Fight over Bexley affordable housing build signals larger issues

The sometimes-contentious conversation surrounding the proposed Livingston Avenue development is indicative of the housing debate taking place throughout Columbus and its surrounding suburbs.
The site of the proposed Livingston Avenue affordable housing development in Bexley
The site of the proposed Livingston Avenue affordable housing development in BexleyAndy Downing

At a Bexley City Council rezoning meeting earlier this year, one resident spoke about purchasing a home when they first moved to the community decades ago – a reality they said was now out of reach for many newcomers to the East Side city.

“He was a working-class resident from a union job, and he wanted to preserve what he bought into,” Bexley mayor Ben Kessler said in March. “But that market doesn’t exist [in Bexley] anymore. A working class resident coming in – especially a sole earner – is not able to purchase real estate in the city or often even rent in the city right now because housing prices have become so inflated.”

According to data from Realtor.com, in March the medium home listing price in Bexley was $520,000 – up 12.1 percent from the same point last year. This continues a trend that has seen home values rise steeply in the city over the last decade, Kessler said.

As a means of countering these surging home prices, and in a push to increase the modest number of affordable housing options in the city, Kessler supports two projects proposed by the Community Builders. The nonprofit real estate organization currently has plans to construct a three-story, 18-unit building at the corner of Cassady and Columbus avenues in North Bexley (on the site of the Bexley Senior Center), and a three-story, 27-unit building on the O.R. Woodyard funeral home site located at East Livingston and Francis avenues in South Bexley.

But the response within Bexley has been mixed, with some residents pushing back on the projects, and in particular the Livingston Avenue development, which was the subject of a civil lawsuit filed in 2022 by Leah Turner, who owns property on Francis Avenue adjacent to the site of the proposed build. The litigation and subsequent legal decisions have caused delays and left the project in limbo, with Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Kim Brown holding that to allow a purely residential use inside of a commercial district such as the one that runs along that stretch of Livingston Avenue would violate Bexley zoning code. (Turner did not reply to multiple emails and messages requesting an interview.)

Kessler disagrees with the court ruling. And in the months since, Bexley City Council has engaged in debate on a rezoning ordinance that would reclassify the Livingston corridor from commercial to mixed-use commercial – a change Kessler said is necessary to clear up confusion about the city’s “conditional use language” and bring it into legal compliance.

As of late April, Bexley had forwarded a referendum for the zoning ordinance to the Board of Elections. If certified, the results of which Kessler said the city should know “within the next month or so,” the measure would appear on the ballot in the coming election. In an April statement, the city stated that the passage of an ordinance would not allow the Livingston project to go through as previously proposed, writing that the development would need to go through “an entire zoning review.” And if proposed as before, the statement continued, the project would still require a conditional use exception.

The sometimes-contentious conversation related to the Livingston Avenue development in Bexley is indicative of the larger housing debate taking place throughout Columbus and its surrounding suburbs.

In German Village, a proposed housing development by Pizzuti Companies has been subject to neighborhood protests. On Dublin Road near Hilliard in Northwest Columbus, residents have battled with RockRun Developer LLC over the company’s plans to build 220 units on a 14.7-acre site, the opposition group led by former local television news anchor Holly Hollingsworth. And further out, in Berkshire Township, neighbors rallied against a proposed housing development that would have seen the construction of 91 houses on 88 acres in Delaware County with a price point per home starting north of $550,000. Citing the potential burden of the development on traffic and schools, 76 percent of voters rejected a May 2023 ballot initiative that would have allowed the development to move forward.

This pushback has taken place amid a growing housing crisis that has seen Columbus housing and rental prices climb alongside an ongoing population boom – one likely to continue as developments such as the $20 billion Intel manufacturing operation introduce thousands of new jobs and residents to the region. In March, data compiled by the renter platform Zumper showed Columbus with a 17 percent rent increase from February 2023 to February 2024 – the fourth largest jump in the nation and trailing only New York City, Chicago and Syracuse, New York. And yet, Michael Wilkos, senior vice president of community impact for United Way, said recent moves have given him hope that at least Columbus leadership is taking the crisis seriously, pointing to the first phase of Zone In, a proposed update to the Columbus outdated zoning code, as just one example.

