Editorial: Affordable housing crowds, data illustrate need

This has been a consistent trend in Columbus in recent years: When there is a public meeting around the subject of affordable housing, people show up in big numbers with plenty of good ideas.

That happened again on March 20, as The Republic’s Brad Davis reported. Scores of community members piled into Columbus City Hall to discuss housing, particularly affordable housing, as part of the city’s housing study that will be released in late summer.

For all the discussion, however, we must address plainly what “affordable” means regarding housing in Columbus.

If you are someone who is fortunate enough to earn well above Columbus’ median annual household income of $75,114, then the median monthly owner costs of a home with a mortgage — $1,381 — might seem quite affordable.

Those are data points from the 2020 census, but others demonstrate the real-life struggle that far too many residents face in simply keeping a roof over their heads.

Consider this: The median per capita income for someone living in Columbus between 2018 and 2022 was $40,925, which means half the people in our city earned less than that. After federal and state withholdings, a typical worker earning the median income is left with monthly take-home pay of just under $2,600. And this does not include any expenses for benefits such as health insurance or retirement savings.

But let’s just use that $2,600 monthly take-home figure anyway, because that’s what individuals earning that median income generally had to do as a practical reality, because the median rent in Columbus at this same time was $1,081, according to the census data.

At these figures, a person earning the median income in Columbus must spend almost 42% of his or her paycheck on rent. And remember, this is without springing for luxuries such as health insurance or retirement savings, let alone utilities, food, transportation or child care. And also remember, half our city’s workforce earns less than $2,600 in monthly take-home pay.

So before we even have a housing study in hand, the data already tell us this: Too many people who work in Columbus cannot afford to live in Columbus.

Of course, our city is by no means alone in this problem.

But one asset that we do have is a community of problem-solvers. We believe that real-world affordable housing solutions can be found in the suggestions of the many people who long to see more doors open for more people and families who deserve not only affordable housing, but affordable homeownership opportunities in Columbus.

The city absolutely has a role to play. Columbus’ leaders got an earful recently for throwing millions of city dollars at what many residents criticized as subsidized luxury apartments.

That criticism resonates because that same help has not gone where it’s most needed. We believe the city’s tax increment finance resources that helped above-market-rate downtown apartment projects also can and should be used to incentivize affordable housing.

Among the many people who recognize the need for innovative affordable housing solutions, the will to see it happen is strong. For the good of all of Columbus, city and community leaders, working together, must find the ways.