A pilot program is taking families out of high-poverty areas and helping them relocate in better neighborhoods. Could Move to Prosper play a crucial role in tackling Central Ohio's affordable housing crisis?

The smell would always hit her first.

Kateresa Lee tried to ignore the musty, dank odor inside of her Reynoldsburg apartment, just like she tried to ignore the seedy characters engaging in handshake deals outside of her unit. She'd keep her head down, avoid eye contact and enter through the back door for the safety of her young daughter, Mackenzie.

But arriving home after working a full-time job at the courthouse Downtown, she never got used to the smell. White and black mold spots covered the wall, which had begun to separate from the living room window. The bathroom floor was stained black. Leaks were constant.

And it wasn't just the mold. Lee couldn't store anything in the kitchen cabinets mounted to the wall; they jiggled precariously any time she touched them, so instead she piled her dishes and glassware on the counter. The ceiling fan was similarly too unstable to use.

But she was paying $650 a month — still a good chunk of her paycheck, but at least she could consistently make rent. It was better than having to go back to the shelter.

It's not the life Lee expected as a shy, quiet kid growing up in southeast Columbus. During her high school years at Eastmoor Academy, she morphed into a social butterfly, playing softball and tennis and joining the drill team and student council. She was a student helper in the multiple disabilities classroom.

After graduating, Lee took classes at Columbus State, and at 19 she met her future husband while working at a cellphone store. They married and were expecting their first child. Then he left Lee while she was three months pregnant. “I came home from work one day and he was gone. The closets were cleared out,” she said. “I felt like my whole world came crashing down.”

Lee's high school sweetheart started coming around after her husband left, helping with Mackenzie. Things got serious, but over time he grew angry, and eventually she said he became physically abusive. Lee moved out and stayed at the YWCA for a couple of weeks, then landed at an apartment in the Independence Village East subdivision in Reynoldsburg. Then came the leaky roof, the slimy carpet, the stove she was too afraid to use for fear of smelling gas again...

But she stayed. “When you're just so down to the point where you have nothing, no one, and that is all that is offered to you, you take it. You deal with it,” Lee said. “People have said, ‘You could have put your rent in escrow. You could have sued. You could have fought this.' No. When you're at a point in life where you're just so down, you're not thinking about things like that. You're thinking about survival. You're living from paycheck to paycheck. … I knew the whole time that I deserved better. It was just a matter of, how am I going to get out of this? Who's going to help me get out of this? Who will want to help me get out of this? And then here comes Move to Prosper.”

Move to Prosper is led by Amy Klaben, who stepped down from nonprofit housing developer Homeport in 2015 after serving as its president/CEO for 15 years. Last year Move to Prosper, which is an initiative of Ohio State University and community partners, relocated 10 female-headed households, including Lee, from what it calls “low-opportunity neighborhoods” into “high-opportunity neighborhoods.” Move to Prosper provides each family with $400 per month in rental assistance, along with life coaching and career services, for three years.

I first met Lee on Dec. 19 of last year, when she had been in her new Rosebrook Village apartment less than three weeks. Even though the unit was smaller and located only a few miles from her old place (still in Reynoldsburg, in fact), Lee teared up while describing how her life had already been transformed.

“Right now, it just feels like a weight is off my shoulders. I don't have to worry about my house falling apart while I'm in it,” she said. “It's like a new start — an end to all of my problems. It's a new start for education for my daughter. A new start for us being stable so I can get myself together and try to make a difference in my life.”

Lee and the other nine families currently in Move to Prosper's pilot program, which Klaben and others hope to expand to a demonstration project of 100 families, represent a forgotten segment of the population affected by Central Ohio's affordable housing crisis. “These families are working really hard in these low-wage jobs with little or no support,” Klaben said. “We don't think about them in the community, but it's a lot of people, and it's a lot of children.”

According to Roberta Garber, executive director of the Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio, 54,000 households in Franklin County are paying more than half of their income for housing. “That's the group with the greatest housing needs and challenges,” Garber said. “Everyone's talking about affordable housing. It's very exciting that this is a top issue and it's being discussed a lot. But we can't forget about who those 54,000 households really are.”

