Written by Amanda Maher
It’s one of the great catch-22s of economic development: local stakeholders work hard to lure investment to distressed urban areas, but once these investments takes root, long-time residents are susceptible to displacement. Look no further than Brooklyn or Oakland for evidence.
Yet by and large, the Weinland Park neighborhood has been able to stave off displacement as the neighborhood has begun to revitalize.
In the mid-2000s, the City of Columbus and the Ohio State University teamed up to create a long-term vision for Weinland Park, a neighborhood where nearly two-thirds of residents lived in poverty and an estimated 20 percent of the housing stock was vacant. As they were kicking off a neighborhood planning process, one thing became clear: although significant investment in the area was desperately needed, it could not come at the expense of those who already called the area home. Civic groups and local residents had to be included in the planning process, and any improvements to the neighborhood had to include services and facilities that would benefit existing residents.
The end result of these planning efforts was the creation of the Weinland Park Neighborhood Plan, and the Weinland Park Collaborative (WPC) formed in 2008 to spearhead the plan’s implementation. What’s more, an explicit goal of the WPC was to prevent gentrification.
There are a number of ways the WPC went about achieving that goal. The WPC began by focusing on the local housing stock. Weinland Park’s concentration of affordable housing was among the highest in the city, and much of the housing stock had fallen into a state of disrepair. In some cases, WPC partners acquired Section 8 housing and transformed it into mixed-income housing. The de-concentration of low-income housing wasn’t easy. For instance, the transformation of 23 abandoned buildings in Grant Commons required an act of Congress before the Section 8 housing units could be redeveloped into a mix of market-rate and affordable units, all of which are occupied today.
Other early efforts focused on rehabbing existing homes and filling vacant properties. One program offered low-income homeowners up to $25,000 to renovate their properties. Another program provided employees of Ohio State with down-payment assistance in an effort to lure them to the neighborhood. All the while, the public and private sector were collaborating to acquire dozens of dilapidated properties scattered throughout Weinland Park in order to preserve them for affordable housing.
These public-private efforts have been critical to Weinland Park’s success in helping retain long-time residents. For instance, more than $11 million in public money was needed to prepare the Columbus Coated Fabrics site for redevelopment. The brownfield site was so contaminated that no private developer could take on the steep costs alone. After the plant closed in the early 2000s, the site became a target for arson and graffiti and was a major eyesore in the community. Through a partnership with the City, a developer agreed to build 40 new rent-to-own units that would be leased for $447 to $690 per month, and would ultimately help low-income residents achieve homeownership.
While the area has improved and attracted new residents, existing residents haven’t been pushed out. The bulk of investment has gone toward development of vacant or abandoned properties and programs to help existing homeowners spruce up their units.
Now that the existing housing stock has been stabilized, private developers are starting to build new market-rate housing. Market rates are selling for a median price of $305,000 – a steep price for an area with such high poverty. Yet, a key feature of these projects is that they are designed to be indistinguishable from Weinland Park’s subsidized units. But the fact that these homes are of comparable design and quality to the recently upgraded affordable units had prevented tensions from growing between the old and new residents.
In fact, it’s really remarkable that all of these housing improvements – coupled with a crackdown on crime and investment in local infrastructure – haven’t caused broad-based gentrification.
A recent study by the Greater Ohio Policy Center uses rapidly increasing average income, a high rate of property turnover, rapidly increasing housing values, and changing demographics as indicators of gentrification. The report finds that these indicators are not evident in datasets for Weinland Park.
The range of housing and rental options in Weinland Park lays the groundwork for an economically diverse community, rather than a predominantly high-income community. Weinland Park also has a higher percentage of subsidized housing than most healthy neighborhoods, ensuring a level of affordability for several decades. These subsidized housing units contribute to the demographic balance and when managed with high standards and close oversight (as many of the units currently are), they are less likely to result in negative impacts on the neighborhood as poorly managed subsidized housing do.
Preservation of affordable housing has certainly been one reason Weinland Park has remained diverse. But another primary reason is because WPC has worked closely with the Weinland Park Community Civic Association to engage residents and to provide a platform for residents of all economic backgrounds to communicate. A monthly forum brings residents together to better understand one another and the challenges they face, including the need for better public schools, affordable child care, job training, stable employment, and the like.
Based upon these conversations, WPC has partnered with local organizations to provide the services that are in highest demand. This comprehensive approach is designed to help lift residents out of poverty so that when the neighborhood does become more expensive, long-time Weinland Park residents can afford to stay.
As communities like Weinland Park experience neighborhood transformation, some turnover among residents is evident. Communities cannot prevent gentrification, but Weinland Park shows that it can be managed.