This Op-Ed is written by Mayor Ben Kessler
After graduating from college, I moved into a small one bedroom apartment in Arlington while doing some post-grad work at OSU, and later into a two bedroom townhouse in Worthington for a few years. I was lucky – privileged – to have a grandfather (“Poppy”) who owned apartments in town and who graciously allowed me and my young family to rent at half the going rent for those apartments. Poppy was one of those larger-than-life characters, whose graciousness and love defined him and inspired everyone around him; I owe so much to him and the lessons he gave me early on in life. During those years, I was making scant apprentice salary in the first years of a real estate and finance career, yet because of the generosity of family we were able to tuck away enough to, in a few years, move back to Bexley and into a fixer-upper on Stanwood Road that was a perfect starter home for a couple on a tight budget with an irrepressible enthusiasm for DIY.
Poppy’s apartments were my “affordable housing”, and they gave me the leg up to work hard, save, and eventually grow in my career, become a home owner, and begin to build equity. In a community like ours, my story isn’t very unique. A lot of us have been fortunate enough to have a hand up in our lives, and it’s those gifts and that help that have not only gotten us where we are today, but taught us a spirit of giving and empathy for those who, like us, benefit from a village of support around us.
The untold story is that Bexley has affordable housing today, apartments that in size and basic form are similar to what many of us started out in. But beyond this most basic comparison, they bear no resemblance to the housing that most of us would feel comfortable calling home. The majority of Bexley’s affordable housing was constructed in the 60’s on a former landfill that wasn’t licensed or regulated or properly closed, with buildings that even in the immediate years after their construction began to show ample signs of structural decay. One environmental expert told us that he believes it to be the only active apartment property in Ohio on a landfill. The heaved lower unit floors; the stair step cracks on the outside wall; the damp that comes from cracked concrete; and the crooked walls and sloping walkways throughout, all betray evidence of generations of underinvestment and neglect. It’s affordable, sure, but it’s housing of last resort, and it’s housing that doesn’t meet basic human needs for safety, quiet, and sanctuary.
As a City, we’ve spent the past decade working to unpuzzle the mystery of how the apartment buildings on Ferndale and Mayfield came to be constructed on an improperly closed landfill, and what can be done to improve conditions for residents in the area. We’ve commissioned environmental studies to understand the scope of contamination in the soil from the former landfill as well as the risks that contamination poses to residents living on top of it. With our Community Improvement Corporation we’ve purchased a couple of the buildings, more deeply studying the environmental ramifications of contamination in and around the units themselves – a long term project that wasn’t possible without ownership and that has helped us gather adequate data to understand how to address the adjacent properties in the area. When we learned that our randomly selected units exceeded safe parameters for human habitation and that even the most extensive remodel could not cure their fundamental environmental and structural defects, we crafted a voucher and relocation program to help residents in those units find safe and attainable housing before shuttering the units and, with the assistance of the Central Ohio CIC, tearing them down. In the past couple of years, we’ve tweaked our nuisance laws to allow us to enforce against environmentally contaminated housing conditions, and we’ve successfully advocated (with many other cities and entities) for a return of meaningful state remediation funding to assist with environmental cleanup.
Our strategy for addressing the environmental contamination and overall housing conditions in the area extends beyond gleaning environmental data and holding owners to a standard for occupancy. It has included improving overall infrastructure for residents who live there today; extending Schneider Park to encompass a portion of the former landfill, now remediated, which serves as a wonderful amenity to residents in the area and beyond; and moving forward with the Joint Livingston Avenue Plan and its recommendations for improving the safety, beauty, and infrastructure and development standards for the corridor.
It’s not enough for us to identify defects in troubled housing, and upon learning that they are unable to be remediated in place, tear them down. And it’s not appropriate for us to, in general, segregate our starter apartment inventory into one distant pocket of our community, literally not even connected to a single other Bexley street. We know that we can and must provide better options for the young professionals, the working moms, the 55 and older population, and all manner of folks in between.
All of this brings me full circle back to young Ben Kessler, starting out in the world and working hard to make ends meet. The alternate multiverse version of me, without the loving grandfather with means – where would he have lived in Bexley for those first, critical years? The best solution – best tool in our toolbox for addressing this gap for those who don’t have the same privilege – is a federal financial program called Tax Credit Housing. It’s a program that provides financial assistance to developers of apartments, in exchange for them renting those new units at a below-market rent to tenants that meet income criteria. It’s a highly regulated program that doesn’t end when the units are built. Landlords have strict management and investment criteria, and are required to make upgrades and refresh properties as the years pass. Tenants are generally required to have a source of income and, as with most mainstream apartment operations, are carefully vetted to ensure they’ll pay the rent reliably and that they don’t have a concerning criminal background.
Several years back we issued an RFQ, asking for developers competent in tax credit housing to help us identify opportunities to elevate the state of affordable housing in Bexley. A proposed multi-site development – with 27 units proposed in a three story building at Francis and Livingston, and 18 units proposed in a three-story building at Cassady and Columbus Avenue – is an early result of that RFQ. There’s more to come, as we rehabilitate and reimagine the areas of our community whose residents have been too long forgotten.
I’ve heard from some residents that they don’t understand why Bexley cares about affordable housing, and that they’re concerned that we’re going to negatively impact our community by working on better housing options for our lower income residents. And whenever I hear that, I know that there’s a lot of information to relay to the community and for the community to take in. The City of Bexley routinely holds forums and workshops to learn more about affordable housing, and about the importance of rehabilitating Bexley’s existing housing stock, and exercising environmental justice in our communities. To keep an eye on these programs and these projects, make sure to sign up for the Bexley Blast weekly e-newsletter. And if you speak to someone who has the same questions I referenced above, feel free to point them to this article as a starting point, and to reach out to me with any questions or concerns.
This is a big challenge for our community, but our community has a big heart, and I know we’re up to the challenge.
– Mayor Ben Kessler