John Edgar’s Neighborhood: God, Grace and Affordable Housing
The leader of Community Development for All People has a driving mission to help Columbus’ South Side become a diverse, thriving, welcoming “front porch to the kingdom of God.”
Start at Frank Road, where a 90-acre patch of mud marks the spot where the furnaces of Buckeye Steel once roared, and drive north along Parsons Avenue to Livingston, where the glistening towers of Nationwide Children’s Hospital loom. Between the two, you’ll see reminders of the many stages of the South Side’s history: robust industry and modest prosperity, decline and decay, rediscovery, reinvention and nascent renewal.
Just over a decade ago, the rapidly growing hospital was seen by many South Side residents as an adversary. In 2007, Columbus Monthly published a story about the mistrust between the community and a hospital that was attracting visitors from around the world but seemed to have little regard for its immediate neighbors. “They are violating the neighborhood,” one resident told the magazine. With a $50 million grant from Nationwide Insurance in hand and hopes of expanding to the east and south (a plan that would eventually change as the hospital looked, instead, to its west), the hospital was buying and holding houses and vacant, deteriorating properties. Maintenance on rental properties the hospital owned was minimal, since they were slated for eventual demolition, and some residents felt the hospital was strategically keeping values low, in order to buy more land.
Today, that relationship has changed, and if you want to know where that change began, you would do well to stop about a half-mile south of the hospital, at the intersection of Parsons and East Whittier. There, you might see, on the west side of the street, a line of cars snaking around a former drive-thru liquor store that’s now a bustling free fresh produce market for those in need. On the east side, you would notice a sign for the United Methodist Church for All People Free Store and, right next door, a shop called Bikes for All People.
This block is the stronghold of a unique church and cluster of nonprofits that aim to bind and nourish this changing neighborhood with food, clothing, faith, bicycles, health care, tutoring, community spirit and, above all, safe and affordable housing. Like the hospital, the cluster has been growing rapidly over the past decade or two. But the organization’s reach extends well beyond its own buildings across a swath of the South Side, as Community Development for All People, the agency at the center of this hub, has brought to the neighborhoods closest to Parsons a total of $100 million of investment in new and renovated rental and owner-occupied housing.
The source and conduit of a large portion of that funding? Nationwide Children’s Hospital. And the man who breached the divide and forged a partnership with the hospital? Perhaps the city’s most unlikely power broker—a modest, mild-mannered minister who’s transformed his neighborhood with a tool rarely used in city politics, civic affairs and real estate development: grace.
Although the Rev. John Edgar retired a couple of years ago as pastor of the Church for All People, the congregation that spawned his wide-ranging campaign, he retains a preacher’s way of articulating the principles that guide his work in community development. The first is that the world is abundant—there’s enough for everybody, if only you can pull the right levers to connect people with what they need. The second is that it is always better to pursue change from a stance of celebrating what you have rather than bemoaning what you lack. The third—and this is one that Edgar claims to have had to learn over and over in his career—is that even rich and powerful people sometimes have a genuine desire to do good.
The goal of Community Development for All People, says Edgar, is to create and ensure the continued existence of a diverse, welcoming, mixed-income community on the South Side. “In our churchy language,” he says, “we think that looks like the front porch to the kingdom of God. And in other language, it’s just this place where everybody is welcome, everybody has a chance to thrive.”
In 1999, Edgar was serving as the United Methodist Church’s district superintendent in Columbus, overseeing 78 congregations throughout the region. His heart was in urban ministry, however, and he was especially moved to help his denomination become more comfortably diverse. He had worked some on the South Side and was disappointed to see churches there closing as congregations shrank.
But Edgar also viewed the South Side—especially Parsons Avenue—as a place of opportunity. “It’s a part of the city that has baked into it pretty decent racial proximity,” he says. “Back then, Parsons Avenue was this real racial dividing line, and if you were east of Parsons you were Black and if you were west of Parsons you were white. But Parsons Avenue kind of belonged to everybody: The library was there, the post office, buses ran up and down. And so it felt like the strategic place to try to do this. … It seemed to me that it was the best shot I could think of anywhere to build something from the ground up that would be interracial.”
