Affordable housing is in short supply in Central Ohio. That's been a boon for two previously beleaguered suburbs.
Want to startle your drinking buddies with a humdinger of a fact?
Try this: Obetz and Whitehall are two of the hottest housing markets in Central Ohio. And when your friends invariably scoff, toss them these nuggets: Since 2012, median home values have risen 30 percent in Whitehall and 38 percent in Obetz, according to Zillow. By next year, they're expected to rise 5 percent more.
So what's the appeal of these two previously beleaguered suburbs? One word: affordability. Affordable housing is in short supply in Central Ohio, as first-time buyers and downsizing empty nesters scratch and claw for the few options available. That's been a boon for Whitehall and Obetz, both of which boast city leadership wise enough to realize their important place in the market, laying the groundwork for smart growth and rejuvenation.
Whitehall's comeback story began when Kim Maggard became mayor in 2012 and convinced Zach Woodruff to become her development director. “I wanted people to feel like they could come to Whitehall and get a quality home,” says Maggard, who has lived in Whitehall for 36 years. “And we had to think of doing something different to achieve that.”
The city began offering down-payment assistance of $5,000 to homebuyers who would commit to staying in their homes for five years. For current homeowners who would promise to stay in their homes for three years, the city offered up to $7,500 for exterior home renovations, such as new siding, windows, paint jobs and driveways (half of up to $15,000 in expenses). The innovative idea worked. “People began to give Whitehall a second look,” Maggard says.
Maggard and Woodruff knew that jobs bring residents, so they also rolled out the red carpet to business as well. Heartland BancCorp announced plans to build a 60,000-square-foot headquarters there by this year, and the Wasserstrom Co. is renovating a 50,000-square-foot building there for its headquarters. Recently the city announced plans to tear down an apartment complex at East Broad Street and Hamilton Road and replace it with apartments, restaurants and green space to attract millennials—in the hopes that they will become future Whitehall homeowners.
“We don't have one target audience,” Woodruff says. “We want to make sure that Whitehall is welcoming for families of all shapes and sizes.”
Lori Elmore and her husband, Clinton, decided to make Whitehall their home in 2014 after looking for houses throughout Central Ohio for more than a year. Elmore grew up in Columbus and had a less-than-positive view of Whitehall, but the city's $5,000 grant and upward growth convinced the couple to put aside their preconceived notions. When they found a split-level on Fairway Boulevard, they were sold. “I love Whitehall,” Elmore says. “We both do. We love our neighbors and our neighborhood, and it's just the right size.”
While Whitehall's housing growth is driven by current stock, the 6 square miles that make up Obetz are teeming with new builds. And it's just beginning; E. Rod Davisson, the village administrator and economic development director, says 1,092 new houses are on the radar for the next few years and 106 new homes have been built since 2012, with 14 already constructed this year. “We have reasonably priced homes,” Davisson says. “When I grew up here, it was an old town with a lot of old people. Now a lot of young families with young kids live here.”
In the past, he says, Obetz had plenty of starter homes but not much else. Now, there's enough variety that residents looking for the next step up can find bigger, fancier homes and stay in the village.
Older homes have shot up in value and bidding for them is fierce, says real estate agent Joe Virgin. “Two years ago you could buy a house to fix up for $36,000,” he says. “Now, that same house goes for $60,000 to $70,000. It's crazy.”
Davisson says housing is booming in the former farming town for a variety of reasons. Jobs are abundant, thanks to the 300 companies that operate in and around the village. That includes an Amazon distribution center that opened last year and a Zulily fulfillment center that began operations in 2012.
“We have 4,800 Obetz residents but 12,000 to 15,000 people who work in the village,” he says. “We've more than doubled our general fund in the last four years and we'd doubled it once before that.”
The village has invested in amenities with that surplus, including a recreation center, a splash park that converts into an ice-skating rink and a park with a lake, walking trails and a community party barn. Another 34-acre park will open this year, Davisson says, and the city has built a 6,500-seat stadium for sporting events and community events.