The local housing crisis has stifled the community in many ways for years, but the City of Columbus is pushing to help lead efforts in working toward a solution.
The City, with the approval of the City Council, will take $1 million out of its discretionary funds in the fiscal year 2023-2024 budget to put toward a city workforce/affordable housing subdivision. The City is aiming to develop a vibrant housing community catering to the needs of the local workforce by purchasing parcel(s) of land (at least 20 acres) close to the city limits and put in all the initial infrastructure in hopes to incentivize developers to build while easing their load. Under this scenario, the builders only carry the expense of the build until the units sell and don’t have to shoulder the cost of purchasing an entire track of land and building out the infrastructure. The City of Columbus recently put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) to purchase the land it seeks for the subdivision.
In some ways, the City’s jump into housing has been a long time coming. A City-commissioned housing study updated in 2021 said Columbus needs about 150 units a year.
“We’ve never produced 150 units a year. We’ve been in a serious deficit,” City Administrator Tara Vasicek said. “We have over 2,000 jobs available in Columbus right now and our unemployment rate is less than 2%. So, if we’re going to fill all those jobs, we’ve got to bring new people to town and we don’t have enough housing for them.”
Vasicek said she has routinely spoken with business owners throughout town about their desire to grow, but also their inability to fill positions even when they get ideal candidates from elsewhere.
“Even if they attract the perfect person from out of town, if they don’t have anywhere that they can find to live that meets their preference, then they’re not going to come,” Vasicek said. “I’ve heard story after story of people declining offers because they can’t find a place to live or leave after a short period of time because they couldn’t find a place to live.”
Those stories aside, the numbers spoke volume to City leaders. Columbus was poised to have nearly 1,300 livable units built within city limits this construction season - keyword being “was.”
“But then the cost of materials skyrocketed again, interest rates increased substantially and we lost over 1,000 units that were supposed to be starting this year,” Vasicek lamented. “That’s what was really the final straw that made us say it was time for the City to start getting more involved.”
Vasicek, City Planning and Economic Development Coordinator Jean Van Iperen and other City officials hatched the plan that the City Council has supported in budget planning talks this year. Once the City makes a land purchase, it will issue a second Request for Purchase (RFP) seeking proposals from builders and developers on what housing units they would like to build given the opportunity.
Vasicek and Van Iperen said they see the subdivision featuring a wide-variety of housing projects with a range of affordability for residents, such as townhomes, high-density housing, small apartment complexes and even senior-living facilities. The idea is that it will be home to people of all ages and backgrounds, and done by numerous builders and developers.
“Builders will have to explain what they want to do,” Van Iperen said. “And tell us what they can build in a certain time frame.”
City Councilwoman Katherine Lopez said she’s encouraged by the City taking steps to address housing needs.
“We feel we can do the job and help provide affordable housing,” Lopez said. “Housing, in general, is a really big issue. When we do our best to strengthen these efforts for housing, it can only improve the quality of life in Columbus and help us fill job gaps.”
City officials are hoping to have land secured in the next six-12 months. Those who have questions about the Request for Proposal for the purchase of real property for suitable use as a workforce housing subdivision can contact Van Iperen at firstname.lastname@example.org. The RFP for workforce housing construction will be announced in the future.
“The City of Columbus is looking to help. We will initiate this starting with the next fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2023),” Vasicek said. “We need to make housing a priority in order to effect any real change because this has and will continue to be a significant problem.”