He rented a space and began soliciting donations of clothes and furnishings and giving them away. As district superintendent, he had many congregations to draw on for donations to the Free Store. “It just took off. We were overrun with shoppers from the very first day.”
As the shoppers increased, Edgar began to get nervous that the store would run out of things to give away. “But the thing is, we never did,” he says, shaking his head. “We began to wrestle with why that is. It just didn’t make sense.”
Eventually, he arrived at an answer that was both the stuff of a sermon and a principle for his own life’s work. “If church people are confused long enough, sooner or later, you’re gonna go to the Bible to look for an answer. That’s just what church people do. And so I opened up the Bible. And the answer is right there on the first page—the first chapter of Genesis. It’s the story of creation. ‘And God made it, God made it good, and God made it abundant.’”
The Free Store started in a rented storefront; today, the 6,000-square-foot basement of that building, now owned by Community Development for All People, is lined from end to end with shelves filled with clothing and items waiting their turn to be offered in the Free Store. It’s chock-full of abundance.
In 2002, Edgar, now living in the South Side’s Merion Village, decided the time had come to create a church out of the community that had grown around the Free Store. As district superintendent, he was required to lead any new United Methodist Church until a pastor could be found, and so he was able to shape the new church as he pleased—or as his parishioners wanted. The church he created was wildly diverse. The services were uplifting, filled with homegrown music and often raw and confessional. They sometimes surprised even Edgar, who vividly remembers a service when he asked parishioners to describe the first time they’d prayed. “When I was being raped,” a woman recounted. In 2004, Edgar decided to leave his position as district superintendent to become the new church’s permanent pastor.
Dessaree Watters remembers her first visit to the church. As soon as she entered the service, Watters thought, “This is not going to work for us.” Looking around the room, Watters, who is Black, saw both white and Black people—the congregation is evenly divided—some dressed for church, as she was, and some looking disheveled; homeless, maybe. “I put my arm around my 5-year-old daughter and held her close, like, ‘don’t move.’”
“But then pastor John got up and preached,” says Watters, who later became the director of the Free Store, “and you could just feel the love. And it was sincere. And that struck a chord with me.
While studying at Harvard Divinity School, Edgar, a Missouri native who, following an itinerant childhood, found his calling under the mentorship of a minister in Yellow Springs, became the associate pastor of the Church of All Nations in Boston. That church had a history of serving the poor, from its original European immigrant congregation to what had become a mostly Black membership. During his commutes back and forth between the church in its rough-and-tumble neighborhood and the peaceful, cerebral life of the university, he thought about how to connect the two experiences. Many of his classmates were heading for academic careers; Edgar, instead, decided he wanted to lead an inner-city church.
Returning to Ohio to complete his preparation for ordination, Edgar was sent to work in rural churches for a time but soon came to Columbus to serve in a church in the Northeast Side’s Shepard neighborhood. The congregation was poor and mostly Black, in a community that had been shaped by blockbusting and urban renewal; at the time, the neighborhood was being ravaged by the development of I-670. Edgar became an activist. He chuckles as he recalls participating in an action to urge the Ohio Legislature to prevent utilities from shutting off service to those who couldn’t pay: He helped carry a bathtub into the Statehouse and plunk it in the atrium to symbolize the impossibility of bathing without heat or electricity.
The effort was successful, he recalls, and Ohio became the first state to require utilities to provide an option that capped utility fees at a percentage of income.
The church noticed his effectiveness and created a new position for Edgar: director of urban ministry. His role was to help inner-city churches in Columbus be more relevant to their parishioners. He stayed in that role for seven years, continuing his activism.
He also learned, surprisingly, to connect with the city’s power brokers.