While some of those 54,000 may qualify for federal rental support, like a Section 8 housing choice voucher, Garber said 20,000 households in Central Ohio zip codes are currently on the application waiting list for vouchers. And even for the households that manage to get a voucher, landlords in Ohio are allowed to discriminate based on income, meaning they don't have to take Section 8 tenants.

“Federal government support, like Section 8, only reaches 25 percent of those in need,” Klaben said. “Although some people believe you should have the right to a safe, decent, affordable home, the government hasn't supported that in terms of allocation of funding.”

“A lot of these families are not even in consideration for a lot of the resources that are out there. It's a constant and relentless struggle,” said Jason Reece, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State and the project evaluator for Move to Prosper. “It's only 10 families that we're really leaning into and studying, but I think they are a reflection of what tens of thousands of families are probably dealing with here in Central Ohio.”

“Affordable housing” has increasingly become a buzz term in Columbus, which is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and also the second-most economically segregated city, according to recent studies. Rents are rising at twice the pace of income. And while affordable units are currently being built, construction can't keep up with the need; even if it could, the definition of “affordable” is constantly changing. Kateresa Lee cannot afford what is often described as affordable housing.

If a program like Move to Prosper is replicable and scale-able, could it play a key role in helping forgotten families across the region? And does the city even want it to?

II.

“It all started with the children,” Klaben said.

At the end of 2015, soon after Klaben announced she'd be stepping down from Homeport, commercial realtor Steve Heiser had a conversation with Klaben about kids living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, and what to do about it. The two were familiar with research by Harvard University's Raj Chetty, which shows that for every year a child under 13 spends in a low-poverty/high-opportunity area, the child's chances of life success increase dramatically, with long-term benefits like higher future earnings, better health outcomes and more.

“The experiences with Homeport helped me see that we clearly need a lot more affordable housing,” Klaben said. “But after spending a lot of time reading and researching after I left, and thinking in a more global perspective, what I've seen in the research and the writing is that we have to build mixed-income communities. As long as you concentrate the wealthy in one area and people in poverty in another, you can't solve the problems of our community.”

Klaben and Heiser decided to continue the conversation with real estate developer Michael Kelley, a partner with the Kelley Companies (and a Homeport board member), and Bill Riat, a partner with local developer Casto. Both developers signed on to help, agreeing to free up units at some of their properties and to discount the rent $100 per month for participating families.

Klaben got to work, approaching potential private donors, organizations and businesses that could help reduce the rent further, eventually raising enough money to begin the initiative and offset the rent by a total of $400 per month for 10 families. The three-year budget is $536,000, and Klaben recently said the initiative is “pretty close” to raising the full amount. (Move to Prosper is not a 501(c)(3); Ohio State is its fiscal agent.)

“Amy really pushed this forward,” Kelley said. “Anyone can come up with an idea, but Amy executed it. She's a great convener of people.”

Klaben is quick with a smile and careful with her words. In two lengthy interviews a year apart, she would often pause and say, “Let's see…,” rather than rush to use less-than-perfect terminology. Klaben fuses her warm, empathic personality with an intensely focused, practical approach to Move to Prosper and to the affordable housing crisis as a whole.

Early on, Klaben met weekly with Rachel Kleit, an associate dean at Ohio State and the former head of OSU's City and Regional Planning department. Kleit, who's now the chair of Move to Prosper's Steering Committee, described Klaben as highly organized and persistent. “She's willing to ask again and again,” she said.

Relocation and temporary rental assistance is only part of the Move to Prosper vision. In focus groups, women said they'd need to plan for the fact that rental support would end in three years. “They wanted financial coaching,” Klaben said. “They've asked for coaching support and someone to hold them accountable.”

Klaben, Kleit and Lisa Durham at OSU's College of Social Work began working with community partners like Jewish Family Services, Catholic Social Services and others to develop a “coaching toolbox.” After much discussion and multiple focus groups, they settled on four pillars: housing, finances, education/career and health.

