As suburban rents and home prices continue to increase, many people find themselves being squeezed financially. One key factor is that both average monthly rents and home prices have boomed, but wage growth hasn’t kept pace.
The suburbs have become a target of affordable housing efforts.
With the region’s rising housing costs straining people everywhere, developers, advocates and some city leaders are increasingly calling attention to the need for affordable housing to be built in places where it historically hasn’t been.
“We’re just starting to reach out into the suburbs more,” said Bruce Luecke, president and CEO of Homeport, which broke ground on a 30-unit Reynoldsburg project in Ohio in December.
The nonprofit affordable housing builder is also finalizing a 24-unit project in Grove City and received approval on a rezoning request last month to add 140 units in Whitehall.
It’s a statewide trend, with the largest share — 42.4 percent — of affordable housing tax credits issued in Ohio between the 2016 and 2018 fiscal years going to projects that were classified as suburban.
There are many reasons for this, affordable housing and other experts say. One key factor is that both average monthly rents and home prices have boomed as central Ohio grows, but wage growth hasn’t kept pace.
Businesses also want to be located in close proximity to where workers live, because it makes it easier to attract and retain them.
That is especially true for people in the low-paying jobs that are widespread across Ohio, experts say. Only two of the 10 most common jobs in Ohio — registered nurses and customer-service representatives — pay enough for a worker to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in the state, according a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.
“The farther they have to travel, the harder it is for them to get to daycare or if they get a flat tire one day, it can really derail things,” Columbus 2020 President Kenny McDonald said.
With more suburbs pursuing mixed-use, urbanesque developments that bring with them service-sector jobs — such as Dublin’s Bridge Park District and Whitehall’s Norton Crossing — affordable communities in these areas are crucial for long-term success, said Joe McCabe, vice president of development for Woda Cooper, a national affordable housing developer based in Columbus.
“What will happen to the sustainability of those developments if new restaurants grow and expand and can’t find people to be the bartender, the waiter, even the restaurant manager?” McCabe said.
Whitehall understands this balance, said Zach Woodruff, the city’s development director.
Woodruff said Whitehall plans to add about 1,500 additional housing units by 2050, with the goal of ensuring 25 percent are considered affordable or workforce housing. By then, central Ohio’s population is expected to increase by 3 million.
Affordable housing communities are typically built for households making less than 60 percent of the area’s annual median income. In Columbus, that threshold is $32,100 for one person, $36,720 for two, $41,280 for three and $45,840 for four. Workforce housing targets households making 60 to 120 percent of the area median income.
“We want to have the housing for the person who buys a $4 coffee and the person making that coffee,” Woodruff said. “It’s as much a moral issue as it is about economic development.”
Tracy Cannady, 51, lives in Reynoldsburg in one of the suburban affordable housing units that already exist. Still, her monthly rent has increased more than $50 over the last several years to $711 and it’s stretching her increasingly thin, she said, as she juggles working full-time and taking care of her three grandchildren.
Cannady, who is trying to save to buy a house, said she can’t find a cheaper three-bedroom apartment. She wants to stay in the suburbs so her grandchildren can go to school there. But she’d like to get closer to a bus line to avoid having to walk a mile to catch a bus if her car breaks down, something she’s had to do before.
Affordable housing needs to be in more places, she said, not just near the urban core and not just on the edges of suburbs where “nobody has to look at it.”
In order for there to be more affordable housing projects, the developments need tax credits or other financial assistance to make them work financially, said Bobbie Garber, executive director of Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio.
Affordable housing projects in the suburbs also have very specific challenges such as higher land acquisition costs, restrictive zoning laws, and hesitancy from residents to support the developments, said Kelan Craig, the Ohio Housing Finance Agency’s director of planning, preservation and development.
That’s not to say affordable housing complexes haven’t been built in the suburbs in previous decades. Grove City Mayor Ike Stage noted that Regency Arms, a 406-unit affordable apartment complex in the southwest suburb, was built in 1966.
Having all types of housing available — from affordable apartments to market-rate apartments to single-family homes — long has been important to Grove City’s growth, Stage said. Dollar Shave Club’s decision to locate its logistics facility in Grove City in 2016 was due, in part, to the city’s presence of affordable housing for the company’s workers, Stage said.
“I think some other communities are just catching up and having to embrace affordable housing and getting some push-back,” Stage said. “But we’ve evolved with it.”
Homeport’s Luecke complimented cities such as Grove City, Whitehall and Reynoldsburg for encouraging affordable housing. But, he said, there isn’t a broad agreement or plan among central Ohio communities to take these steps.
A regional plan would be a good solution, Luecke said, but until then progress will likely be made on a suburb-to-suburb basis.
How progress gets made isn’t Cannady’s concern. She just continues trying to get ahead in a region where that’s getting harder by the day.
When her car broke down recently and her 10-year-old granddaughter had to go to the doctor and then the dentist, almost two-thirds of the money Cannady had put away to try and buy a house to leave behind the problem of rising rents was gone.
“It’s like a snowball effect,” she said.
For information on building affordable housing using modular construction in your area, contact Bill Cavanaugh, V.P. of USModularInc.