In 1987, a developer named Don Kelley, then the president of the Columbus Board of Realtors and later, with his partner Bob Weiler, the developer of Polaris, was busy recruiting other developers and real estate agents to the task of shoring up Columbus’ struggling neighborhoods by creating affordable housing through a new organization, the Columbus Housing Partnership.
At the same time, Kelley says, he kept hearing about a minister who would show up at City Council meetings and speak persuasively against the zoning changes and tax abatements that developers sought. “So I went to find out who this guy is,” says Kelley. “And I asked him to be on our board. I wanted to show him that all real estate people aren’t bad.”
The stratagem worked. “It helped me broaden my understanding,” says Edgar. “I was not always a person who would have assumed that most wealthy people were good-hearted folks trying to do the right thing. And like every other group of people, there are some good, some bad, but on anybody’s scale, Don Kelley is pretty amazing. He’s one of the most kind people I know.”
Over the years, Edgar worked with Kelley on many projects: bringing Habitat for Humanity to Columbus, growing the affordable housing initiative, which is now called Homeport and takes credit for building or preserving 4,000 units of affordable housing over a 30-year history, and developing a West Side housing initiative called Homes on the Hill.
In recent years, Kelley—the son of a South Side tavern owner—has contributed, either directly or indirectly, to almost every one of Edgar’s initiatives. “We became buddies,” says Kelley. “He never had to ask me for anything.
“When he expresses a need, people are willing to help. That’s the kind of presence he has about him.”
As the Church for All People began to grow, Edgar decided to push in a new direction. In 2005, he got involved in housing, the greatest need of both his shoppers and his parishioners. He gave a sermon speculating about what it would take to fix one of the vacant, run-down houses in the community and return it to service—and a man who had been volunteering at the church and owned such a property just a few blocks away offered to turn it over to the church.
Edgar recruited supporters to do a complete rehab and quickly learned that unskilled volunteers can’t simply restore a house without a licensed contractor. The city cited the church for code violations and shut the project down. After that, Edgar got some professional advice and started a nonprofit housing corporation. It purchased a couple more derelict houses, fixed them up properly and sold them to low-income people.
In 2007, Children’s approached him about working together on neighborhood housing redevelopment. The activist in him was suspicious of the hospital’s motives. He understood that then-Mayor Mike Coleman was requiring Children’s to put some money into the neighborhood in exchange for infrastructure improvements. And he worried that Children’s, eager for international respect, was mostly concerned with improving its reputation and making its campus safe for visitors and employees.
“They didn’t want people to be afraid to come to the hospital. That was my understanding of their motivation … and I wondered how far that could carry us in a relationship.”
What he didn’t know yet was that there was an additional motivation bubbling up at Children’s: a growing interest in the emerging body of research on social determinants of health, the idea that social factors such as safe housing, economic opportunity, transportation and education can have an even greater impact on health than genetics and behavioral choices. And the interest was more than academic; the hospital’s Partners for Kids accountable care organization incentivizes keeping children on Medicaid healthy. As the hospital explored improving these social determinants in the city, its board directed researchers to start in its own backyard—the South Side.
“We had some of the best surgical success rates and medical success rates and safety rates in the entire country, in one of the finest hospitals in the world,” says Dr. Kelly Kelleher, the hospital’s vice president for community health. “But our rates of infant mortality in the community, our rates of asthma in the community and behavioral health problems among children: These weren’t going down, they were going up, and part of it was because children were living in such terrible environments. And the board said, ‘It’s not enough to have great numbers inside the hospital. We have to also have the healthiest community possible.’”
Encouraged by the city to start with housing, Children’s contacted Edgar. Kelleher says the hospital’s leaders saw Edgar as a bridge to the community. “If you ever talk to him,” he says, “you’ll see he can talk to the mayor. But he can also talk to a homeless person on the street just as easily. And he’s able to speak those different languages in a way that resonates.”