“It’s a very basic concept: A home is where a job goes at night. And if we’re going to continue to add large amounts of jobs, we need to continue to add housing alongside them. … And I think the zoning reform will have a significant impact on the city’s ability to get a lot more housing through the process a lot more quickly, as well as support a diversity of housing typology, which is really missing in the marketplace,” said Wilkos, who also spoke favorably of recent bond initiatives passed by Franklin County voters and targeted at the construction of affordable housing. “So, the City of Columbus is redoing its zoning code in a way I think is going to be transformational, and Columbus voters are increasing revenue to support affordable housing construction. … But the reality is that Columbus is only 45 percent of the metropolitan region. And much of that other 55 percent continues to work against housing in general, and affordable housing in particular, through more restrictive zoning codes or resident referendums and resident pushback against new housing.”

In Bexley, this resident pushback can most easily be witnessed in online social media forums such as the Bexley Buzz group on Facebook, where posts related to the proposed Livingston development tend to be dominated by oppositional voices who cite concerns with safety, traffic and parking, as well as the potential negative impact of the project on the home values of surrounding properties.

These same concerns were raised during an early community forum held about the development around 2021, according to Spencer Cahoon, a Bexley resident and one of the hosts of the “Unpacking Bexley” podcast, which produced a July 2023 episode centered on affordable housing in the city. And both Kessler and George Tabit, regional vice president of the Community Builders, expressed a willingness to work with community members to address issues raised related to the development.

“There were questions about what parking would look like and if it would be sufficient,” said Cahoon, who supports the development. “And then there was the traffic speed on Livingston, where we were seeing drag racing and cars running off [the road] into buildings, to where some people were concerned with putting families right on this corridor. … Then there was also the sort of more conventional NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) concerns in the background, where if you look at properties next to other large, multifamily units, the property values are lower compared to properties that are surrounded by other single-family residential units. And that’s a concern for people who have lived here for years and own a home, which can be a huge part of their equity and what they might plan to retire on. You could be someone who wants affordable housing but at the same time say, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to destroy my retirement to get it.’”

But Cahoon said other issues raised by some community members were based in unsubstantiated fears related to the lower socio-economic status of potential residents at the proposed development “and the ills in society they might bring with them,” including crime, vandalism and drugs. 

Kessler said he read similar comments posted in online forums, describing them as “abhorrent.” “I know an undercurrent of that can come into the [affordable housing] conversation,” said Kessler, adding that in surveys conducted by the city, Bexley residents have overwhelmingly responded in favor of developing more affordable housing. “Everybody has a right to concerns, and I think there can be a lot of valid ones. But at the base, I think there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what’s being proposed.”

Resident Tiasha Letostak, who offered public comment at a Bexley City Council meeting in support of the Livingston Avenue project, shared that Kessler approached her after she spoke and told her that her viewpoint was not in the minority, as she had anticipated going in. “A lot of the louder or more unsubstantiated opinions can get more publicity or attention,” said Letostak, who noted that the comments offered in public spaces such as city council meetings have historically been dominated by the voices of older, wealthier residents with both the time and means to attend. “And I think it’s helpful to have people in elected positions encouraging our perspective. Also, the fact that I knew a lot of people felt the same way I did. And maybe they couldn’t attend or speak, but I could speak on their behalf.”

Affordable housing can mean different things to different people, though experts typically define housing as affordable when it costs no more than 30 percent of a tenant’s income. In some circles, though, there can still exist a deep mistrust of the term, which can conjure images of poorly managed properties bereft of investment or upkeep that over time can devolve into blights on an area. “And I just don’t think that’s true anymore,” Wilkos said. “I think a vast majority of poorly maintained housing that you see anywhere in the city is going to be market-rate housing, with a market-rate owner who is just not maintaining the property. It’s not going to be under the management of an affordable housing provider that is either a government entity or a nonprofit.”

