Developers discuss housing shortage as Columbus launches competition

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The City of Columbus has launched a new competition it hopes will bring new life to old lots.

It’s part of an effort to address a growing housing crisis across all of central Ohio.

Housing inventory in the region is at an all-time low despite a record demand from prospective buyers. Developers say the shortage isn’t from a lack of wanting to build.

“We did a study that showed we in central Ohio should be building 14,000-plus housing units every year and we haven’t hit that number since before the great recession,” said Jon Melchi, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio. “Last year was a 15-year high and we built over 11,000 units, but that’s still 3,000 housing units short of where we need to be.”

The biggest hurdle developers face is in the permitting and approval process.

“It’s taking three…two, three, sometimes four years to get a farm field to where it’s ready to put a house on it,” said Jeff Yates, president of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio. “So we’re kind of at this stage right now where we’re burning up or burning through all the lots that are ready to go”.

“The biggest challenge that we have is getting local government to approve housing developments within their communities,” Melchi said. “There’s a term – NIMBY: Not In My Backyard, and that is, in the case, where many developers or a builder will come in with a project and the neighbors will oppose that project for a variety of reasons. We see this inside the city of Columbus and in the ex-urban counties around central Ohio. In many ways, it’s the one thing that politically unites the region, is opposition to new housing in many communities.”

Despite growing awareness of the housing shortage, Melchi said the permit process has only gotten worse.

“In central Ohio alone in the first quarter of the year, there were more than a thousand housing units that were denied by local governments,” he said. “What used to take 6 months to get approval now takes upward of two years and the only thing that does is add cost overall to the project.”

On Monday, the City of Columbus launched the NextHome 2021 competition in collaboration with the BIA alongside the Neighborhood Design Center, the Central Ohio Community Improvement Corporation, the City Land Redevelopment Office and American Institute of Architects.

NextHome 2021 is looking for designers, architects, and builders to submit a vision for affordable and accessible housing that could be quickly built on vacant lots in communities like Franklinton.

“Innovation and creativity will be essential to helping address our region’s critical need for more affordable housing,” said Councilmember Shayla Favor, chair of City Council’s Housing Committee. “The Central Ohio Community Land Trust is a phenomenal partner in the Next Home competition as homes constructed for the portfolio will remain affordable for future generations.”

The Trust holds the land on which a home is built as a community asset, and guarantees the affordability of homes on the lots for future residents. Homeowners own the home but lease the lot from the Trust. The competition will help address the pressing need of housing affordability by constructing additional homes for the Trust portfolio using winning design proposals.

“To move forward, these empty lots are going to become incredible homes but be affordable in some of Columbus’ hottest neighborhoods. Franklinton is one such neighborhood,” Mayor Andrew Ginther said. “Finding creative ways to encourage housing that is affordable to everyone is not just the right thing to do. It helps the region remain competitive in attracting and retaining businesses.”

Melchi agrees and doesn’t want to see central Ohio lose business opportunities for a lack of housing.

“One of the first things they look for is ‘where are my people going to live, how are they going to get to work, and is housing readily available?’ We check so many boxes in central Ohio for being a desirable community to live but something we very much need to be aware of is this lack of housing and housing affordability is going to be a challenge for us moving forward,” Melchi said. “We have a phrase we like to use: ‘A home is where a job goes to at night.’ Unfortunately, we have a tax system in Ohio that rewards where an employee works and not necessarily where they live. So you’ll often times see communities fight for jobs but not for the people who work in those jobs.”

To help with those permitting issues, Ginther says the city will soon begin a massive undertaking decades in the making.

“A complete rewrite of our zoning code. We haven’t rewritten – and we’re still working with – a zoning code that’s sixty years old and our community has changed dramatically over the last sixty years,” Ginther said. “We think by rewriting the zones code based on community input, we could help make the process more efficient, more streamlined so that we can get more housing at all price points.”

Ginther expects that rewrite to take 12 to 24 months. In the meantime, developers say programs like what Columbus are trying can help ease the shortage…even if just a little.

“This is a first step. This competition isn’t going to solve our issues but it’s something that we can look to and say hey, we’re trying something new. we’re trying to increase collaboration with the public sector and the private sector and solve a problem,” Melchi said. “Not only will it provide a home for that family but that new home will help elevate the rest of the community because if you have a home that’s next to one of these blighted properties, seeing something new go up helps invigorate the street.”

“They’re buildable lots. If we can get into those, they’re a tax base for the city and it gives us an opportunity to put houses on it that was so direly need,” Yates said.

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