its public housing properties, which have been federally underfunded for decades, to project-based Section 8 housing via a HUD program.
After Bollinger's 2010 conversion, new residents were required to be 62 and older. Tenants paid 30 percent of their adjusted monthly income in rent and utilities, which, according to the housing agency, averages at $282 per month for seniors in CMHA public housing. Stephen Arthur, for instance, paid $203.
While Bollinger tenants and other Short North residents and businesses seemed to coexist in relative peace, the building itself was becoming a financial strain on the housing authority. As rents stayed relatively static, maintenance costs rose due to issues with elevators, boilers, the HVAC system, roof and plumbing. In all, Brown estimates the building needed $5 million of work, which the agency didn't have.
“People look at the outside and say, ‘That's a nice-looking building!'” Brown said. “But it's got issues. We don't advertise that because we're doing the best we can, but it had issues.”
“It's a tough building to maintain,” said Hogle, who recalled constant maintenance issues and flooded apartments during his time as property manager. “All the plumbing was located in the cinderblock walls, and it was a huge challenge trying to find the problem.”
As CMHA struggled to maintain Bollinger, developers began making offers on the tower, which the Franklin County Auditor values at around $4 million.
“We were not looking to sell Bollinger,” said Scott Scharlach, CMHA's vice president of asset management. Nevertheless, offers came in, and while the first two or three weren't too enticing, an unofficial bidding war on a not-for-sale Section 8 high-rise led to an offer the housing agency couldn't refuse.
“We start responding: ‘It's not for sale. We're not interested.' Then they offer you $10 million,” said Brown, who eventually told developers, ‘If we were to sell it, we would have to get absolute top dollar for it. What is that?' And it went up to $14 million.”
According to CMHA, proceeds from the sale of the tower will enable the agency to house a minimum of 300 people as opposed to Bollinger's 100 residents. That math convinced the CMHA board, and in February of last year the housing authority went into contract with Schiff Capital (Schiff did not respond to requests for comment).
CMHA speaks of the decision to sell as a no-brainer partly because more than 17,000 Central Ohioans are currently waiting for housing choice vouchers, and nearly 7,000 are on the public housing waiting list, according to data compiled by CMHA Vice President of Planning and Development Roberta Garber, in conjunction with the Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio.
Columbus is in desperate need of affordable housing. For every subsidized rental unit, there are three renters who need it, said Garber, adding that the people on the waiting list are even poorer than those CMHA currently houses, whose yearly income averages between $13,000 and $14,000.
So while CMHA staffers say they were fully aware of and understand the community perception that the agency was plucking 100 low-income senior citizens from a building they loved without giving residents a say in the matter, while at the same time further gentrifying a neighborhood that developers continue to upscale at breakneck speed, they also chose not to overly concern themselves with that perception. Thousands upon thousands of impoverished Columbus residents need cheaper places to live, and CMHA's mission is not to weigh the demographics of the Short North. The agency is tasked with providing high-quality, affordable housing to those in need.
“Our clients are not just the people we house. Our clients are the people we can't house, too,” Garber said. “[Bollinger residents] have to move out of their neighborhood, but they're in decent, affordable housing. And it lets us serve two more people for every person that was there. That's compelling.”
“Bollinger was our flagship building. … We care about our Bollinger residents very, very much, and we understand the challenges and how hard it is for those folks to move,” Brown said. “I can clearly say nobody here loves this transaction. Having said that, we're here to fulfill a mission, and you do the best you can with the variables that you're dealing with.”
Local agencies that serve Columbus' senior citizens reacted to the sale with a mix of understanding and concern. “We understand that CMHA has economic reasons for doing this, and we certainly can respect those reasons,” said Cindy Farson, director of the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging. “But for seniors, this is a very tough thing. We have over 50 clients that are housed at Bollinger, and they have established themselves in the neighborhood like everyone does.”
“Any time we lose senior housing in Franklin County it's problematic,” said Antonia Carroll, director of the Franklin County Office on Aging. “Sadly, I think the older people in Bollinger really enjoyed the proximity to Downtown and good bus access. Older people enjoyed it for the same reasons younger people like to live there. I regret that that opportunity has been lost for older adults in Franklin County.”
Stephen Arthur and the other Bollinger residents were notified of the pending sale and their forced relocation via an informational flyer in late February of last year, and about a week later, CMHA held a meeting to go over when the relocation process would begin (January of 2017) and what assistance the agency would provide.
“They were concerned about having to relocate and move,” Scharlach said. “Certain residents understood the reason behind why we're doing this more than others did.”
CMHA tried to soften the blow and smooth the process by hiring consultant Rosetta Brown of R.H. Brown to handle the relocation. Brown set up an office on-site, conducted interviews with residents and held a housing fair to help them find a new place to live. She arranged visits to other sites, and once they picked their spots, Brown arranged moving trucks and scheduled moving dates.