Tabit traced part of this evolution to what he termed the success of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which he said created a structure in which private investors have a significant financial stake in making sure a property is well-maintained and continues to operate as intended.

According to Wilkos, the larger affordable housing conversation would benefit if it were reframed through the lens of “housing affordability,” focused on the types of workers a community can support with its available housing. The average cook in the region makes $29,000 a year, Wilkos presented as one example, which would qualify that person for a 40 percent area median income affordable housing unit. 

“And those units just don’t exist in the marketplace,” he said. “And so, when we think about an entire community, we need to ask ourselves, why is it that I’m willing to leave my children in the care of someone who makes $14 an hour working at a daycare center? Why is it acceptable for me to leave my aging parents who need homemaker services with a person who makes $16 an hour? Or the person who cuts my hair or cleans my house. I’m willing to trust these people with my home, my children and my parents. But I don’t trust them enough to let them live in my community.”

Bexley leadership has taken steps to more explicitly subsidize at least one profession, however, piloting a residency incentive program that provides a $1,000 per month stipend to members of the Bexley Police Department who live within city limits, part of an initiative designed to compel officers to live in the community in which they serve. (Four members of the BPD currently take part in the pilot program, according to Kessler.)

“If we’re going to be a community that pays workers at different income strata like this, then we need to have opportunities and places for those people to live and lead their lives,” Cahoon said. “Otherwise, we’re going to become a wealthy, walled-in community where we bring in everybody who is laboring beneath a certain socio-economic point. … And Bexley has already been shifting. A lot of people with traditional middle-class jobs used to be able to buy property in Bexley. But thanks to the housing inflation we’ve seen the last few years, that’s no longer the case.”

Tabit, who is also a Bexley resident, said he has also watched as the city has become less financially accessible to incoming residents in recent years. “And I’m interested in how we preserve housing opportunities for all of our kids,” said Tabit, who lives around the corner from the proposed development, in the same home where his wife grew up. “We have kids who will graduate from Bexley and go on to have incredibly lucrative careers. And then we have other kids who will graduate on to different kinds of careers that will bring them just as much joy in life, but that aren’t as lucrative. And they should all be able to stay in the community. And I don’t think we’re set up for that in Bexley currently.”

Letostak said some of the current pushback she has seen to proposals such as the update to Bexley’s zoning code is rooted in a misconception that policies adopted decades ago need to be preserved. “We weren’t experiencing a housing crisis in the 1970s or ’80s, and I think it can be difficult for people to adjust their perspectives to the times,” she said. 

Part of the additional challenge with Bexley, in particular, is that there are relatively few parcels that come available for new construction, with most available city land already fully developed and in use. “It’s a landlocked community,” said Bryan Drewry, executive director of the Bexley Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not like you can say, ‘Oh, here’s this empty lot. Let’s put something here!’”

Tabit echoed this sentiment, noting that if the proposed Livingston Avenue development ultimately falls through, the city would lose one of the few available plots open to a new affordable housing build. “And every one of them is precious,” he said. “It’s an extremely competitive process to be awarded the financial mechanisms that allow these projects to go forward, and for Bexley to have won one of those and have had that chance to create affordable apartments only to lose it, that would be disappointing.”

Kessler struck a more reserved tone, noting there was some risk in Bexley being viewed as hostile to affordable housing in the event the project doesn’t move forward, but also expressing an understanding that developments of all kinds can fall through for myriad reasons, many of which exist outside of the control of city leaders. 

“I think there are a lot of directions the future can go in Bexley when it comes to making sure we maintain accessible housing,” Kessler said. “I think the concerns about this particular development going forward are way, way overwrought. And I think any concerns about it not going forward could also be overwrought. At the end of the day, we have a lot of different things to consider as we move ahead as a community.”

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