In March of 2018, Move to Prosper held a briefing for nonprofits at the Columbus Foundation, and those organizations spread the word about the program. Pretty soon, Klaben had more than 300 applications for the pilot program, which had certain eligibility restrictions. Applicants had to be single mothers with one to three children 13 and under, and at least one child had to be school-aged to track educational outcomes. The initiative also set income requirements and required a car to get to and from work. (Some of the restrictions may be revised for the 100-family demonstration project.)

Of the 10 families chosen, all the women have at least some college education. Kateresa Lee, for instance, entered the program with credits from Columbus State and Franklin University. More than half of the women had in excess of $50,000 of debt, mostly due to student loans. Household incomes range from $23,000 to $37,500, and no women were using a housing voucher. Participants' credit scores were all below 580.

Coaching for the 10 families began in June of last year, and in July, August and September the participants relocated to apartments owned by Casto or the Kelley-Weiler Group's Oakwood Management Company. (One family dropped out of the program prematurely; Lee filled the 10th spot in December.)

Interim lead coach Chris Blakely, a member of the Steering Committee from Nationwide Financial, works with four other coaches to provide one-on-one life-coaching sessions for each woman, who sets her own goals under each pillar. Move to Prosper also hosts educational programs once a month on a topic that relates to the four pillars. A doctor spoke about stress management; a representative from Jewish Family Services provided instruction on building a resume and job hunting.

In February, Move to Prosper released an interim evaluation, the Prosperity Report, with preliminary findings. While evaluator Jason Reece saw consistently good results — positive experiences with coaching, neighborhood satisfaction, financial improvement, as well as positive experiences from the landlords' perspective — he was shocked to hear about the horrid conditions of the participants' previous housing, and the way clean, safe housing had led to health improvements in the children in such a short period of time.

“The kids are not having respiratory issues, which means they're in school more. They're not having asthma attacks and having to go to the ER. I thought maybe that would happen to one family, but I was not expecting that we'd have multiple families,” Reece said. “And then just the mental health benefits. One of the things that really surprised me was how the participants would describe how not being under the constant weight of chronic stress, they could actually think. They had the space to plan and do things that most of us take for granted.”

III.

When it comes to addressing economic segregation and affordable housing, there are two basic approaches: place-based and people-based strategies. In general, Columbus, like many other cities, has taken a place-based approach, focusing on the revitalization of neighborhoods like the South Side and the Near East Side. Move to Prosper, in contrast, is a people-based approach: Move struggling families out of struggling neighborhoods and put them in better neighborhoods.

The 10 families in Move to Prosper's pilot program are nearly all located outside I-270, which has opened the door for critics who say the initiative is merely another way to take people out of the city and into the suburbs, leaving low-opportunity neighborhoods no better off, while also removing kids from Columbus City Schools and placing them in a suburban district.

In light of those criticisms, city officials haven't exactly welcomed Move to Prosper with open arms. City Council's Shayla Favor, chair of the Housing Committee, for instance, declined an interview request about Move to Prosper (her spokesperson noted that Favor would “welcome the opportunity to talk at a later date about what the city is doing with affordable housing”). Mayor Andrew Ginther's office also did not provide a comment.

“I do think there are some city officials that are supportive, but it's a tough issue for them to publicly get behind,” Michael Kelley said. “This was always a way for us to try to get around some of the difficulties associated with city government, and that includes not just funding, but the zoning. One of the reasons why there's not many affordable housing units in suburbs like Dublin and Hilliard and New Albany is exclusionary zoning. And that's going to be very difficult to change. … This was a way where, today, we could start moving people into some units in those neighborhoods.”

Kelley also argues that the affordable housing crisis is a battle that should be fought on multiple fronts. “The city is very involved in uplifting neighborhoods. That's one front,” he said. “But Move to Prosper is taking it the reverse way. It's getting lower-income people into the higher-income neighborhoods, and if we can fight it on both levels, then I think we're more likely to achieve a more integrated community, which is ultimately better for everyone. And to the extent that we stay segregated, I think it's bad for everyone.”

Garber at the Affordable Housing Alliance, which she described as the region's “moral compass” when it comes to housing, similarly sees Move to Prosper as one piece of a larger puzzle. “Our strategy is that there should be affordable housing opportunities throughout Franklin County, including in suburban areas,” she said.

