Local Politics: Housing challenges on the horizon

Rob Moore

Last summer, I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area back here to Central Ohio, where I grew up. While living in the Bay Area, I enjoyed a lot of the things people love about that part of the country: the food, the art and, of course, the weather.

What I did not enjoy were the prices. My roommate and I split a 650-square-foot two-bedroom in south Berkeley for $1,900 a month — and we were on the low end of what a lot of our friends paid. The Bay Area has suffered a confluence of geographic constraints, a booming tech industry, well-intended housing market regulations and anti-development resident lobbying that have driven its housing prices higher than New York City's.

After my Berkeley experience, returning to Columbus has been a breath of fresh air. According to a report by housing economist Chris Salviati at Apartment List, the median one-bedroom in Columbus goes for $730, less than half the median one-bedroom in Oakland. This puts Columbus in the top half of most affordable cities in America, more affordable than 68 of the 100 largest cities in the country. This is while Columbus has grown faster than 64 of these cities, according to census estimates.

So how has this happened? There are a lot of different explanations. Incomes are higher and geography is constrained in the Bay Area, leading to more dollars chasing less housing. Columbus does not have regulations like rent control, which protect static residents at the cost of higher rent prices for mobile residents. Also intriguing: Columbus is one of the only major cities without a ward system for its city council, giving active neighbors less power to influence councilmembers to vote down development projects.

I can't tell you which of these factors has been the most important in keeping housing prices low in Columbus. I can't even tell you I like all of these differences. As a neighborhood organizer in Omaha, Nebraska, I got to see the importance of voice for long-time residents trying to shape how their neighborhoods change. And I sure did like living in a rent-controlled apartment in Berkeley.

That being said, the reality is that Columbus is changing. I'm surely not the first person to tell you that the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission projects the Columbus Metro will grow by one million people in the next 30 years. So the question is not “Will we change?” but “How will we change?”

Columbus is going to have a decision to make: more apartments, condos and housing, or higher rents and mortgages. I'd like to see the city continue to encourage building, incentivizing affordable housing and zoning for what architect Daniel Parolek calls the “missing middle”: the townhouses, duplexes and triplexes that are stepping stones into the middle class. Otherwise, we'll join the rest of the growing cities nationally and see housing prices get unmanageable for everyone.

Sometimes you have to change a little if you want to stay the same.