Driving Park-based foundation helps develop affordable homes in neighborhood

Mark Ferenchik
The Columbus Dispatch
Darnell Brewer never would have been able to buy his first home, on Miller Avenue in Columbus' Driving Park neighborhood, three years ago if it wasn't for the help of a local nonprofit group, the Gertrude Wood Community Foundation, and its partners. The 100-year-old home had sat vacant and needed a lot of repairs, including more than $100,000 of which was paid for by the city of Columbus.

When Darnell Brewer traveled down Miller Avenue more than three years ago and saw what would ultimately become the first home he would ever own, he knew there would be a lot of work ahead.

Brewer said he couldn't really see the house because the shrubbery in front of it was so overgrown. There were also no front steps, no windows and a hole in the roof.

"There was no furnace. I didn't have a kitchen," Brewer said.

Today, the 100-year-old house, fully renovated with sage green siding, stands out in the Driving Park neighborhood. Inside, Brewer has a Christmas tree in the corner, and model cars lining shelves in his living room and on his dining room table.

"Everything in the house is my character," Brewer said.

Gertrude Wood Community Foundation: Bringing new owners to Driving Park homes

Brewer's house is one of six on Miller Avenue that the Gertrude Wood Community Foundation developed since 2014 with its partners in the Driving Park area, part of a long-term mission to help bolster the community through several efforts, including adding affordable housing.

"The focus is one street at a time," said Mashelle Gladney, the housing director for the foundation, a faith- and community-based group based in Driving Park that is working to restore the neighborhood, including eliminating vacant and abandoned housing and creating more affordable housing.

"Community development has always been a love of mine, said Gladney, who has been a loan officer and worked for the Ohio Housing Finance Agency before coming to the foundation six years ago.

The foundation provides gap financing to buyers who otherwise wouldn't be able to purchase homes, she said.

The city provided $100,613 through the Gertrude Wood foundation to help rehabilitate the house Brewer would be buying, according to an email provided by the city's housing division.

Brewer said he also received a $5,000 federal American Dream Home grant and $17,000 from the city to help him buy his home three years ago for $115,000. 

"It was a long process. Definitely worth it," Brewer said.

Rebuilding Driving Park community through developing affordable housing

Gladney said the group's involvement developed out of a need for good, affordable housing in the neighborhood.

The Miller Avenue homes were a mix of four new homes and two rehabilitated houses. The foundation also renovated three homes on Ellsworth Avenue.

Between 2010 and 2018, the foundation acquired land bank properties on Miller and Ellsworth avenues for homes.

Over the next year or two, the foundation plans to build two homes and renovate two others, all on Miller Avenue.

Gladney said the foundation has reserved seven vacant lots with the city land bank; two of those will be used for the two new houses.

According to the city's code enforcement office, the Driving Park area had 162 vacant homes in 2018, rising to 180 in 2019, then falling to 163 in 2020 and 131 through mid-December.

Meanwhile, the number of vacant homes in fair condition dropped from 144 in 2020 to 73 so far this year, and the homes in good condition rose from nine in 2020 to 52 in 2021.

And the number of vacant homes in poor condition dropped from 21 in 2018 to six so far this year.

Columbus' affordable-housing crisis is evident in the Driving Park neighborhood where there is a mix of renovated housing next to houses that need repairs. The Gertrude Wood Community Foundation is working with the city and other partners to restore the neighborhood, by eliminating vacant and abandoned housing to creating more affordable housing.

Heather Truesdell, who leads the code enforcement office, said poor condition means anything from problems in structural integrity to windows and doors missing and other major violations.

Fair condition includes such things as hanging gutters to doors and windows that are boarded up. Good means just one or two violations, with the house clearly boarded up and secure.

"Overall, vacant structures are something that the community is concerned with," Truesdell said.

"There are more properties in the good category than in the past," she said, although she said there's no clear explanation as to why.

John Turner, the administrator for the city's land bank, said there have always been pockets of Driving Park that have been stable, with a good number of homeowners.

The Buckeye Community Hope Foundation purchased 45 properties in 2016 from the land bank to redevelop into lease-to-own homes.

Gertrude Wood Community Foundation: Rooted in Driving Park

Rita Parise, the city's housing administrator, said the city has worked with the Gertrude Wood foundation for about five years.

"It's a very small organization. You're not going to see 50 houses from them in one year," Parise said.

Parise provided information that showed the city has invested $781,018 since 2015 for housing development in the Driving Park area through the Gertrude Wood foundation: seven homes on Miller Avenue and three on nearby Ellsworth Avenue to the east. That money goes toward construction costs associated with the renovation of the structures as well as financial assistance to homebuyers.

"They are clearly rooted in the community," Parise said. "The church they are affiliated with is in Driving Park. They're working with the folks in the community to provide opportunities for home ownership."

The group was founded in 2005 by A. Wilson Wood, who was senior pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Driving Park. Originally called Bethany Community Development Corp., the group was renamed after Wood's wife, Gertrude Wood, who was an operating room nurse at Riverside Methodist Hospital for 23 years and 

Erin Prosser, the city's assistant director of housing strategies, said Columbus officials are working on housing strategies for 2022, including preserving and creating more affordable housing in neighborhoods such as Driving Park, where home prices and rents like elsewhere continue to climb.

"It’s an area of the city I’m getting to know," said Prosser, who was director of community development at Campus Partners, the nonprofit development arm of Ohio State University, before she was appointed to the city position in May.

"Part of preserving affordability is protecting existing homeowners," she said. That will take a wide range of strategies that haven't been developed yet, she said.

Many older homeowners are worried that rising property taxes could force them to sell. Prosser said. "That's an issue for our state government," she said. "There's limited ability to impact that at a city level."

The city of Columbus provided more than $100,000 through the Gertrude Wood foundation to help rehabilitate the 100-year-old house that Darnell Brewer bought on Miller Avenue in the Driving Park neighborhood three years ago. Brewer also received a federal American Dream Home grant and financial assistance from the city to help buy the $115,000 home. He's since filled it with small touches such as model cars and barn doors between his dining and first-floor bedroom that capture his personality, he said.

Brewer, who said he grew up on nearby Bulen Avenue, said his part of the neighborhood still faces challenges.

"We still have a couple of landlords that have not taken care of their property," he said. "We've dealt with a lot of speeding up and down the street. The curbs starting to decay. Beautification would look really, really nice."

Brewer said he'd like to see the corner store at Miller and Livingston avenues become a restaurant or coffee shop some day.

Before he bought his house, he said, his stretch of Miller Avenue was dotted with vacant houses.

"Since I moved here, it's gotten 70% better," Brewer said. "The city needs to come in and help owners out. We can't do it by ourselves."

But Brewer remains happy with the decision he made.

"It kind of worked out pretty good in the end," Brewer said.

This story is part of the Dispatch's Mobile Newsroom initiative, which is currently focused on Driving Park and operating out of the  Driving Park branch library.