Let’s make safe, decent, and affordable housing a community priority

I want to applaud the Dispatch for the investigation that led to a touching series of articles on slumlords and dilapidated housing in Columbus. The articles have shed light on an issue that has long plagued revitalization efforts in our community. As President/CEO of Homeport, one of the largest nonprofit affordable housing providers in Columbus, I’m often asked how many people in our city are struggling to pay mortgages and rents that are beyond affordable for their income levels. And that’s one way to measure the need for affordable housing, but not the whole picture. It’s not just a question of how many people are making sacrifices to pay for housing that’s beyond their means; it’s about the people who are living in the only housing that’s affordable to them, and the larger sacrifices they’re making because they have no other options. 

In “Legacy of Neglect” the Dispatch touched on something that wrenches my heart – the reason only 10% of code inspections take place inside residential properties. People who live in deplorable conditions live there because they believe it is their only option. The most they can afford. The best they can do for their kids. When their landlord doesn’t fix an issue, they don’t complain because they are scared of something worse. If code enforcement cites the landlord and the home is rendered unfit to live in, the family may lose their only home. Given the choice between being homeless and living with chipping paint, rodents, and mold, you will always choose the rotting roof over your head.

There is a real need for safe, decent, and affordable housing in our city.  “Legacy of Neglect” and “Life under Siege” feature families struggling to live on Columbus’ Westside. At Homeport’s affordable Emerald Glen community on the Westside, 60 applicants are on a wait list for 130 occupied apartments, because that community and many others are at capacity. In 2014, we’re building 52 more affordable townhomes for families living on that side of town, but for every new home we build, there are thousands more families living in run-down homes.

There’s an aspect of this story that’s not been discussed. The focus has been on the house itself, not the family inside. There are devastating long-term effects for those families. A six year longitudinal study by Tufts University captured data on low-income children in three major cities across the country. What they found is worthy of pause: The QUALITY of housing that children lived in was more important in predicting future success than ANY OTHER HOUSING FACTOR, including whether their parents rented or owned, received welfare or Section 8 housing assistance, or even how long they had lived in the home. Children in more dilapidated housing had lower average math and reading scores than their peers, and more behavioral and social/emotional problems. When parents are imprisoned in homes that are caving in around them, they aren’t just sacrificing the comforts of home, but their child’s ticket out of poverty.

I am heartened to see City and County changes to crack down on slumlords, but many issues need to be addressed. Our citizens, activists, schools, and nonprofits must spend too much time fighting the consequences of dilapidated and vacant homes – house fires, drugs, and crime, when we could spend it revitalizing neighborhoods and creating more affordable homes. When we could focus on preparing children for college, we’re dealing with bed bugs brought into the classroom, and solicitors on the streets outside our schools.

So I’m asking this community to make a commitment. Let’s make safe, decent, and affordable housing a community priority. Home is the hub. It’s the point of connection where parents rest before the next work day, where families take a meal together, where older brothers help younger ones with math homework and science projects, and where children are meant to flourish. Together, we can tackle the issues that our children were never supposed to face. We must commit to making home matter.

Dispatch Special Report

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Amy Klaben is President and CEO of Homeport, a nonprofit affordable housing provider whose mission is to create and preserve healthy, stable, and affordable communities, one neighborhood, one person at a time. Amy has served the community for 21 years both as a Board Member and then President/CEO of Homeport, and is a member of the Franklin County Community Advisory Committee. She is the Co-Chair of the NeighborWorks National Real Estate Advisory Board and the Board Secretary of the Ohio Housing Council.