Note: This article is taken from the Columbus Bar Lawyers Quarterly  [Spring 2017] and reprinted with permission of the Columbus Bar Association.

Author: Amy Klaben 
Column from: Columbus Bar Lawyers Quarterly  Page 24,  

The Need

The Columbus Metro region is growing at a phenomenal rate. When the 2050 plan was rolled out a few years ago, the prediction was that our region would grow by 500,000 people by 2050; and now we should reach that number by 2029.

With a growing region comes a demand for more housing. From 2000 to 2010, rents rose faster than income and new housing that is being built is mainly high-end. The result: low-income renters have a difficult time finding affordable homes in central Ohio. To afford an average market rate, two-bedroom apartment at $811 per month, a worker would need to earn $32,440 annually. This is more than double the income a single worker can earn working full time on a minimum wage of $8.10/hour, or $16,848/year. Many jobs in our region pay $10 to $15 per hour, which is not nearly enough to afford a market rate apartment.

This results in people paying too much for housing. Households that cannot find a place to live where they pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent and utilities are considered cost-burdened. In Franklin County, about 89,600 low income renters are cost-burdened. Of those, 47,900 pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing. This means that they must make tough choices, like whether to pay rent to have a roof over their heads, buy food, obtain health care, pay for transportation or fill other needs. To put this in perspective, the people we rely on everyday – those who work in retail, banks, law firms, grocery stores, etc. – are in this income range and suffer the multiple consequences of being cost-burdened.

To help lower income households access safe, decent housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development created the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program (fka Section 8). Nationally, about one in four households eligible for this assistance receive it. Locally, there are 17,000 Central Ohioans on the HCV application list. Landlords are not required to accept HCVs as payment for rent, which is a form of discrimination that is still legal. Because landlords are not required to accept HCVs, a majority of HCVs are found in a limited number of central city Columbus zip codes.

In 2015, Columbus ranked the second most economically segregated metro area in the U.S. Per the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at OSU, “economic and racial residential segregation has persisted throughout the decades in Franklin County, particularly for African Americans.” Kirwan’s “opportunity analysis” of neighborhood conditions, which measures access to good schools, employment, transit and other indicators of opportunity, reveals alarming disparities: “while one in two Whites and seven in 10 Asians live in areas of high opportunity, only three in 10 Hispanics or Latinos and less than one in 5 African Americans live in areas of high opportunity.”

A discussion of the need for affordable and workforce housing cannot be separated from a discussion of educational opportunities and poverty in central Ohio. Twenty­five percent of children in central Ohio live in poverty, with most living in high poverty neighborhoods. A recent study in Cleveland found children living in neglected houses and neighborhoods had “estimated literacy scores 15 percent lower than those living in the best housing conditions.”

The Solution

A safe, decent, and affordable home is critical to economic success and is a stable foundation on which families thrive. Studies show that communities are more prosperous and resilient when opportunity is broadly extended. When low-income children live in safe neighborhoods and attend good schools, they are much more likely to go to college, get a better, higher paying job, delay having children and avoid engaging in activities that can land them in prison. Central Ohio’s future economic success depends upon families living in neighborhoods with a high-quality mix of educational, environmental, social, economic and health-related opportunities to provide environments that empower household independence, opportunity, mobility and wellness. This is the way to end poverty while at the same time ensuring that our economy continues to grow.

In addition, studies show that businesses perform better when employees can find affordable living options near their jobs. Short commutes allow employers more choices of employees, and happier employees with less stress have more time with their families.

The most effective strategy for lifting families out of poverty is to enable them to move to a completely new neighborhood away from their past lives in areas of concentrated poverty. This strategy stems from a plethora of research over the past 50 years. According to Alex Polikoff, one of the attorneys who filed a lawsuit in Chicago in 1966 to create mixed income housing opportunities, “We know so much about the harm of young kids growing up in severely distressed neighborhoods. If we have a way to enable kids to escape to better life opportunities, it's immoral not to do that.”

We can create communities where everyone can succeed through various policy changes. Universal housing vouchers for lower income households would ensure that everyone can obtain housing. Inclusionary housing programs can help alleviate the concentration of poverty in neighborhoods and schools. For example, Montgomery County, Maryland’s long term inclusionary zoning policy requires many housing developers to set aside 12 to 15 percent of homes for affordable housing resulting in affordable housing being scattered throughout the affluent county.

Changes to zoning, building and land-use laws and tax incentives can be used to incentivize developers to create mixed-income communities. The future of our community depends on it.

How is Central Ohio to Addressing These Issues

There are many place-based revitalization projects underway in high-poverty neighborhoods in central Ohio. Nonprofit organizations, corporations, foundations and the City of Columbus have been working together on comprehensive revitalization projects on the south side of Columbus (south of Nationwide Children’s Hospital), Weinland Park (south of OSU) and in King Lincoln (east of downtown). The City is currently focusing its revitalization efforts in Linden (northeast of downtown) and the Hilltop (west of downtown). The developer of an East Franklinton (west of downtown) redevelopment project was recently offered an incentive by the City to include affordable housing in its development. These projects include demolition, renovation, and new construction with federal low-income housing tax credits if they receive these awards. Coordinated social service programs are also provided in some areas.

The goal for revitalization and housing development must be the creation of income-integrated neighborhoods so families can remain and move up the economic ladder. To do this, all area municipalities must start using tools, such as requiring the inclusion of affordable homes and creation of land trusts. These tools would ensure that some housing in a neighborhood that is being created or revitalized is affordable to people at varying income levels. Currently, as neighborhoods improve, rent increases and pushes many existing tenants out of the area. Land trusts and inclusionary zoning are used in many cities across the country, but not in central Ohio.

Along with place-based solutions to poverty, there are also people-based solutions. Many cities and states have “source of income” laws that ban landlords from discriminating against renters who get help covering their rent from the government. Central Ohio municipalities do not have this type of ban so most landlords in high-opportunity neighborhoods do not accept residents who participate in the HCV program. This type of law would provide lower-income households the choice of where to live and to be able to live near employment centers.

There has not been a far reaching lawsuit in central Ohio challenging zoning and fair housing laws. This type of suit could be similar to that in Houston, Texas. The “U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. (TDHCA v. ICP) was a major victory for fair housing—perhaps the greatest since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The Justices affirmed the use of “disparate impact” claims to challenge housing policies. These are cases in which a defendant is sued for actions that negatively affect people of color and others protected under the Fair Housing Act without requiring a plaintiff to show a defendant’s discriminatory intent.” Although the lower court ultimately dismissed the case, use of disparate impact can now be used in these cases.

Central Ohio is a vibrant, rapidly growing community. To prevent litigation, now is the time for all municipalities throughout the region to lay the foundation for a future where everyone can succeed. We need to create mixed-income neighborhoods with homes that children can afford when they grow up, where seniors can live on fixed incomes and where workers of all incomes can thrive.

Thank you to Rachel Garshick Kleit, PhD, The Ohio State University, for her contributions to this article.

Columbus Bar Lawyers Quarterly  Page 24