“We're trying to be an important tool in our community toolbox,” Klaben said. “When you hear the mayor of Columbus talk about the $50 million [in the $1 billion bond package passed by voters on May 7], it's to create affordable housing opportunities for mixed-income housing in the region. And if you want to talk about mixed-income neighborhoods, that's what Move to Prosper is. So one would think that Move to Prosper is totally in line with the city of Columbus' goals of mixed-income neighborhoods in the region.”

Reece noted that, although the pilot program relocated families into suburban communities, it doesn't always have to be that way. “There are a lot of opportunity-rich neighborhoods here in the Columbus area,” he said. “[Move to Prosper] has been constrained, to some degree, by where they have rental company partners.”

Reece also said some of the criticisms are due to misconceptions. Of the 300-plus Move to Prosper applicants, most were not from neighborhoods that are seeing revitalization. “They came from parts of the city of Columbus, but generally the older suburbs, so a lot of folks from the Morse/161 area, a lot of folks from the southeast portion of the city, out near 270,” he said. “We're not necessarily seeing people coming from the Near East Side or the South Side. These are folks coming from neighborhoods that are still actively in a state of decline.”

The majority of the kids in the pilot program also came from suburban school districts and charter schools, not Columbus City Schools. In Kateresa Lee's move from one part of Reynoldsburg to another, for instance, her daughter transferred from Groveport Madison Schools to Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools.

Regardless of city buy-in, the looming question regarding Move to Prosper's future is funding. To truly make a difference on a larger scale in Central Ohio, the initiative will have to raise enough money for a three-year, 100-family demonstration project, which carries a price tag of nearly $6 million, according to Klaben.

“The demonstration project is so important because we need to show that in our community it could work,” Klaben said. “We have other landlords that want to participate. We just need the money.”

IV.

Kateresa Lee's two-bedroom unit in Rosebrook Village has an almost identical layout to her previous apartment. The living room couch is in the same spot as before, but now she's not scared to let it touch the wall. The carpet doesn't squish underfoot. Artwork hangs on the walls.

Seated at the dining table in her eat-in kitchen one evening in early May, Lee takes pleasure in the simple things: storing dishes in her kitchen cabinets, using the ceiling fan without fear, heating bratwursts in the oven without opening windows in case of a gas leak. Next to the table is a work desk with a laptop where Lee does her online coursework in the evenings; she's taking five classes at Franklin University right now — the maximum allowed — in addition to her job at the courthouse.

Underneath the laptop is an empty diploma case from Franklin University that she recently found at a thrift store. “I'm like, ‘This is a sign from God that I need to keep on pushing,'” said Lee, who hopes to have an associate's degree in two more semesters, and a bachelor's in three. “I keep this here for motivation.”

Six-year-old Mackenzie, who's finishing kindergarten, has her own small desk next to the table. She scribbles on a pad of paper while we talk, and at one point she tears off a perforated sheet and hands it to her mother. “I love my mom. She is so nice to me,” it reads.

“You know how to write sentences?!” Lee exclaims. “Are you serious? You just did this?”

Needless to say, school is going well for Mackenzie. Though she's one of the few African Americans in her class, Lee said Mackenzie doesn't seem to mind. And at Rosebrook Village, they both have felt welcomed and accepted. “People come out of their house and say, ‘Good morning! How are you?' Do you know how foreign that was to me?” said Lee, who didn't allow Mackenzie to play outside at the old place. Now Mackenzie's best friend lives in the same apartment complex — the daughter of another woman in the Move to Prosper pilot.

Lee is also a notary, and with the help of a Move to Prosper mentor, she's revamping her business, Mobile Notary of Central Ohio. Soon she'll have a new website and ads running on the radio. With a forthcoming college degree, a full-time job and her own business on the side, Lee hopes to save enough money so that one day she can stop renting and own a home.

Pataskala isn't far from Rosebrook Village. Sometimes Lee and Mackenzie drive through the nearby town, admiring the quiet streets and the big, beautiful houses while daydreaming about a future that no longer seems impossible.