Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part V: Sunburnt Cities

June 28th, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

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In Sunburnt Cities, author Justin Hollander examines shrinking cities beyond the Rust Belt. After seeing the destabilization of neighborhoods in the Sunbelt brought on by the foreclosure crisis and Great Recession, Hollander argues that cities that have experienced nearly continual growth should acknowledge and plan for the possibility of decline. Hollander considers how deeply a reliance on growth is embedded in these cities – including economies that are dependent in part on the real estate business – but argues that the Great Recession has proven that this growth is not always reliable. Hollander acknowledges that declining populations and destabilized neighborhoods may be more of a blip for these cities than for their counterparts in the Midwest and Northeast, but encourages cities to at least shift their growth-only orientation to acknowledge the potential for shrinkage and adopt “smart decline” techniques that are similar to smart growth principles already embraced in some of these cities.

Cities in the Rust Belt typically have worked to combat decline with growth. But Hollander makes the case about why this focus on growth is often counterproductive to these cities. Hollander cites literature that shows that economic development policies promoting growth in shrinking cities have rarely been effective in changing population or employment levels. A growing population is not always a sign of a healthy community, and at times economic development efforts have come at the expense of working to improve quality of life for remaining residents. With this in mind, Hollander suggests a different way forward for these cities – smart decline. Specifically, he explores two tools, Relaxed Zoning – which allows noncomforming uses in a high vacancy neighborhood for some period of time – and the identification of “Decline Nodes” through statistical modelling which can help identify areas that are likely to lose population in the future. In general, these tools challenge the commonly-held notion that communities must fight decline by rebuilding markets at the cost of producing more affordable housing or rebuilding quality of life for residents.

Nearly the remainder of the book looks at specific neighborhoods in Flint, MI and three Sunbelt cities to examine how shrinking populations have affected those places. Hollander uses Flint as a point of contrast to show how decline affects the physical and social fabric of neighborhoods differently. In comparing three neighborhoods in Flint, he argues that population decline does not always have to translate into lower quality of life for residents. In each of the Flint neighborhoods, and in the case study neighborhoods in the Sunbelt cities, he tracks changes in the density of occupied housing units as a way of quantifying physical changes in the neighborhood as population leaves. Yet he showed that different responses to decline and other factors in the neighborhood had bearing on changes in quality of life even given substantial population loss.

From here, Hollander explores each of the case study cities – Fresno, Phoenix, and Orlando – and neighborhoods that experienced population loss within them. All three cities had adopted some kind of smart growth policies in recent years, including significant regional growth plans in Fresno and Phoenix. As such, the population declines and neighborhood destabilization caused by the Recession came as a shock to these cities, who were largely unprepared to deal with the challenges. Fresno is the exception here, because the city had previously experienced population loss and had developed some tools, including an abandoned building registry and aggressive code enforcement, to help deal with vacant properties. In Phoenix, on the other hand, planners argued that decline was just momentary, and did little to leverage the federal funding provided by the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to plan for potential further decline. The city of Orlando had embraced New Urbanist principles earlier on, which may have helped the city to weather the crisis with more ease than in the other cities that experienced more out-of-control sprawl. Still, local planners did not see value in confronting the potential for decline – NSP money was not even handled by the planning department, who instead continued to plan for future growth in the city.

Hollander concludes by encouraging cities, even those that have been able to rely on the growth orientation in recent decades, to at least consider potential for future decline by embracing what he calls “strategic flexibility”. Essentially, cities should be ready to manage change of all types, including a no-growth future. Cities have little true control over their future growth or decline, as outside factors like federal policy do more to impact that. But they still can choose to set themselves up for success in case of future shrinkage. In order to do that, Hollander suggests ten strategies and policy recommendations that local officials should adopt to plan for decline. They are:

  1. Create barriers to new residential construction in high vacancy neighborhoods
  2. Compel property owners (or mortgage holders) to maintain vacant buildings
  3. Use land banks to facilitate quick transfer of tax delinquent properties to public ownership
  4. Promote programs that allow neighbors to buy adjacent tax delinquent properties at low cost
  5. Move quickly to demolish or rehab vacant buildings that are publicly controlled
  6. Subsidize rehabilitation or demolition of privately-owned vacant buildings
  7. Maintain publicly-owned vacant lots
  8. Provide incentives for owners in high vacancy areas to convert their properties into parkland or agricultural land.
  9. Implement Relaxed Zoning codes that allows for nonconforming uses in high-vacancy neighborhoods
  10. Help residents who want to relocate to move to areas with better employment prospects.

