Affordable housing focus of Ohio county’s development plan

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An Ohio county would invest an additional $65 million to spur construction of 2,050 affordable housing units over the next decade under recommendations included in a broader economic development plan.

The funding from Franklin County, which includes Columbus, could come from an increase in conveyance fees paid as part of real estate transactions or through some other means that would require approval by the county commissioners. The current fee is $2 per $1,000 value of a property sale, split between the state and the county.

The board has been considering a conveyance fee increase for months but was awaiting completion of a new Franklin County Economic Development Strategic Plan before committing to a course of action.

Columbus, Ohio skyline

While the final plan is wider in scope, officials say affordable housing is at the top of the priority list when it comes to bolstering economic opportunities in central Ohio.

“This community is growing and thriving, and we expect to for the next 30 years,” said Deputy County Administrator Erik Janas. “What we have seen in other growing and thriving metro areas is that if they don’t begin to address the affordable housing issue in a timely way early enough, the problem becomes magnified over time.”

He added: “Now is the time for everybody to be stacking hands and working on affordable housing.”

Business and community leaders announced plans for a pool of $100 million in private money to encourage the development of affordable housing.

In August, the commissioners approved a $179,600 contract with a Virginia firm to review the county’s economic development efforts and develop a strategic plan for future programs.

The process included a review of existing economic development initiatives — revolving loan programs, for example, that have supported infrastructure and other projects — to identify strengths and make recommendations for improvement.

Among other suggestions, the final plan calls for increased communication with the public on affordable housing and other economic development initiatives and increased collaboration between county officials and their counterparts in the 17 townships, 16 cities and 10 villages that make up Franklin County.

“It’s a different kind of focus than we’ve had before, and I like that a lot,” said Commissioner Marilyn Brown. “Better engagement in the community that we serve through talking and listening to what the people really want.”

The plan also acknowledges the evolving nature of economic development, with increased emphasis on quality-of-life issues rather than just site selection and incentives based on the number of jobs created. That’s how affordable housing became a focus for economic developers.

“This wasn’t in the equation a few years ago, but it’s front-and-center now,” said James Schimmer, the county’s economic development director.

Assistant economic director Alex Beres added, “What makes up a good job or a quality of life, we have to reexamine that. … When we’re doing incentives, we’re going to look at a broad picture.”

In addition to increased funding for affordable-housing initiatives, a separate section of the strategic plan recommends changes in zoning rules to accommodate higher density residential developments in townships and the use of tax abatements, tax increment financing and other incentives to spur those projects.

The goal, Schimmer said, would be to make new affordable housing developments or improvements to existing units more attractive near bus lines or employment centers.

“At the end of the day, it’s about cost,” Beres said. “For our low-income residents to be able to afford a place, somewhere the cost has to be taken down. Abatements and TIFs are another way of making a project more affordable.”

Schimmer added: “This is not for market-rate housing development. That market is flush, and it’s doing well. It’s to lower costs for our lower-income residents.”

Brown said the commissioners have not yet decided on a conveyance fee increase amount. Under state law, the county fee could be increased by another $2, though she said she would not support a full increase.

A vote on a fee increase could happen in the coming weeks.

“I would like to see it in July,” Brown said. “I’m hopeful that the board will be ready to act soon.

“Anybody in our community deserves and needs to have the opportunity to live in a decent, safe, affordable housing space,” she added. “I think it’s an essential component to a vibrant community.”


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