The following article was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and published on News5Cleveland.com under a content-sharing agreement.
A delegation from Washington, D.C. braved a muddy construction site on Columbus’ South side Monday. Organizers built an improvised entryway to Touchstone Field Place out of large sheets of plywood with topped with astroturf. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge made the visit to tout the Biden administration’s efforts to expand affordable housing.
The secretary, who previously represented a Cleveland-area congressional district, joined her former colleagues Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-OH, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, to tour the site — still skeletal with construction lights hung along exposed studs.
Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther served as emcee, and he emphasized that growth is the region’s biggest strength and its greatest challenge.
“We have a supply problem,” he explained. “Here in central Ohio demand continues to go up, supply remains flat. We weren’t bringing enough units to market before the pandemic.”
Ginther wants to double the number of housing units built each year at all price points, and he’s trying to nudge affluent nearby cities like Dublin, Worthington and Westerville to expand their affordable options as well.
Fudge says the administration’s housing plan can help.
In addition to putting $25 billion toward preserving and building new housing, the proposal would set aside $10 billion to assist cities with zoning changes. Both provisions are part of the 2023 federal budget proposal.
“Part of the problem we have with housing today,” Fudge explained, “is that no one wants it in their backyard. No matter where you live — nobody wants to in their backyard.”
“We cannot grow our communities,” she continued, “we cannot put people in place who need to live in communities if we don’t stop saying everything has to be a single-family home.”
She offered examples of other restrictive zoning policies like requiring builders use brick or concrete instead of wood or cement driveways instead of asphalt.
Beyond that, however, details for how exactly cities qualify for part of that funding were scant. Secretary Fudge seemed far more interested in offering carrots than sticks.
“What we’re suggesting to (local leaders) is take a look at it, have a conversation,” Fudge said. “And if you are willing to change some, we are willing to assist you in that change with resources that can be helpful to your community.”
The facility hosting the event will eventually offer 100 units of permanent supportive housing. The first phase of construction, already underway, will cover a little more than half of that, and the developer, Community Housing Network, plans to break ground on phase two next year. The model aims to help people facing chronic homelessness with 24/7 support services on-site provided by the YMCA.
But it’s hard to tell if Touchstone is an example of zoning changes spurring development or the city tucking away an affordable housing project on the outskirts of town.
On the one hand, the parcel where it’s being built was re-zoned from manufacturing to an apartment residential district in 2020 — a seeming poster child of the kind of changes Fudge is encouraging. And there are some decent amenities nearby. The Marion Franklin swimming pool and rec center are down the street, and a library is right across the way. Marion Franklin High School is within walking distance and Rep. Beatty raved about a nearby grill. Still, it’s not exactly a hot bed of NIMBY-ism.
The census tract where Touchstone Field Place sits is an opportunity zone. The most recent estimates from the Census Bureau put its poverty rate at 24.9% — six points higher than the city as a whole and 11 higher than the state. Although it’s part of a community, it sits on an arterial road just south of a highway and a commercial and industrial district.
Beatty takes a more favorable view of the placement, describing it as one of several projects that cast a broad net around the city.
“When I look at it, what we hear from the constituents, we had only been serving the inner city and in that area,” she said. “And here’s the thing, people with lower incomes, people of all races and ethnicities, now live everywhere.”
And for her part, Fudge take a positive view of the city’s efforts as well. Asked whether Columbus would qualify for some of the zoning change funding, she got straight to the point.