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.

 

Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part IV: “What Helps or Hinders Nonprofit Developers in Reusing Vacant, Abandoned, and Contaminated Land?” In The City After Abandonment

June 7th, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

Margaret Dewar discusses the differences in capacity in the community development field in Detroit and Cleveland in her article “What Helps or Hinders Nonprofit Developers in Reusing Vacant, Abandoned, and Contaminated Land?” The article, published in 2013, is focused around a central question – why are developers in Cleveland, where challenges related to demand for land that are nearly identical to Detroit, so much more successful in reusing vacant property? Although Cleveland is a smaller city, nonprofit developers there bought three times as many vacant properties as their peers in Detroit and completed twice as many projects on purchased land.

Dewar concludes that organizational capacity within community development corporations (CDC) is what separates the experiences of Cleveland from Detroit. Cleveland CDCs benefit from an established community development system that supports their actions and makes them more likely to succeed. A critical actor in this system is the city of Cleveland itself, which works closely with CDCs to enact its own neighborhood goals and provides the organizations with substantial funding through the Community Development Block Grant program. In Detroit, on the other hand, the relationship between the city and community development organizations was less collaborative and could be openly hostile. Detroit also provided a much smaller share of their CDBG dollars to local community development groups, something that Dewar concludes may be due to the city council’s at-large method of representation instead of a ward-based system that encourages spreading money across different neighborhoods. Additionally, the city of Cleveland was more effective in transferring property to nonprofit developers through its land bank while Detroit struggled to efficiently hand over land, particularly with a clear title.

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Detroit, Michigan (source: Wikicommons) and Cleveland, Ohio (source: GOPC). 

Beyond city government, Dewar argues that CDCs in Cleveland have other significant advantages. Perhaps most importantly, a network of support organizations arose to help neighborhood-level CDCs take on more complex projects. Neighborhood Progress, Inc. (now known as Cleveland Neighborhood Progress) is particularly important, as they work directly on building local CDCs’ capacity and take on projects that would be hard for small CDCs to do alone. The Cleveland Housing Network can also help CDCs approach more complex or risky projects by serving as a developer and arranging financing. Detroit has neither of these kinds of organizations, although there is a trade association for local CDCs that has been moderately helpful in illuminating the challenges local CDCs are facing.

According to Dewar, personal relationships are also a challenge in Detroit more so than in Cleveland. In Cleveland, representatives of the community development industry report that most actors work collaboratively and focus on solving systemic problems together. Although a history of strained race relations exists in both cities, representatives of nonprofit developers in Detroit mentioned race as an ongoing issue in the local community development industry. According to these stakeholders, leadership in the industry is disproportionately white for a majority black city.  

Dewar concludes that the differences in the evolution of Detroit and Cleveland’s community development sectors have played out visibly in their abilities’ to reuse vacant and abandoned land. She suggests that stakeholders in Detroit can work to create a more robust community development system by reforming the city’s CDBG program, developing a local intermediary like Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, or create a regional, large scale non-profit housing developer like Cleveland Housing Network.

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.

 

Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part II: Terra Incognita

May 10th, 2017

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

Terra Incognita, published by Ann Bowman and Michael Pagano in 2004, was one of the first academic works focused on the factors that influence how local governments interact with vacant land. The authors take a broad view of what constitutes vacant land – ranging from abandoned housing or industrial sites to greenspace, and seek to move beyond the perception that vacancy is always negative for a city. The authors use survey data and interviews to understand how cities with different tax structures, social systems, and economic development needs perceive and utilize vacant land.

First, the authors set out to gain a better sense of the extent and condition of vacant land in cities around the United States. They sent surveys to the planning directors of all U.S. cities with populations above 50,000 and then followed up with interviews in certain areas to understand how governments make decisions about vacant properties in their cities. The survey results revealed varying perceptions of vacant land: some cities felt they had too much, while others felt that they had too little to promote new development. Unsurprisingly, increases or decreases in vacant land were found to be tied to market conditions, specifically whether the population was growing or declining. The authors focus in on three metropolitan areas for case studies – Phoenix, the quintessential sprawling city where vacant land is frequently open desert; Seattle, where state annexation laws limit the ability of the city to grow even as its population increases; and Philadelphia/Camden, shrinking cities with substantial amounts of abandoned and contaminated property.

