City election: Mayoral candidates discuss housing needs

Columbus City Hall exterior is shown in this Republic file photo. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Columbus’ two candidates for mayor both agree that there are challenges with Columbus’ housing market, but their ideas about how to approach the subject differ.

Election Day is Nov. 7. The mayoral race is between City Director of Administration and Community Development Mary Ferdon, a Republican, and bartender Sean Burton, an independent. There is no Democratic candidate in the race. Early voting for the upcoming municipal election starts Oct. 16.


Mary Ferdon

Ferdon previously beat Republican former Indiana state representative Milo Smith to become the GOP nominee with about 63% of the vote during the May primary. Incumbent Mayor Jim Lienhoop, also a Republican, is not seeking another term and has endorsed Ferdon.

Sean Burton

In discussing the topic of housing, Ferdon noted that the city is pursuing a housing study, which she expects to answer a lot of questions. The Columbus Redevelopment Commission voted in July to authorize up to $150,000 in funding for the project, and a request for proposals was released in early September, Ferdon said.

Burton said that, if elected, he would prioritize talking to people and getting “an idea of specific needs.”

“When you look at the housing situation, it’s not just a price situation, it’s also a quality of housing situation,” he added. “We’ve got places in Columbus that are very much less expensive to live in, but I feel like a lot of those property owners aren’t being held accountable to provide quality housing.”

When asked what housing types he believes the city needs, Burton pointed to affordable housing for individuals below the median income, noting that he’s spoken with local property managers who have year-long waiting lists on units designated for this demographic.

“We’re building some beautiful properties that are very nice-looking, and they’re great for Columbus,” he said. “But we’re not servicing an entire demographic of, I feel like, working residents of Columbus that would struggle to pay $1,300 or $1,400 a month.”

He also said that Columbus needs more housing in general, explaining that he believes a surplus of supply would lead to lower prices.

Ferdon described housing as a “spectrum,” with affordable, market rate and higher prices all necessary. She said the idea is that as people move up in salary, they will move into more expensive apartments or homes, thereby freeing up properties with a lower price.

“Most likely we’re going to find, what we believe is that we, like most communities, are struggling with trying to find what we call workforce or affordable housing,” she said. “We also use the word ‘attainable’ because affordable becomes very nebulous, perhaps, as to what one person can afford, another person can’t afford. … I think we’re going to find that that’s one of the things we might be lacking.”

Ferdon added that the city also wants to make sure there’s housing to accommodate seniors as well.

If elected, she plans to continue the city’s current housing efforts, which include communicating with developers about available properties.

Additionally, the city’s community development and code enforcement officials are working to identify vacant or “burnt-out ” homes and work with property owners get them either demolished or fixed up, she said.

Burton similarly said that it’s important to hold local landlords accountable for maintaining quality housing.

“And then, of course, we’re always exploring new opportunities to put up new housing developments, whether it be multifamily developments or new neighborhoods coming up to service that level of housing,” he said. “Always seeking those opportunities is good, but I think a lot of it starts with just holding some of our landlords or property management companies accountable for maintaining a quality home.”

In discussing her plans, Ferdon also mentioned wanting to remove barriers to development and work with the redevelopment commission on incentives for housing developers.

One such project where the latter has been put into action is The Taylor, a 200-unit apartment complex and urban grocer development expected to cost $41 million, per estimates from Flaherty & Collins. The city agreed to invest $11.8 million into the development under the project agreement, according to Bruce Donaldson with the Indianapolis law firm Barnes & Thornburg.

City officials have said in the past that the development’s property tax dollars will reimburse the city for its contribution. The redevelopment commission also committed to selling property for the development at minimal cost to the developer.

According to The Taylor’s website, move-ins begin Oct. 1, and available units start at $1,075 for a 553-square-foot studio.

“I think The Taylor is a really solid project,” said Ferdon. “Flaherty & Collins, the developer, they came in here, they did a lot of research as to, and they believe strongly that this is a good project and that they’ll be able to lease all their properties.”

She also reiterated that the city needs a spectrum of housing types.

“I don’t want to say that projects like The Taylor are not right, because as long as they can fill them, there’s obviously a need,” Burton said. “So if the Taylor sells out pretty quickly and they get it rented up at an occupancy level that Flaherty & Collins is happy with, then obviously there was a need and the market says so. I feel like, though, that’s our only focus.”

Other types of housing are also needed, he said.

When asked if he thinks the community needs more resources to help homeless individuals, Burton replied, “100%. And the reason I say that is because we have homeless individuals. It’s a situation where one is too many. And I’m not saying that everybody out there would use resources offered to them. At the same time, there’s a lot of them out there that feel lost and that don’t know where to turn, whether it’s because we don’t have the resources or because we haven’t done a good enough job of letting people know they’re available.”

In regards to homelessness, Ferdon stressed the importance of continuing to partner with other entities through collaborations such as the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress and Mental Health Matters.

“Homelessness is something that no one organization can solve, and there’s no quick fixes,” she said.

She added that there are two types of homelessness: temporary and chronic. While the community has a lot of resources for the homeless, she said that they need to differentiate between the two types and address both, working to ensure that individuals who are temporarily homeless do not become chronically homeless.