All moving-related expenses — including packing, unpacking, new security deposits, boxes, tape and the move to a new unit — are covered by CMHA. And if residents settled on a new location by April 15, the agency promised to give them an extra $500 stipend.
“Change is very challenging, particularly because these are seniors. It's hard for seniors to pick up and go to a new community,” Rosetta Brown said. “We try to be sensitive to that and try to make it as easy as possible, because they're going into communities where, in some cases, they don't know anyone and have to start over.”
In early March, Stephen Arthur was not looking forward to the massive disruption in his routine. He'd have to find a new walking route, a new place to get coffee, a new grocery store. Traveling to Ohio State and to his friend Susanna Robbins' house by COTA bus would take much longer.
“It's not what I wanna do,” Arthur said. “I'm gonna have a hard time getting transportation after the concerts if I go alone.”
In interviews with several other former Bollinger tenants, some of whom asked not to be named, each said he or she would stay put if given the option. They cited the COTA stop in front the building, the easy access to amenities and the sense of community at Bollinger as reasons for wanting to stay. They'll miss the fresh produce delivered every Thursday and the baked goods on Friday. A few said their tight-knit group functioned “like a family.”
Happy Fuller lived in Bollinger for five years. “I loved every part of it,” the 67-year-old said, adding he was a frequent customer of One Line Coffee, located just across High Street from the tower. “I shouldn't be forced from my apartment.”
In March, Woogerd of Corso Ventures hosted a buffet for Bollinger residents at the Short North Pint House. “We ended up buying them dinner and then afterwards bought them gift cards to Wal-Mart in case they needed any essentials while they were moving. We felt like that was the best way to help them,” Woogerd said. “I'm certainly going to miss the interaction I had with all those folks. ... The diversity of the Short North has always been one of its charms.”
“It's sad to see that element of the Short North's diversity being ripped away,” said Mick Evans, managing partner of One Line Coffee. While Evans acknowledged that his shop could potentially benefit from a hotel's rotating customer base, he also said there are “serious ethical issues to be explored.”
“CMHA has a net benefit from the sale, and they're able to [house] some additional people on the waiting list. That's a good thing,” he said. “But the nature of the situation requires that current tenants have to make a sacrifice, and the residents didn't get to choose to make that sacrifice. They were asked to forgo their community for the sake of 300 other people.
“I see this as a good thing for business, and affordable housing in general, but I see it as coming at the expense of the humanity of the 100 residents at Bollinger.”
On Stephen Arthur's first day at his new apartment in Lexington Park, just off Henderson Road on the Northwest Side, he made the 16-minute walk to a nearby Starbucks for coffee and The New York Times. On his way in, someone in the drive-through line paid for his coffee. He relished the warm welcome from his new community. But on the way back, while crossing the street, he tripped.
“I fell right on my face. I felt my nose being compressed. I was bleeding profusely,” he said. Onlookers came to his aid, providing washcloths to stem the blood flow. One stranger gave him a ride home afterward.
The fall slowed him down, but only for a week or so toward the end of March. “They told me to take it easy, but they don't understand. Easy and me, we don't get along,” he said.
Arthur's daily journey to coffee and knowledge requires fewer steps than his previous Short North route did, and sidewalks in this new community are few and far between, which has hampered his exercise routine a bit. “I don't care for walking on grass, dirt, mud and stones,” he said, and exercising at nearby Life Time Fitness just isn't the same.
Still, Arthur isn't one to complain. A trip and fall is counterbalanced by kindness from his neighbors. Plus, he's too busy to sulk. There are boxes to unpack and vegetarian pasta to cook in his new, all-beige, two-bedroom apartment. When he needs a break from moving tasks, he listens to classical music. And he still plans to attend an Opera Columbus performance of “Carmen” in early May with Robbins. She worries about Arthur, especially after his fall in the street.
“I don't think he has as much interaction with people as he had [at Bollinger],” she said. “It's been very difficult for him. He's had trouble getting back into the routine. Yesterday he forgot some of the vegetables he needed and had a frozen dinner meal instead. It's gonna take him some time.”
CMHA officials use the term “choice mobility.” With a voucher, residents can go wherever they want. But for most Bollinger residents, what they wanted was to stay. They didn't have a choice. And yet, by the end of April, all but 10 or so former Bollinger residents will be situated in affordable housing of their choosing, and those relocations will allow CMHA to house more of the thousands waiting in the queue.
The Short North won't look drastically different without Bollinger. Renderings show modest improvements to the existing structure. When the hotel is completed, out-of-towners and infrequent visitors likely won't bat an eye. It'll probably fit right in with The Joseph hotel and the Short North's luxury apartments and condos — more so, in fact, than Bollinger did.
Bollinger was one of the last remnants of a now-bygone era of the Short North, and while no one pines for the days of police blotters littered with break-ins and assaults, the tower and its residents conveyed a sense of history and grit that's now missing, and citizens are left to wrestle with the implications of displacing low-income seniors who had front-row seats to a neighborhood transformation that eventually priced them out.