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After attempting to quantify the amount of vacant land in different parts of the country and looking more deeply into the case study cities, the authors propose a model for how local governments engage with vacant land based on three key considerations. These are:

  • The need to raise funds through taxation, i.e. the “land-tax dynamic.” The land-tax dynamic is related to the relationship between tax structure and land use. The authors argue that there are specific spatial outcomes based on what kind of taxation structure is available to a city. Cities that are primarily dependent on property taxes are incentivized to push for higher market-value developments while attempting to push negative impacts like traffic to a neighboring jurisdiction. Cities that rely on a sales tax seek to create “shopping sheds” that can draw residents as well as people from neighboring jurisdictions. Cities that rely on the income tax – including most cities in Ohio – are encouraged to draw high wage earners to work in the city and are not as concerned about them living there.
  • The social value of land. The social value of land is related to a city’s need to create a positive social environment and protect property values. As such, it considers how vacant land can serve to divide or unite parts of the city. Vacant land is sometimes used to separate higher income areas from lower income ones, but it can also provide opportunities for positive social interactions like park space or community gardens.
  • The need to promote economic development. Finally, the need to promote economic development encourages land that has higher value to be put to its highest and best use.

These three imperatives work together to shape local government actors’ choices about vacant land, including which areas are most likely to be redeveloped and which are likely to be left alone. The authors illustrate this through a three-dimensional cube, where each imperative represents one facet. Any vacant parcel in a city fits somewhere in the cube based on the interplay of its revenue, social, and development potential. City leaders can use a parcel’s position within the cube to guide long-term decisions about reuse, even as political or market conditions remain uncertain.

 

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.

 

GOPC Assesses Suitability of Replicating Peers’ Funding Tools to Support Affordable Housing in Central Ohio

March 31st, 2017

By Alex Highley, GOPC Project Associate

The Affordable Housing Alliance of Central Ohio (AHACO) has released a new report, The Columbus and Franklin County Affordable Housing Challenge: Needs, Resources, and Funding Models, underscoring the difficulties many residents face in obtaining affordable housing in Columbus and the surrounding suburbs. Informed by Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) research, the report then investigates ways that the public sector can aid in increasing the affordable housing supply. GOPC’s systematic study of tools and programs that have been successfully used in cities outside Ohio highlights opportunities for expanding affordable housing in and around Columbus.

With Central Ohio’s population growing at a substantial rate and wages not keeping up with increasing rent prices, affordable housing is harder to come by for renters in the region. Between 2009 and 2014, median rents went up by almost twice the rate of median household incomes. Given that Franklin County poverty rates are growing, including in most of the major suburbs, many new job openings do not pay a “housing wage,” and the stark spatial mismatch between where jobs are located and where people live, AHACO concluded there is a strong need for new affordable housing. AHACO sought GOPC’s expertise to deliver robust research of viable models that could support much of the good work already being done throughout communities in Columbus to improve affordable housing opportunities for residents.

Click Here to Access the Executive Summary and the full Report

Methodologically, GOPC conducted an extensive literature scan and internet search to assess the funding mechanisms that communities around the country employ in order to spur the creation of a rich and diverse set of housing choices. In total, GOPC studied 40 funding mechanisms in 25 communities in detail. GOPC judged the merits of possible replication in Central Ohio by comparing the respective cities’ demographic data, summarizing the cities’ relevant economic conditions that made implementation of the tools possible, and concluding with weighing the advantages and limitations of mirroring the tool in Central Ohio. Examples of successful tools and the cities they are used in are listed below.

  • Seattle, WA – Dedicated Property Tax Revenue – $340 million generated over 20 years
  • Austin, TX – General Obligation Bonds – $120 million generated over 7 years
  • Portland, OR – Tax Increment Financing (TIF) – $107 million generated over 4 years
  • Washington, DC  - General Fund Appropriation – $48 million generated over 1 year
  • San Francisco, CA – Linkage Fees & Impact Fees – $188 million generated over 9 years
  • Denver, CO – Inclusionary Zoning: Developer Set Asides – $7.6 million generated over 13 years
  • Denver, CO – Social Impact Bonds – $8.7 million generated over 1 year

Along with explaining the mechanism of each tool and highlighting the number of affordable housing units produced through the program, GOPC discussed the tools’ applicability to Columbus. In many cases, the tools already exist and are used to some extent, or current law precludes their usage towards affordable housing purposes. For instance, General Obligation bonds issued by a county, township, or municipality can be used for housing construction costs, but may not be used for a rental or operating subsidy in Ohio. The county sales tax offers another opportunity; the current temporary permissive Franklin county sales tax of .25% generates over $58 million per year. If this revenue were to be directed toward affordable housing purposes, then this would represent a sizable amount of revenue available for funding solutions should voters renew the tax in 2018.

