COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A six-member crusade calling themselves the Columbus Coalition on Rent Control is seeking to stem the tide of soaring rent.

The coalition introduced a ballot initiative to the Columbus City Council on April 19 that would cap the price of all residential rental units at a property’s Jan. 1, 2020, fair market value — and create a brand-new Department of Fair Housing to enforce rent control measures throughout the city.

It’s another tool in the toolbox, according to Joe Motil, one of the initiative’s co-sponsors, that will keep Columbus residents in their homes while stifling property owners’ ability to raise rent on a whim.

“We want to make sure people are not being displaced from their properties for the sole purpose of greed and profit,” Motil, a long-time Columbus resident and Clintonville Area Commissioner, said.

Under the citizen-led initiative, all residential rental units in Columbus must be licensed by the Department of Fair Housing, which in turn would establish the unit’s price, according to Jon Beard, primary author of the initiative and assistant director of the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Career Technical Education.

The department would include a 21-member Fair Housing Commission appointed by the mayor, a Division of Tenant Rights and Responsibilities, and other subunits — tasked with determining a property’s base rent on Jan. 1, 2020, using past lease agreements, Beard said.

Other factors, like a unit’s amenities and federal wage and compensation statistics, can also be taken into consideration while determining a rental unit’s price, Beard said.

“For my own children, I’ve got a 25-year-old and an 18-year-old, [and] I don’t want them to have to move away because they can’t afford the rent in Columbus,” he said.

To stall the rising rent prices, the ballot initiative also caps annual rent increases at the consumer price index — which measures the change in what consumers pay for goods and services over time — plus 2%, Beard said.

Renter-occupied units in the Columbus metropolitan area accounted for about 38.2% of all housing units in 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The median gross rent for Columbus metropolitan-area residents in 2015 was about $833, the U.S. Census Bureau said. In 2020, that number jumped to $981 — a stark increase for those living paycheck to paycheck, according to Chris Kelly, a social worker with the Legal Aid Society of Columbus.

“That affects regular working people, that affects mothers, that affects a lot of seniors on fixed income,” Kelly said. “We get a lot of folks here who are on disability and they make $750 a month, and now their rent’s $800 – that’s just impossible.”

But skeptics of citywide rent control measures like Jon Melchi are concerned that the initiative will do more harm than good.

Melchi, executive director of the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio, said rent control legislation, while well-intentioned, could deter developers from building new housing units in Columbus – a city that’s already experiencing a deficit of housing supply.

To meet the demand stemming from the nearly 70 people that move to central Ohio each day, Melchi said the region needs to build between 14,000 and 17,000 units a year, but in 2021, only 10,800 new units were constructed.

“That’s 2,000 families that don’t have a house because we couldn’t build them, and that’s not even meeting the entire demand that’s in the marketplace. That’s just in keeping up with the previous year’s numbers,” Melchi said.

As supply chain disruptions and inflation have triggered a rise in labor and construction costs, Melchi said capping what a landlord can charge might disincentivize them from making repairs or upgrades to a property.

The increase in lumber costs alone, he said, has caused monthly housing costs to increase by about $75 for central Ohio renters.

“I think it could impact the ability of investors to maybe want to come in and upgrade a property that may need repairs because of fear of being able to recoup that investment,” Melchi said.

Beard and Motil said they aren’t swayed by Melchi’s concerns, citing guardrails that are included within the initiative to protect both landlords and renters.

Among them is an appeals process, handled by a Division of Appeals under the Department of Fair Housing, to allow property owners and their tenants to dispute a unit’s price if they see it unfit, Beard said.

New construction is entirely exempt from adhering to the Jan. 1, 2020, base rent mandate, Beard said, but must abide by the annual rent increase caps – consumer price index plus 2%.

“It’s a very open piece of legislation that allows everybody to work together, being fair to both investors and renters, and that’s the way it should be,” Motil said.

One of the things Beard hopes to avoid, he said, is disincentivizing landlords from making repairs. The Department of Fair Housing would create a schedule of allowable costs a landlord can recover for upgrades and incorporate those costs into a lease agreement, he said.

“It’s a way to kind of keep investment going in the properties and making sure landlords don’t have depreciating properties up to kind of market standard,” Beard said.

To avoid targeting mom-and-pop landlords, property owners with four or fewer residential rental units are exempt from capping rent at the Jan. 1, 2020, fair market value – as well as those renting a unit to close family members, Beard said. Units operated by nonprofit or social service companies, like drug treatment centers, domestic violence and homeless shelters, are also exempt.

“We’ve built in enough flexibility into the system, and the rest is on the city to actually produce the (affordable housing) units,” Beard said.

If Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein approves the ballot initiative, Beard said the coalition has a year to collect about 5,200 valid signatures of Columbus residents. Once the Board of Elections validates the signatures, City Council can adopt the resolution on its own or pass an ordinance to get it on the ballot, Beard said.

Klein and Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin did not respond to requests for comment.

While Motil is hopeful voters will have the chance to decide the initiative’s fate, he’s convinced that real estate and development communities in Columbus won’t be too happy with their proposal.

“I’m rather certain that because of the amount of influence that the development community has over City Council and the mayor – the influence they’ve had over them for decades – the development community is gonna be opposed to it,” Motil said.

Although Mayor Andrew Ginther’s office did not comment on the specifics of the initiative, as the proposal has yet to be vetted by Klein’s office, city spokesperson Melanie Crabill said Ginther is pushing for a bond package on the November ballot to allocate $150 million for affordable housing — and will work with community partners to address the city’s housing shortage.

Until more affordable housing options present themselves in Columbus, Beard said he’ll continue to urge lawmakers and city officials to prioritize the needs of all Columbus residents over tax abatements and profits.

“As a God-fearing person, somebody who’s just has a love of humanity, ” he said, “we’ve got to look beyond our own wallets and do things that are fair and make sense to everybody.”