Delaware County coalition focuses on 'complex' issue of affordable housing

PAUL COMSTOCK
editorial@thisweeknews.com
ThisWeek group

A page in the agenda for Delaware City Council's March 2 meeting noted the average household income in Delaware County is $95,000 a year.

The same month, city economic-development director Sean Hughes told council that many people who work in the city cannot afford to live there.

Housing affordability in the northern part of Delaware County and in central Ohio has been drawing increasing attention.

The Delaware County Housing Coalition formed last year and has discussed the issue in monthly meetings.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission in 2019 launched a Central Ohio Regional Housing Strategy study that MORPC planner Jennifer Noll said will examine affordable housing in seven counties, including Delaware. Completion of the study is set Sept. 2.

Hughes made these points when he spoke to council in March:

* Forty-five percent of what he called the city's 55 core industry employers, and 100% of its restaurant and retail employers, have voiced serious concerns about workforce housing.

* The average one-bedroom apartment in Delaware costs $705 a month to rent, and the average two-bedroom apartment is $928 a month. Rent is increasing at twice the rate of income.

* Many Delaware employers pay $13 an hour. Following the guideline that only 30% of monthly income should be spent on housing, such workers can afford to pay only $676 a month.

* Warehouse workers in the city average $32,800 in annual income – not enough for a two-bedroom apartment. Averaging about $39,000 a year, other workers, such as personal-care service and production workers, earn just enough for a two-bedroom apartment.

* Eighty percent of Delaware's blue-collar employees live outside the city.

Between northern and southern Delaware County, "the disparities are very much present ... but we don't necessarily always realize it," Noll said. "If the way we think about Delaware County is Powell or Orange Township, we're forgetting about a lot of the communities that make up this county."

Brandon Feller – president of Delaware County United Way, one of the groups that formed the county housing coalition – agreed most high incomes are in the southern part of the county, and the countywide income average "is maybe not a true reflection of where everybody is."

At a joint meeting of City Council and the Delaware City Schools board in February, the school district noted in a slideshow that 33% of all students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Children in a family of four earning $48,470 annually qualify for the program, the district website said.

Feller agreed many people with income well above the poverty line are struggling with housing costs. A $30,000 annual income isn't much for a family of four, he said.

"They don't get counted in that percent as being in poverty, but they're sitting just above it ... and we've seen this for a number of years in Delaware and in Delaware County," Feller said.

"A number of individuals that are working and have jobs are struggling, but they're trying to piece together an income through multiple jobs. ... They're not trying to get something for free. They're working," he said.

Some families spend half their income, "and in some cases almost all of their income ... just to keep that housing, because if you don't have the housing, you don't have any stability," Feller said.

Most of those assisted by United Way's Strengthening Families program "are employed in some way, have some sort of family income. It's just not enough in this county," he said.

"To me, it's really an economic-development issue. ... So much of our economic development in Delaware County has been focused on retail development. ... Those tend to be lower-paying jobs," Feller said.

"It becomes a challenge to sustain that development when your workforce has to live 30, 40, 50 miles away. ... At some point, it would behoove them to work at the Subway 5 miles down the street from where they can afford to live, rather than commute into Delaware County for those jobs," he said.

The pinch also can be felt by some professionals, such as teachers and first responders, Noll said.

"These are folks who are essential members of our community, who provide essential services to our community, and in some cases can't afford to live there," she said.

The MORPC study also is looking at evidence central Ohio doesn't have enough housing supply to meet demand, which Noll said is true regardless of income or whether a resident owns housing or rents.

The study will look at communities individually, she said, and will outline 115 potential actions or strategies a municipality might employ.

MORPC is looking at communities to identify "common threads in terms of housing sales, prices, demographics and economic opportunities," Noll said, as well as "the potential risk for displacement in neighborhoods that are perhaps seeing signs of gentrification."

The study is sponsored by several governments, including Delaware, Columbus, Dublin, Grove City, Lancaster, Marysville, New Albany, Upper Arlington, Westerville and Whitehall, along with Franklin, Licking and Union counties, she said.

The project's advisory board includes representatives from those governments, as well as individuals from the private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, she said.

Delaware city planning director David Efland and Hughes, as well as the Delaware County United Way, have participated in the discussions, Noll said.

MORPC also has identified more than 50 sources of assistance available to central Ohio residents, she said, most administered at various levels of government. Other sources include community-assistance programs available through AEP Ohio or the WarmChoice program of Columbia Gas, she said.

United Way vice president Barb Lyon said the MORPC study will be "one piece of the puzzle," along with what she called great participation by community leaders who have shown persistence in joining the housing coalition's discussions.

The ongoing commitment of local stakeholders will be needed "to push through this complex issue," she said.

Feller said the coalition stemmed from conversations held last year, leading to a number of community organizations jointly forming the alliance. Its meetings have included up to 60 participants at a time, he said.

editorial@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNews