A new ‘Columbus Way’ needed to fix growing affordable housing crisis

The public-private partnership that has helped shape the city — for better or worse — requires a drastic reshuffling in order to make housing affordable to all residents

Brian Williams
Real estate agent Jake Bluvstein prepares to host guests during an open house on the East side of Columbus in April of 2021.

Big shots in this town share self-satisfied smiles and boast about “The Columbus Way” of public-private partnership. But it’s really nothing unique. Poohbahs across the land all too often respond to challenges with large, top-down projects that grant bragging rights to public officials and profits to the private sector.

What we really need is a strategy in which the public sector partners with the people of neglected, disinvested neighborhoods. The city should be buying up plenty of real estate beyond what it already has in the land bank. Then it should ensure affordable housing on much of that land and sell much of it — at cost, or even lower — to entrepreneurs and other people already living in those challenged communities.

Wait a minute, you cry. Government shouldn’t be competing with and undercutting private-sector developers. But there are other ways of looking at this:

  • Affordable housing actually is a form of public infrastructure. In a way, it’s a subsidy to businesses that need reliable employees at a time when — and in a place where — there is a lack of affordable housing accessible to job centers. The Central Ohio economy needs a reliable supply of conveniently housed workers, just as it needs roads and sewers.
  • The public sector today utterly fails the challenge of providing affordable housing to those who need it most. This is not necessarily to say developers are by nature greedy and rapacious. There are many factors inflating the cost of construction: property values jazzed-up by private-equity firms; increased labor costs; increased cost of building materials; insane zoning codes that require arbitrary numbers of parking spaces.

Let’s look first at rising property values. In an analysis of 40 U.S. metropolitan areas, The Washington Post reported in February that investors — typically out-of-state corporations or wealthy individuals — bought more than 14 percent of available residential properties. That’s alarming enough, but the percentages doubled in zip codes with primarily Black residents.

In Linden, the 43211 zip code, 36 percent of residential properties were bought by investors. In the Hilltop and other parts of the 43223 zip code, it was 31 percent. The Far West Side was 29 percent. In much of the South and East sides, the percentage ranged from 24 to 29.

In many Cleveland zip codes, outside investors bought 50, 60, and even 70 percent of available residential properties in distressed and minority neighborhoods.

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We don’t need investigative reporters to discern that the buyers are not motivated by the best interests of neighborhood residents or municipal governments. As has been abundantly clear in the past few decades of private-equity and hedge-fund purchases of businesses and industrial property (and newspapers), those who claim to be “investing” are actually “harvesting.” They reap whatever is of short-term value, sell it off, pocket the proceeds and leave the hull when there’s nothing left.

It may be slightly different with housing purchases. The “investors” know the properties in their target areas tend to be undervalued, so they can buy cheap and then simply flip the property quickly at significant profit. And every building that resells raises the cost of the next house some local resident wants to buy.

What if the city started buying these properties to keep them out of the hands of speculators and make them available — at cost, or less — to residents who already live in these disinvested neighborhoods and want to become homeowners? Really, it’s just taking the existing Columbus and Franklin County land-bank programs a step further and making them more proactive in helping to protect the city from speculators. 

Kansas City has a program that relies on Missouri’s Abandoned Housing Act, which allows nonprofit community organizations to select people — subject to neighborhood approval — to rehab long-vacant houses that are tax-delinquent and have code violations. The organization can then go to court to assume ownership of the property.

Campus Partners used a similar model several years ago with some scattered vacant lots and dilapidated homes it owned in Weinland Park. It put out a request for proposals from developers and rehabbers and put the selection of applicants in the hands of the Housing Committee of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association. Committee members rejected applications from development companies for each property and selected rehabbers and individual builders who planned to live in the properties on which they were bidding. 

This is not the one and only answer to the challenge of affordable housing. As the population of Central Ohio booms, large projects will need to be part of the solution. But so much of the current focus is on the big projects with major developers that get a lot of support from the city.

If Columbus really wants to stand out, it needs to devise a new “Columbus Way” — one that brings long-suffering residents of neglected neighborhoods into a partnership and lets them share in any new wealth created there. 

Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.