This piece was originally published on August 17, 2018.
When I met Shep, he had been living in the same High Street apartment for the past two decades. But it wouldn’t be home for him much longer. He was notified a developer would be redeveloping the building, the same building that was home to vintage retailer Flower Child. The developer wanted him out ASAP. He looked for a new place, but without any luck. He couldn’t find any nearby apartments that were affordable and accessible for his wheelchair. In the end, he moved in with his mom for the first time in more than 30 years. Residents like Shep and small businesses like Flower Child told me stories about how they took a chance on the Short North. Over the years, it had evolved from a place their friends avoided because of the violence to a place they avoided because of the lack of parking. Many of the residents feel the artists, businesses and people who made the Short North what it is are now being pushed and priced out of the iconic area.
When it comes to economic growth, gentrification isn’t the only facet of this issue — but it’s a major one. In the streets and in the news, attention is paid when art galleries move out of the Short North, when hipsters invade Old Town East, when luxury condos get built in Franklinton and when North Linden loses its grocery store. What seems to get very little attention is the root causes propelling these street-level changes that are staring us in the face. The realities of development are often much messier, greyer and more nuanced than what the local news lets on. The decisions that create the conditions for these changes are made in boardrooms and government buildings, long before the gentrifier ever shows up.
Columbus is changing rapidly, but growth is not benefiting everybody. Without knowing all the factors, such as how climate disasters may drive people in from the coasts, it’s hard to project population growth accurately. But community leaders estimate the Columbus region’s population will double by 2050 — while some believe it could triple as soon as 2035. Per the Columbus Dispatch, it has also become the fourth hottest housing market in the nation, which shows that competition for finding housing is at an all time high.
All of that growth seems great on the surface, but it could be worsening an existing division within the city. Columbus is the No. 2 most economically segregated city in the U.S., according to a 2015 University of Toronto study. But even beyond the research, signs of inequality can be seen throughout the city. According to the Columbus Foundation, Columbus has one of the worst income gaps in the country: we rank 10th among the 100 largest U.S. cities for the widest gap between the rich and the poor. And these issues of inequality are hitting families hard: family homelessness increased in Franklin County by 7.6 percent even though the national rate fell 15 percent from 2010 to 2014, per a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Franklin County also has one of the highest eviction rates in the country, according to WOSU, evicting almost as many people as New York City — even though it has 8 million fewer residents.
While some areas of town like the Short North are seeing an explosion in the development of luxury condos, Linden struggles to get basic services. Suburbs from Dublin to Whitehall are also rapidly transforming, with prices pushing people increasingly further outside of the city. There are even major disparities within neighborhoods. In Franklinton, high-end business and housing developments are popping up while there is no major grocery store for its existing residents. Investment and growth are happening, but only in certain neighborhoods and for certain businesses. While developers are given a 10- to 20-year tax-free incentives by the city, small businesses like Flower Child are left to fend for themselves.
Here’s the thing: Columbus will inevitably be developed. Density and sprawl are already realities, and their vastness will be realized in the coming decades. What is not inevitable is how the development is done: what is built, what is preserved, what is destroyed, who benefits and who gets pushed out.
Considering these major inequalities, the City of Columbus isn’t creating development policies that are going to help the situation, and they may even be part of the problem.
In 2017, Columbus hired private companies to help them evaluate the City’s development policies, according to an internal memo. Those policies include initiatives like tax abatements, where larger companies and developers don’t have to pay property taxes — sometimes for decades — in order to incentivize them to build new properties or create jobs. They looked at three major initiatives to determine what the City’s main development goals are. The goals that the firms and the City agreed on are:
a strong regional economic engine (a robust network of big and small businesses)
strong employment hubs (low unemployment, good wages)
a downtown powerhouse (a city center with thriving businesses, residents, and culture)
revitalized neighborhoods (a variety of housing options and amenities everywhere)
equitable access to opportunity (equal access to jobs and housing)
sustainable growth (development that will be stable and consistent)
The results of the study say the City falls short on goals 4 through 6, which relate to equitable and sustainable development. That means Columbus has done a good job of supporting and incentivizing economic growth, but that it has fallen asleep at the wheel when it comes to ensuring that growth is sustainable and benefiting everybody. Concerns over these shortcomings have been raised recently, as the public questions whether the City is giving incentives to companies who don’t need it and whether they’re failing to hold those companies accountable.
Even more, the City is lacking accountability and transparency in decision-making. Columbus is the largest city in America that does not elect city council members to represent specific areas — and in fact, most of Columbus’ City Council isn’t elected at all. That puts serious limits on voters’ ability to hold council members accountable, including for development decisions. Besides City Council, the other development decision-making body is the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). The BZA is a little-known government entity whose unelected members are rumored to show little care for neighborhood concerns.
With widening divisions and a city that doesn’t seem to be working like it should, Columbus residents have little context for these trends. The local news does their part to document when a new development pops up or when housing prices increase, but we don’t always get the full picture. Matter is here to fill in the gaps and go even deeper. We will tell the stories of people and businesses being displaced, but also of the high-level decisions that lead to these effects. Through investigative and explanatory coverage, we’ll look into development as we’re defining it: the process of changes to businesses, homes and individuals that is caused by economic growth. That means we’ll cover a neighborhood’s response to a new high-rise, but we won’t be running to the scene every time a new business opens its doors. We will only focus on stories that relate to the broader issue of development as we defined it.
Matter will be covering the issue of development from many angles. We will provide investigative, entertaining and humanizing coverage of the impacts from investment and disinvestment in Columbus’ neighborhoods. You can expect content such as mini-documentaries, podcasts, animated videos, games, interactive data and storytelling tools, poetry and music. We’ll question if the drastic changes happening to our city now are preparing us for the realities of our future.
But we can’t do it alone. We need your insights, input and support.
Let’s explore the grey together.