A long-neglected area is changing rapidly.

When clients come into Betsy Sharp’s office looking to buy a first home, the neighborhoods of Columbus’ South Side are often far from their minds. “Maybe someone told them once, ‘I wouldn’t want to live there,’” says Sharp, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker King Thompson. “But I start telling them about it, and I can hear them getting excited.”

Columbus’ South Side comprises a huge swath of land, from Livingston Avenue to the industrial zone along Route 104 and from I-71 to Alum Creek—and many of the neighborhoods within its borders are experiencing rapid change.

Sharp, who lives in Merion Village near the border with Hungarian Village, raves to clients about her neighborhood’s central location: “20 minutes to everywhere.” She tells them about the mix of longtime residents and newcomers. The nearby attractions, like Schiller and Moeller parks. The walkable streets. And the prices, which are attractive in comparison to those in other urban core areas like the Near East Side and Italian Village. But they’re rising fast.

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Sharp purchased her Merion Village home in 2014 for $92,500. She and her wife, Clara, invested $22,000 in renovations. Today, the home is worth two-and-a-half times what they paid, Sharp says. In April, the average home value in Merion Village was $260,150, according to Zillow—up 72.3 percent from where it was five years ago.

But Sharp’s not planning to cash in. Like many residents interviewed for this story, she loves her diverse, mixed-income neighborhood. She warmly describes her next-door neighbor Ruby Clay, who has lived in her home since the 1970s and often helps care for Sharp’s beloved Shih Tzu, Punkin. “She called me at 10:30 last night,” says Sharp. “‘Are you going to bring that package in off your porch, or do I have to?’”

When Bob Leighty, who bought his house on South Fourth Street in 1988 for $63,000, first joined the local civic association, they were combating crack houses. Now, as president of the Parsons Area Merchants Association, Leighty points proudly to an assortment of upscale businesses that have migrated to Parsons, from The Crest and Alchemy Café, near Nationwide Children’s, to “plant-forward” restaurant Comune and Parsons North Brewing Co., farther south on the avenue—as well as Two Dollar Radio, a bookstore and café.

Even so, when the developer Casto converted the historic Barrett Middle School into apartments in 2017 and built a series of townhomes nearby, Leighty was shocked at the prices the townhomes fetched. “I fell off my chair,” he says. “They were priced at $375,000 to $450,000—and they sold.” The apartments, too, filled quickly, with rents ranging from $899 to $2,899.

In some ways, it’s not surprising the neighborhoods immediately to the south and east of German Village have benefited from their connection to the pricy, historic area. More surprising to some is that the renaissance has been mirrored by a similar renewal east of Parsons Avenue, a once-thriving commercial corridor that is often seen as an economic dividing line on the South Side.

There, neighborhoods like Southern Orchards, Ganthers Place and Thurman Square have housing stock similar to those to the west, but suffered greater blight due to a history of redlining, neglect, foreclosures and even arson. But projects spearheaded by a partnership between Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which anchors the north end of the area, and local nonprofit agency Community Development for All People, aimed at improving the neighborhood while keeping it affordable, have created a sense of revival that is attracting an influx of for-profit development in the area.

The partnership’s Healthy Homes initiative buys distressed properties and rehabilitates or replaces them, then sells for market-rate prices to people with incomes up to 120 percent of the average income for the area. The group’s first project, in 2009, was a house on Carpenter Street, purchased for $12,000 and sold for $92,500. “It was hard to get an appraisal, because the only comparables at the time were short sales and foreclosures,” says Gretchen West, Healthy Homes’ executive director. This year, the agency will sell its 100th home in the neighborhood.

Kayla Merchant is one of Healthy Homes’ beneficiaries. An Oklahoma native, Merchant came to Ohio to attend Ohio State and in 2009 moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Southern Orchards. Six years later, she moved out when the building was sold and the rent was about to go up. The cheapest apartment she could find nearby was $975 a month, in Schumacher Place. She stayed there a year before deciding to look for a home to buy, but balked at the work needed on homes in her price range.

Then she went to see a house that Healthy Homes was planning to renovate. “It was in ruins. But I knew their work, and I said, ‘I think they’re going to do something great with the place.’” In December 2017, Merchant became a homeowner, paying $141,000 for a 1,300-square-foot home on a corner lot with three bedrooms and one-and-a-half baths. Now, there’s a house for sale on her block with an asking price of $210,000.

The opportunity to participate in a changing neighborhood has attracted considerable private investment. Earlier this year, The Columbus Dispatch reported on how half the houses on a three-block stretch of Siebert Street had changed hands since 2016, many of them flipped.

The rapid increase, while it’s a sign of health, worries West, a South Side native. “I’m concerned that the folks that have always lived here won’t be able to continue to live here.”

No longer able to afford fixer-uppers, Healthy Homes has pivoted to developing rental housing. Merchant says that’s a good thing. “I love to see the neighborhood move forward, but I’d like to be sure nobody gets left behind.”

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