High cost of housing saddles families in city’s midsection

It is getting increasingly harder for families in the central part of Columbus to stay on top of all of their financial obligations, especially housing.

Some of the areas in Columbus facing the greatest financial strain are south of 25th Street and northeast of State Street in older sections of the city.

A rising cost of living in Columbus is contributing to increasing poverty levels in the city’s central core, said Larry Perkinson, student assistance coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

Among other places, this is occurring in areas where students attend Clifty Creek, Smith or Schmitt elementary schools. More than 60 percent of them qualify for some form of meal assistance based on family income, and the percentages keep rising. In each of these three elementary districts, the percentage of families eligible for lunch assistance have increased by at least 16 points since 2005.

In comparison, 44 percent of BCSC students districtwide qualify for lunch assistance.

“It now takes $16 an hour (for a family) to live in Columbus,” Perkinson estimates. “There are not many people consistently doing that.”

One full-time income at that hourly wage rate generates about $33,000 a year before taxes. Below that income level, people struggle with a variety of financial challenges, Perkinson said.

But even that’s not enough, according to a 2013 United Way Community Needs Assessment for Bartholomew County.

The study estimated that it took a household income of closer to $41,000 for a family of three to avoid economic instability. The survey indicated that more than a third of all Columbus residents fall below that line.

High cost of housing

Housing costs are one of the biggest drivers of income instability in Columbus, said Mark Stewart, president of the United Way of Bartholomew County.Slight improvements in wages have not been able to keep up with rental costs increasing at an even higher pace in Columbus, he said.According to U.S. Census housing data, the total percentage of apartments in Columbus priced above $750 per month was 47.8 percent in 2010. After four years, however, that number had jumped to more than 58 percent. Most of these rental properties are located in older, centrally located areas of the city, Stewart said.

Ballooning housing costs and the resulting poverty is a familiar pattern, Stewart said.

As the central area of a community ages, wealthier residents often move outward, building new homes. And as these new homes age, wealthier residents move away from the city center. Lower-income residents take the place of wealthier peers, Stewart said.

Older, centrally located homes are often much more expensive to maintain than newer construction — even if they are less expensive to buy, said Diane Doup, community outreach coordinator for the Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center.

With owners’ inability to invest enough in upkeep of their homes, many older homes age poorly.

Fred Barnett, the city’s code enforcement coordinator, maintains a map of all complaints and violations. Hundreds of dots scatter across the center of town, clustered between 25th Street and Second Street, each marking a violation or complaint. The majority of these complaints involve residential property.

Many homeowners opted to sell older properties rather than take on increasingly prohibitive maintenance costs over the past two decades, Doup said. The buyers were often rental companies, which turn single-family homes into multi-family apartments.

Census records show 5,613- occupied rental units in 2000. By 2014, that number rose to 6,986, an increase of about 25 percent.

Unable to break the cycle

This proliferation of rental properties contributes to a troubling cycle for a lot of lower-income residents, said Columbus Township Trustee Ben Jackson, whose office provides direct housing assistance to Columbus residents.“Rent is usually higher than a mortgage payment,” Jackson said. “But it can be very difficult for people who are struggling to turn their finances around enough to qualify for a home loan.”Rather than staying in one home for many years, as owners usually do, temporary tenets move every few years, continually in search of a better situation, Doup said.

A housing market study of the State Street corridor found high numbers of short-term apartments in the older east side of Columbus, mixed with deteriorating, low-income, single-family rental housing.

A high transient rate due to an abundance of rental properties within a specific geographic area undercuts the perception of stability within that neighborhood, Stewart said.

“If you live next to the same neighbor for years, you feel comfortable with that neighbor,” Stewart said. “If people feel comfortable, then they are more likely to invest in their neighborhood.”

Touting home investment

Doup’s group has been working to build stronger communities in central Columbus. The Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center runs a neighborhood watch program that has a two-fold purpose — to prevent crime and introduce neighbors to each other who would otherwise not normally meet.The organization’s Facebook page features monthly updates on improvements residents have made to their owner-occupied or rental homes. This could be anything from planting a garden to putting up holiday decorations.“As people take more pride (in their neighborhood), they’re more likely to invest,” Doup said, echoing Stewart’s sentiment.

But revitalization of these neighborhoods requires more than just community activism, Stewart said. It requires direct public investment from the city.

Areas such as the State Street corridor — now targeted for improvement — had not received such investment over many decades, Stewart said.

The city’s plan for State Street calls for aesthetic improvements in east side neighborhoods, including new sidewalks and pedestrian paths, landscaping additions and road redesigns to allow better access to parking areas connected to commercial spaces. The city hopes that increased commercial investment and better-quality housing will follow.

“Public investments leads to private investments,” Stewart said, which improve an area’s economic vitality.

Pull Quote

“It now takes $16 an hour (for a family) to live in Columbus. There are not many people consistently doing that.”

— Larry Perkinson, student assistance coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

Pull Quote

“Rent is usually higher than a mortgage payment. But it can be very difficult for people who are struggling to turn their finances around enough to qualify for a home loan.”

— Ben Jackson, Columbus Township trustee 

Pull Quote

“As people take more pride (in their neighborhood), they’re more likely to invest.”

— Diane Doup, community outreach coordinator for the Lincoln-Central Neighborhood Family Center

Pull Quote

“Public investments leads to private investments.”

— Mark Stewart, president of the United Way of Bartholomew County