Children’s promised to contribute $3 million to $5 million, and Edgar formed Healthy Neighborhoods Healthy Families Realty Collaborative (now Healthy Homes), funded by the hospital but owned by Community Development for All People and staffed by hospital employees who worked in Edgar’s office. Children’s then-CFO Tim Robinson, now CEO, was named the chair of the board, while Edgar was appointed president.
Over time, Edgar says, he grew less suspicious of the hospital and developed a deep respect for Robinson. He became close friends with Kelleher—so much so that he and Kelleher and their spouses “podded” together in 2020, becoming the only couple one another would socialize with face-to-face.
The respect of the hospital’s leadership for Edgar grew, as well. “The guy is brilliant,” Robinson says. “Really a thought leader in this space. He’s someone that not only has great ideas, but is able to execute as a great collaborator, working with other organizations to bring great change.”
The collaboration went beyond the housing redevelopment that, by now, has reduced vacancies from 25 percent to 6 percent in a 40-block tract. At the hospital, 250 employees serve as mentors to South Side teens. A group of the hospital’s administrative assistants developed and staff summer recreation programming for South Side kids who live on streets with little access to parks. And Kelleher says he gets job applicants who say they want to work at NCH because of the projects on the South Side.
Early outcomes are promising. Kindergarten readiness scores and high school graduation rates are increasing, while emergency room visits by Medicaid-eligible kids are down. And the vacancy rate in the Southern Orchards neighborhood, close to the hospital, has dropped from 25 percent to 6 percent.
In fact, the success has been so great that it has created a potential new problem: gentrification. On Carpenter Street just southeast of the hospital, a street that was in terrible shape in 2008, a 1,646-square-foot home sold last May for $262,500. In some pockets west of Parsons, values are climbing much higher. Edgar says he has nothing against higher-priced homes being part of the mix, and points out that some of the South Side houses his organization and partner agencies like Habitat have developed have restrictive covenants requiring homeowners to sell to low-income buyers or to return any profits if they sell within five years. But to address the issue more directly, he’s focused on keeping the neighborhood within reach of diverse residents through rental housing. “Our way of trying to address this is that we decided to become landlords at scale,” he says. “That’s where we, the developers, have covenants to ensure that everything will remain affordable to the folks below 80 percent of the area median income.”
On a sunny Wednesday early in March, Edgar stands before a cheerful handmade tapestry he and his wife, Sue Wolfe, a public health specialist who’s also been deeply involved in Community Development for All People since the outset, had brought back from a trip to Zimbabwe. In front of him is a small, socially distanced group of supporters, reporters and friends. It’s the opening ceremony for Community Development for All People’s latest project: a 100-year-old post office across the street from its headquarters that the organization bought, gutted and renovated, all during the 2020 pandemic.
City Council President Shannon Hardin—a child of the South Side who tells the crowd his family bunked with Edgar’s family in Lakeside, Ohio, every June for a decade in his youth while attending a regional Methodist conference—cuts the ribbon, which is held at both ends by neighborhood children. The building, Edgar tells the crowd, has been remodeled to create additional classrooms for kids whose parents cannot supervise remote schooling; community meeting spaces; an internet café where people can go online for free; adult education classes; free tax-prep services. There will even be, Edgar announces gleefully, a free, walk-in barber shop.
In other words: abundance.
The Edgar Effect
Here are a few accomplishments of the nonprofit agency the Rev. John Edgar founded to assist with development on Columbus’ South Side.
- Provided 35,000 shoppers in 2020 with free clothing and goods through the Free Store
- Developed $100 million of affordable housing since 2008, building or renovating more than 700 units
- Assisted 189 homeowners with critical repairs like new roofs, siding and windows
- Progressed toward a goal of controlling 15 percent of the housing in three census tracts in order to keep rents below market rate for those with low incomes
- Distributed 1.5 million pounds per year of fresh produce free to individuals and families in need
- Helped the mothers of 500 babies overcome obstacles to a healthy pregnancy and first year of life
- Distributed 1,600 free refurbished bicycles and new helmets to neighborhood youth
- Provided learning space, equipment and help with remote learning to 50 neighborhood youths