The number of people paying higher-end rents has surged during the past decade, a time when community stakeholders have worked to provide more safe, available and affordable housing in Columbus.

The number of tenants in Bartholomew County paying at least $750 per month for rent during 2010-14 rose 68 percent compared to costs from 2005-09, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The percentage of people paying rent in the $1,000 to $1,499 range jumped 126 percent. The median (midpoint) rent also increased about $80 to $807.

About 1,000 new apartments have been built in Columbus during the past five years — twice the amount built in the previous 20 years, city-county planning director Jeff Bergman said. Most of those apartments are priced at the market rate, which means they are not subsidized, he said.

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While the number of rental units costing $1,000 or more has skyrocketed, the 51 percent jump in units in the $750 to $999 range is notable, said Susan Thayer Fye, public relations officer for the Columbus Landlords Association, of which she is a former president. She said the increase in that range is driving up the median rental price, which increased 11 percent during the two Census reporting periods.

Fye noted that some older homes that had been converted into apartments, and typically have had lower rents, have been renovated. As a result, rents have increased to recoup the landlords’ investment, and the stock of lower-price rentals has been affected, she said.

The working poor have been hurt by that shift, Fye said. Those who work but make too much to qualify for subsidized housing struggle to afford the higher rents. Also, developers can’t build for the price range they need, she said.

Compounding the problem of declining stock of lower-cost rentals is that some affordable-housing units have switched to market rate, said Mark Lindenlaub, executive director of Thrive Alliance and a member of the Mayor’s Advisory Council for Safe, Available and Affordable Housing. Another issue, he said, is that some people who need lower-cost rentals are getting squeezed out by people who can afford higher rents but are securing lower-rent units.

The American Community Survey data reinforces the anecdotal evidence heard in the Columbus community that there is a lack of housing options for people on the lower end of the income spectrum, said Mary Ferdon, the city’s executive director of administration and community development and a member of the the Mayor’s Advisory Council for Safe, Available and Affordable Housing.

“It is important for the city to understand and help developers understand the tools to bridge the gap,” she said, citing tax credits as an example.

People who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost-burdened, Lindenlaub and Bergman said. That’s a greater problem for renters than homeowners in Bartholomew County, according to Census Bureau data.

In Columbus, 42 percent of renter households are cost-burdened compared to 17 percent of homeowner households. However, both figures are below state and national percentages.

Columbus has been successful recently attracting developers willing to build affordable-income, tax-credit housing. The 60-unit Gateway Apartments, a $10 million investment that’s open on 4.5 acres near 10th Street and Cottage Avenue, is one example.

The city is currently reviewing three proposed low-income, tax credit projects, Bergman said:

54 senior apartments on the former Columbus Pallet Co. site, 1520 14th St.

51 senior apartments at the former Vernco building site, 1804 22nd St.

30 apartments at the old St. Bartholomew Catholic church site, at the southeast corner of Sycamore and Eighth streets

Low-income concerns

More low-income housing in the community is important considering that Columbus Housing Authority always is in need of more partners to help its clients, said Deborah Holt, the agency’s executive director. She is concerned about the ability of some residents to find housing.Columbus Housing Authority owns 157 public housing apartment units across the city, and administers 654 federal Section 8 housing vouchers — subsidies — that clients can use with private landlords who will accept vouchers.Currently, only five of the public housing units are open, Holt said. But that status takes into consideration time to clean up and repair units after they are vacated. Also, more public housing has not been approved for the community by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Holt said.

Columbus Housing Authority typically has a Section 8 waiting list of 530 to 580 families, and the average wait is 12 to 18 months, Holt said. With rapid turnover, it is pulling about 30 names per week from the list, but a continued influx of new applicants prevents the list from shrinking substantially, she said.

Beyond the need for more low-income housing in the community is the need for more private landlords who are willing to accept Section 8 vouchers, Holt said. Currently, 262 landlords are willing to accept the vouchers, but not all are active. Last year 167 private landlords had tenants who used the vouchers, Holt said.

The vouchers pay a portion of a unit’s rent, and tenants pay the difference — but not to exceed 30 percent of their monthly income. HUD helps make market-rate apartments more affordable by setting a maximum percentage of the market rate that can be charged when subject to a Section 8 voucher. However, HUD has lowered that maximum level for the first time in about 15 years, meaning clients must pay more of the cost, Holt said.

Additional affordable housing in the community is important because of financial pressures some residents face, she said.

“We think it hurts seniors and the disabled pretty hard — anyone with a fixed income,” Holt said.

And some people can’t be helped by Columbus Housing Authority because their incomes are so low, she said.

“That’s why you see more homeless. Rents are so high in the area,” Holt said.

Making a difference

Victoria Eden, 64, has lived in Sycamore Place — one of the public housing units, located at Second and Sycamore streets — for about four months.She is unable to work because of health problems, and lives on her monthly Social Security check. Before moving to Sycamore Place, she had been living with her son.Eden said despite living frugally — no Internet and no cable, for example — and having the help of Columbus Housing Authority and food stamps, making ends meet is still a challenge.

But she is thankful to be where she is.

“At least I have a bed to sleep in,” she said.

She said the central location of her apartment makes it easy for her to catch the bus and get to where she wants to go.

Richard Moore, 63, has lived in Sycamore Place since November 2014. He said he was in a rough spot before that. Moore said he was divorced and unable to work because of an injury, and was living in his mother’s basement.

Moore learned about Columbus Housing Authority from a friend and got on the waiting list, but thinks not enough people are aware of this option for help.

“I had been through hell for 2½ years and this was available all the time?” he said.

Moore was told the wait could be a year or more, but it took about four months because Housing authority personnel eventually learned that he was a U.S. military veteran. Preference in Section 8 housing is given to veterans, according to Columbus Housing Authority.

Moore said he’s still trying to figure out a good budget to survive on his Social Security income, but is glad to have his own place.

“The last year has been a piece of heaven,” he said.

Local housing resources

Columbus Housing Authority

799 McClure Road, Columbus

812-378-0005

Thrive Alliance

1531 13th St., Suite G900, Columbus

866-644-6407

Bartholomew County Landlord Association

3129 25th St., No. 202, Columbus

812-376-3500

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.