COLUMNS

MORPC Matters: Path forward to equitable growth lies in housing

JENNIFER NOLL
Jennifer Noll

What comes to mind when you think of "home"?

Perhaps it's where the heart is, or ever so humble. Maybe you're reading this column from the comfort of your own home. Plenty has been said about the importance of a home, and with good reason.

Home -- shelter -- is a basic human need, but it isn't always so readily available. For many central Ohioans, housing is becoming increasingly unattainable.

The reasons are both recent and longstanding. The Great Recession of 2008 undoubtedly was a difficult time for our region. But thanks to a number of factors, central Ohio emerged with a stronger economy and a growing, more diverse population.

But the effects of the Great Recession linger.

Although central Ohioans were buying homes faster than ever in the early 2000s, this trend abruptly stopped when the recession hit. In turn, the number of renter households began to climb, even as construction of new apartments came to a halt.

Ten years later, central Ohio still has not produced enough rental housing to keep up with demand, resulting in increased rent prices and low vacancy rates.

A similar picture emerged with single-family homes: The pace of new construction slowed during the recession and has yet to catch up to the demand driven by a strong economy and record-setting rates of population growth postrecession.

But the past 10 years tell only part of the story. To fully understand the reasons for our region's disparate success in obtaining homes, we must acknowledge the role of historic policies, such as redlining and restrictive covenants, with racist and classist effects that compounded and remain embedded in our social fabric.

Examples of structural racism still are found here, disproportionately impacting central Ohio households in terms of housing-cost burdens, eviction rates, unfair lending practices, poverty and access to opportunity. These impacts exist particularly among people of color -- especially Black residents -- across the region.

While we are battling a global pandemic, COVID-19 also serves to underscore the persistence of racial, health and economic disparities that many of our residents are experiencing today.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission has spent the past year studying the region's housing-market conditions and -- together with nearly 100 communities, businesses and organizations -- will roll out a Regional Housing Strategy for central Ohio next month.

The goal is to bring the public, private and philanthropic sectors together around a deeper, shared understanding of the region's housing challenges and opportunities and to develop actionable strategies that position housing as a platform for equitable growth -- where all central Ohioans have the opportunity to find safe and decent housing in the neighborhood of their choice, no matter their income, age or racial ethnicity.

More homes of all types are needed for both owners and renters but especially for lower-income households and households with specific considerations, such as those with older adults, individuals with disabilities and multigenerational households.

Like so many other challenges, we can't just build our way out of this. Resources are needed to maintain existing homes, as well. Programs that support home repairs or retrofitting to make them accessible are a cost-effective yet underfunded solution to help central Ohio residents remain in their homes. And in this time of great uncertainty, eviction-protection policies -- and landlord assistance -- are critical needs.

Solving a burgeoning housing crisis is not easy, but it is possible. The Regional Housing Strategy provides a road map to guide us. It will take strong partnerships, political will and creative funding.

As residents of central Ohio, we have a vested interest in the region's success. It is up to us to talk with our friends, neighbors and elected officials about our communities' role in supporting housing that is affordable and equitable -- and to advocate for policies and programs that embrace more central Ohioans becoming part of this region's success story.

Jennifer Noll is a principal planner at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. MORPC's purpose is to bring communities of all sizes and interests together to collaborate on best practices and plan for the future of the region.