To understand how many new units of affordable housing could be created using these tools, GOPC estimated the total costs of various housing projects. For instance, permanent supportive housing costs $165,000 per unit to build and $7,000 per person per year in operation costs. GOPC also reviewed the feasibility of particular tools from a legal standpoint. For example, Franklin County has the authority to devote general funds toward rent subsidies, similar to the Local Rent Subsidy Program used in Washington DC. To conclude the report, GOPC created a chart for the Appendix which organizes each funding source according to the political subdivision (states, cities, counties, etc.) that may implement a program to support affordable housing along with whether that program is currently being used for housing purposes in Franklin County.

Click Here to Access the Executive Summary and the full Report

 

Miss the Webinar? Watch Preserving Our Neighborhoods: An Educational Webinar on Ohio’s Recently Passed HB463

February 8th, 2017
Thank you to all panelists and attendees who participated in GOPC’s Webinar, Preserving Our Neighborhoods: An Educational Webinar on Ohio’s Recently Passed HB463.

If you missed the Webinar, you can watch it in full here:

View the recording of the Webinar

PowerPoint Slides are available here

February 21, 2017

In January 2017, Governor Kasich signed HB463, a bill that contains new provisions that will help Ohio’s communities mitigate and prevent blight.

During the Webinar, panelists discussed new provisions enacted by HB463 and what they mean for neighborhood stabilization and economic development. Hosted by: Alison Goebel, Executive Director, Greater Ohio Policy Center Panelists: Jason Warner, Manager of Government Affairs, Greater Ohio Policy Center Adam Hewit, President, Government Solutions Group Robert Klein, Founder & Chairman, Community Blight Solutions Aaron Klein, former United States Treasury Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy Josh Harmon, Chief Environmental Specialist, Franklin County Municipal Court and President, Ohio Code Enforcement Officials Association                                                                    .

Hb 463 pic 2        Hb 463 webinar pic

GOPC Joins 1,000 Change Makers from Across the Country at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference in Baltimore

October 10th, 2016

By Sheldon K. Johnson, GOPC Project Manager

Last week, Greater Ohio Policy Center staff and Board of Trustee members attended the Reclaiming Vacant Properties (RVP) Conference hosted by the Center for Community Progress. The theme of the conference was “In Service of People and Place” and aimed to take a deep look at how innovative reuse of vacant properties can improve the well-being of residents and the communities where they live.

GOPC had the opportunity to learn from local case studies and best practices from around the country that will inform our work of championing revitalization and sustainable growth in Ohio. We also were able to share our expertise with conference attendees. Board of Trustee member Ian Beniston, Executive Director of Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC), sat on a panel about Community-Based Stabilization Efforts. He shared details about how YNDC organizes Neighborhood Action Teams to engage volunteers for vacant property clean ups.

GOPC’s former Executive Director, Lavea Brachman, spoke on a panel focused on creating state policy change to support innovative solutions to fighting blight. Brachman also joined current GOPC staff member Torey Hollingsworth to host a presentation and discussion on the report they co-authored about revitalizing small and mid-sized legacy cities. Representatives from several cities included in the study attended the presentation. Check out GOPC’s upcoming October newsletter for a more detailed summary of Hollingsworth and Brachman’s presentation. You can find the newsletter here.

In addition to a variety of informative panel sessions the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference also included several engaging plenary sessions. The second day of the conference opened with a breakfast keynote address by Representative Dan Kildee (D-MI). Rep. Kildee addressed the conference the day after Congress voted to provide $170 million in aid to address the Flint water crisis. Kildee, a Flint native, used his remarks to highlight the importance of water and sewer system upgrades (a key issue that GOPC focuses on in Ohio). He also discussed how landbanking and infrastructure investments are key to community revitalization.

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Dan Kildee - Photo Credit: Center for Community Progress

The RVP conference closed with a keynote address from Dr. Matthew Desmond, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and author of the bestselling book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond summarized the ethnographic study of low income renters and landlords in Milwaukee, WI that he wrote about in Evicted. He focused largely on the story of Arleen Beale and her two sons as they struggled to stay in safe and affordable housing. Desmond argued that Arleen’s story is representative of many people’s, and that concrete solutions for increasing affordable housing are needed.

matthew desmond - ccp

Matthew Desmond - Photo Credit: Center for Community Progress

The Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference was a great opportunity for GOPC to connect with partners doing similar work across the country and to reinforce the importance of our work. Attending conferences like these empowers our staff to be better prepared to continue advocating for and building a Greater Ohio!

 

15 Years of Preservation and Revitalization in Ohio

May 10th, 2016

By Alison Goebel, GOPC Deputy Director

Earlier this month, the Greater Ohio Policy Center joined more than 100 conservation, environmental, and urban advocates to celebrate the numerous successes of the Clean Ohio Fund.  Since 2000, the Clean Ohio Fund has restored, protected, and connected Ohio’s natural and urban places by preserving open space and farmland, improving outdoor recreation, and cleaning up brownfields to encourage redevelopment and revitalize communities.

All 88 Ohio counties have received funding and benefited from the Clean Ohio Fund.  The Fund has:

  • Cleaned up nearly 400 abandoned, contaminated sites.
  • Preserved over 26,000 acres of natural areas.
  • Protected over 39,748 acres of family farms.
  • Created over 216 miles of multi-purpose, recreational trails.

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As Greater Ohio Policy Center demonstrated in its 2013 study, the Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund which supported brownfield remediation, leveraged $4.67 in private dollars for every dollar invested by the state.  More broadly, the entire Clean Ohio Program has leveraged additional investments to create a total economic impact of approximately $2.6 billion in public and private investments to date.

Governor Taft, whose administration initiated the ballot issue that created the Clean Ohio Fund, congratulated advocates and communities on the ongoing successes of the program.  Former EPA Director, Chris Jones, and Kate Bartter, environmental policy advisor to Governor Taft, discussed the history of the ballot initiative and the thoughtful process that created this impactful program.  House Minority Leader, Rep. Fred Strahorn, and Rep. Tim Derickson, a long time champion for Clean Ohio, described the impact of the program in their districts and around the state and the importance of the programs’ continuation.

The strong bi-partisan, multi-sector support for the Clean Ohio Fund, and clear economic benefits of the program confirms the value and importance of this program to Ohio’s economic development and quality of life strategies.

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GOPC Staff Attends the 2016 Ohio Brownfields Conference

April 20th, 2016

By Lindsey Gardiner, GOPC Manager of Government Affairs

Earlier this month GOPC staff attended the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 Ohio Brownfields Conference. The two day conference included beginner-friendly and advanced presentations, making the event attractive to attendees from a number of different disciplines such as environmental consultants, economic development, brownfield and other municipal officials, state government officials, developers, and various nonprofit community organizations.

The Abandoned Gas Station Cleanup Fund Program was one of the headlining topics during the keynote portion on the first day. GOPC played an instrumental role during the creation of the program nearly one year ago. The program was designed to offer funding for the cleanup and remediation of abandoned gas stations and enable environmentally safe and productive reuse of the sites. The program was established in conjunction with the Ohio Development Services Agency (ODSA), the Ohio EPA, and the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Underground Storage Tank Regulations (BUSTR). For more information on the Abandoned Gas Stations Cleanup Program, please visit here

Brownfields Conf

Photo by Ohio EPA

The presentations throughout the conference offered creative ways to take the problem of brownfields, and utilize them so they are part of the solution for Ohio communities. Some solutions include building green infrastructure on contaminated sites to tackle combined sewer overflows in urban areas, or turning contaminated materials into value-added engineered materials. It is clear that leaders in the brownfield industry see these contaminated sites as opportunities for growth. Presentations from out-of-state industry leaders offered a valuable education to attendees about what has worked for their state, and how their rules and regulations compare to Ohio’s. GOPC looks forward to incorporating information gained from the Ohio EPA’s 2016 Brownfields Conference to create more opportunities for brownfield remediation in Ohio.

Rising Rent in Ohio Cities Highlights Need for Affordable Housing

April 4th, 2016

By Sheldon Johnson, Urban Revitalization Project Specialist

According to a recent study released by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, there has been an unprecedented surge in rental housing in the US. In 2005 there were approximately 34 million families and individuals living in rental housing; by mid-2015 there were approximately 43 million. The increase of nearly 9 million rental households from 2005 to 2015 is the largest gain of any 10-year period on record.

