COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A proposal for a large student apartment complex bordering the northeast corner of Ohio State University has been given the green light by Columbus City Council – at least, most of it has.
Columbus City Council last week approved a proposal by Texas-based developer American Campus Communities to build a 671-bed apartment complex, taking up most of the block between West Lane and Norwich avenues along North High Street. The two-building complex, joined across the alley by an overhead bridge, will sit on the current sites of University Baptist Church and the Little Bar, a campus watering hole known for its cheap fare and Ohio State block parties during football season.
Council approved the application for the parcel of land University Baptist Church currently occupies. With the council’s stamp of approval, obtaining the OK for the second parcel – where Little Bar stands – is little more than a formality.
To Jeffrey Brown, who represented the developers, the appeal of the project is obvious, even as residents decried the proposal as an attempt by another corporate landlord to profit off of Columbus’ severe housing shortage.
“We’re talking about student housing across from the university. I think we’ve all driven up in that area and seen single-family houses that were never designed to house 10 students,” Brown told council members. “I’ve been in those basement apartments – not a place where you want your children to live. Affordable or not, not appropriate.”
American Campus Communities whittled down its proposal since pitching the idea to the University Area Commission last September. Originally proposed to be a pair of 12- and 9-story buildings standing at nearly 100 feet tall, the final proposal shows an 8-story, 191-unit building between Lane and Norwich and a 5-story, 28-unit building on North High Street.
The larger apartment building includes parking and 10,000 square feet for the University Baptist Church, which will maintain ownership of its space.
The council’s approval of the project came after a chorus of opposition that’s mounted since developers pitched the idea to the area commission. The University Area Commission rejected American Campus Communities’ idea, but like all area commissions, it is an advisory body whose recommendations the council does not have to follow.
“In terms of where the church was or even where ACC was, we were completely – we continue to be in the dark with questions we asked about management,” said University Area Commission President Doreen Uhas-Sauer, upon questioning by council members.
It was that question of management, linked to the complex’s affordability, that brought University District residents to commission and council meetings in droves, concerned about the company that bought American Campus Communities in August 2022.
The company behind the curtain
For the first three decades of its existence, American Campus Communities operated as an independent organization, building student apartments across the United States. As the largest student housing developer in the country, it now manages over 200 such communities, including at the University of Toledo, Kent State and Cleveland State universities.
“Without our integrity as a company in this industry, we would not have these partners,” said Sam Newman, senior vice president of development at American Campus Communities.
American Campus Communities will continue to be the manager of its properties, Newman said at the council meeting. But last August, the remaining shares of American Campus Communities were bought for nearly $13 billion by the Blackstone Group, an international investment company with a mass of private equity and real estate ventures – and a dark shadow of alleged human rights violations.
Blackstone’s private equity portfolio brims with real estate ventures, social media apps, pharmaceuticals and energy companies – including FirstEnergy, which, at 29 shares, is in Blackstone’s top five holdings. Since it entered the real estate industry in 1991, Blackstone has accrued $585 billion in global real estate assets across North America, Asia, Europe and Latin America.
In March 2019, the United Nations sent a letter to Blackstone, accusing the company, through its subsidiaries, of playing a significant part in the “financialization of housing” in the U.S. and abroad. Through its main real estate arm, Invitation Homes, the U.N. said Blackstone created an “asset class” out of single-family rentals that “has had deleterious effects on the enjoyment of the right to housing.”
Where Blackstone lands, havoc follows, the U.N. letter stated – including rents in some places rising by as much as 50% after Blackstone’s subsidiaries took over management. Nationally-standardized fees, charges for routine maintenance and immediate eviction threats plague Blackstone subsidiaries’ tenants, the letter said.
“Tenants have indicated they feel insecure living in these conditions, where above average rent increases, exorbitant fees or the smallest infraction can result in arrears and lead to eviction and the threat of homelessness,” the letter read.
In response, Blackstone said the U.N.’s letter contained “numerous false claims” and “inaccurate conclusions,” including the idea that Blackstone’s Invitation Homes could impact rental costs.
“We take our responsibilities as residential landlords around the world incredibly seriously, and hold ourselves to the highest standards of fairness, transparency and empathy for our residents,” Blackstone’s response read. “The injection of private capital, like Blackstone’s, is part of the solution to addressing the chronic undersupply of housing in major metropolitan centers around the world.”
Several Columbus residents pointed to the U.N. letter and other allegations against Blackstone subsidiaries as evidence of what will come with Blackstone’s investment in American Campus Communities.
“Blackstone is a biblical-scale plague of locusts, an unimaginably massive swarm of private equity money seeking to feast on our fertile fields and consume everything in sight, leaving us both hungry and unhoused,” resident Brian Estabrook testified at council.
Newman said that Blackstone will have no hand in the project’s implementation, emphasizing the parent company is an investor, not a property manager. He also reiterated Blackstone’s denial of all allegations against it.
“They are committed to doing the right thing by residents, investing to make communities better places to live, and they stand behind it,” Newman told council. “And we stand behind Blackstone as a company.”
American Campus Communities announced for the first time at the July 24 city council meeting that it intended to seek a tax abatement from the city in exchange for designating 20% of its High Street building as affordable housing.
The Weinland Park area, which reaches as far west as North High Street, is labeled as “ready for revitalization.” Developers receive 100%, 15-year property tax abatements as long as 10% of units are affordable for those at 80% and 100% of the area median income, respectively. The Lane Avenue building is not eligible for tax abatement.
Eighty percent of Columbus’ AMI, which is considered low-income and is set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is $55,550 for one person. Newman said rents for affordable housing units in the 79-bed building would likely fall around $450 per bed.
Stephen Goldmeier, a resident who lives near the development site, said the last-minute addition of affordable units doesn’t solve the issue.
“Not only are we still having that same problem, but this token creation of what they deem to be affordable housing just to get the abatement – it’s not enough,” Goldmeier said. “And the idea that we’re letting Blackstone use that to get into our community is astonishing to me.”
But most of council – save for Councilmember Lourdes Barroso de Padilla – were not convinced by residents’ arguments against the project. President Pro Temp and Zoning Committee Chair Rob Dorans said Blackstone’s history is not something it could even consider as part of the application.
“At the end of the day, ownership has never been a part of the land use question that has come before the zoning committee,” Dorans said. “Problems with problematic landlords we have typically handled through tenant protection ordinances that will continue to happen.”