This historic increase of rental households nation-wide has been coupled with rising rent as the share of households who experienced a rise in rent grew from 31% to 37%, which is the highest level since the mid-1960s. Of the 43 million families and individuals who rent, 1 in 5 are considered to be cost-burdened, meaning they pay between 31 and 50% of their income on rent. Additionally the number of severely cost-burdened renters, who pay more than 50% of their income on rent, increased from 7.5 million to 11.4 million from 2005 to 2015.

Ohio cities have not been immune to this nationwide trend. According to CBRE, a Cincinnati based commercial real estate firm, rent adjusted for inflation rose 7% in Greater Cincinnati from 2009 to 2015. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) estimated that nearly 34% of the population in Greater Cincinnati are renters. While renters of all kinds are affected by increasing rent, low-income renters are most adversely affected.

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The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reported that 44% of Cincinnati renters are cost-burdened and 24% are severely cost-burdened. An NLIHC study found that an individual working at the state’s minimum wage of $8.10 an hour would need to work 44 hours a week to afford a modest studio apartment at fair market rent in Cincinnati. They would need to work 55 hours for a one bedroom apartment, 73 for a two bedroom, and 101 for a three bedroom.

Low-income renters in other areas of Ohio also face difficulties paying for rent. The Urban Institute reports that Franklin County has 24 affordable housing units for every 100 extremely low-income (ELI) households— defined as a family of four making less than $20,000 a year. Columbus has more than 59,000 extremely low-income families, but only 14,000 available units they can afford.

It is clear that housing affordability is an issue that will be critical to the redevelopment of Ohio cities. Greater Ohio Policy Center is engaged in emerging conversations in local communities and statewide regarding potential solutions.

 

Connecting Neighborhood Revitalization to “Green” Water Infrastructure

March 10th, 2016

By Colleen Durfee, GOPC Research Intern

Stormwater runoff and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are primary concerns of Ohio’s industrial legacy cities. In the midwest, we have long depended upon natural water sources for city and metro water needs but severe weather patterns, decades of unsustainable development, aging infrastructure, and fluctuating populations damage natural hydrological systems by allowing human produced bypass and overflow to enter them without being treated. Because of this, many municipalities are faced with needing to upgrade sewer and stormwater infrastructure. Whether mandated by the EPA or adopted independently, stormwater and sewer infrastructure upgrades are extremely expensive. However, municipalities are finding incorporating green infrastructure allows them to cut costs while meeting desired stormwater and CSO capture. Green stormwater and CSO infrastructure often require making more porous surfaces, meaning the land can act as a sponge and absorb the first inch or so of water during a storm rather than flowing on impervious surfaces until reaching a sewer system that overflows into rivers, streams, and lakes. In legacy cities where population and income decline leave abandoned and vacant land in their wake, we find an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

Click Here to Read Part I of GOPC’s Infrastructure and Brownfields Needs Assessment!

Repurposing vacant land for green infrastructure can also revitalize neighborhoods, attract populations, stimulate economic activity, and increase incomes and property values. In cities with brownfields and abandoned property, green infrastructure is a welcome alternative to letting the space remain unusable. Buffalo, NY is addressing the problem of population shrinkage by using abandoned and vacant land to “right-size”, incorporating green infrastructure into its urban core. In Ohio, Youngstown adopted a shrinking city policy as part of their comprehensive land-use plan, allowing them to incorporate porous surfaces and act as a location for wetland creation, fulfilling a need for companies to create wetlands under the wetland banking regulations. Cleveland, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati, are using abandoned lots for green infrastructure like rain gardens and storm basins as part of their overflow control plan.

Repurposing condemned and abandoned properties beautifies neighborhoods, decreases crime, enhances health, reduces urban heat index, and has long-term economic benefits. For municipalities riddled with abandoned properties –remnants of mid-twentieth century hay-day – opportunities to “right-size” while positively affecting stormwater runoff issues should be seized upon. Green infrastructure is not only cost effective but also efficient and adds benefits to the human experience, environment, and health far beyond fiscal viability. In the long term, green infrastructure upgrades will not only provide stormwater runoff and CSO benefits but create resilient and long-lasting communities that house more permanent residents, leading to economic, human, and environmental health.