Seeking way forward on affordability
- Published: February 17, 2011
This is the eighth and last in a series of articles examining various aspects of affordable housing in Yellow Springs.
(This article was co-authored by Lauren Heaton)
Since villagers began discussing the need for affordable housing in Yellow Springs in the 1970s, the issue has fostered lively and forceful debate that has sometimes divided the community. Supporters of the cause have had many successes and could even boast of increased awareness of the need for modest housing, while skeptics have maintained that the strategies to address affordability are flawed. Controversy over affordable housing culminated in 2002 when a plan to build 20–30 affordable homes on a portion of the Village-owned Glass farm was defeated in a referendum.
In recent interviews, some villagers said they believe that times have changed and affordable housing is now widely-supported. To others, the arguments for affordable housing are not convincing. For example, supporters have long argued that increasing the number of modestly-priced housing units will attract a more age-, income- and racially-diverse population to the village in hopes of returning to a previous level of diversity. But skeptics challenge that demographic data used to measure diversity is inconclusive, that affordable housing does not necessarily increase diversity, and that adding jobs and lessening local tax burdens would better attract new people to the village.
Most contentious has been the issue of whether Village government should promote and offer incentives for affordable housing in the village. Does the mixed success of affordable housing efforts over the last decade suggest that public resources are now required to increase the number of affordable homes in a meaningful way? Has the controversy that led to the Glass farm referendum changed, and how will the current mix of opinions inform the dialogue over the potential partnership between the Village and Home, Inc. to build four small affordable housing units on Cemetery Street?
Affordable efforts so far
Public discussions in the 1970s about the need for affordable housing in the village led to the creation of the Greene Metropolitan Housing Authority, which manages about 75 clustered and individual units in town. The issue arose again in the 1990s, when villagers looking to support moderate income families proposed building moderately-priced housing on, for instance, the vacant parcel on Cemetery Street or the Village Station lot at the former grain elevator site. After Village Council agreed that affordable housing was a priority for the community, Council members Don Hollister, Deborah Benning and then-Miami Township Trustee Roger Lurie incorporated Home, Inc. in 1999 as a tax-exempt land trust to pursue that goal.
Over the last 11 years, Home, Inc. has been the village’s main builder of new, modest-priced housing. The nonprofit group has used private funding to build or rehabilitate 15 homes, including six at Thistle Creek, to serve a diverse range of families making 50–80 percent of the area median income. In 2000 Starfish built two affordable homes in the village, and in 2006 Suzanne Clauser started the Stancliff development on Kenneth Hamilton Way for small homes on small lots at modest prices. There are currently two Stancliff homes that are “market-rate affordable” and one Home, Inc. house.
But many efforts to increase the affordable housing stock in the last decade have also failed. The Village zoning code, which prohibits increasing density in certain areas, has stifled projects such as Home, Inc.’s proposal in 2007 to add three housing units to an existing house on Xenia Avenue. Both the neighbors and the Village Planning Commission criticized the project’s density, lack of parking and potential to increase noise and traffic, and even after the plan was reduced, the Village Board of Zoning Appeals still rejected it. For similar reasons regarding the limitations of the zoning code, last year the board rejected another proposal to add multiple housing units to a lot in residence B district on Marshall Street.
Projects have also been crushed because of disagreement between villagers on the proper role of government in housing issues. The first big disappointment for Home, Inc. was voter rejection of Glass farm referendum in 2002 — a hotly contested plan to build 20–30 moderately-priced, permanently affordable homes on a portion of the Village-owned Glass farm.
Those opposed argued that more housing for those with low-to-moderate incomes would not adequately address affordability in the Village. Many thought that the Village should sell the land at close to market value to a developer for a mixed-income housing plat. Still others thought the land should be kept as green space, as was initially intended when the village purchased the property using federal green space funds. And a segment of the population had difficulty with the community land trust model. Controversy ensued, until the issue was put to a vote and was denied 942 to 629.
In 2007 the Fogg farm annexation, which developer Doug Miller said would include some affordable housing, fell through when an anonymous person purchased the land. And the following year a potential agreement to include six affordable houses in Birch III fell through when the builder, Oberer Construction, pulled out of the development on the south end of town.
Home, Inc. also attempted to start a mixed-income housing development of about 30 homes on Rabbit Run farm, which came to a halt in 2010, when Home, Inc. was unable to secure a financial partner and Vernay Laboratories purchased the property. Over the years Home, Inc. leaders have been frustrated by attempts to acquire properties in town, an effort that included contacting about 60 property owners and finding only three lots for Home, Inc.
Lessons from the Glass farm
Reflecting on changes in the village since the Glass farm controversy, former Home, Inc. board member Ilse Tebbetts said that the community land trust model is better understood and Home, Inc. is now a more experienced organization with a successful track record and satisfied homeowners. Plus, their strategy of scattering affordable homes around the community rather than concentrating them in one large development was more acceptable to the community, she said, even though building individual units means higher construction costs and higher sale prices and a slower pace of construction.
“Things have changed a great deal around affordable housing in the village,” said Tebbetts. “I don’t sense that there’s a great public outcry about what we’re doing,” she said.
One reason villagers may be more concerned about affordable housing options is that the price of housing has risen locally since the Glass farm debate. In 2002, the average sale price of a home in Yellow Springs was just $159,984. It rose to $244,688 in 2006 and was $211,375 by the end of 2010, a 24 percent increase since 2002, according to the Dayton Area Board of Realtors.
Learning from the Glass farm controversy, Home Inc. has since articulated a clearer message about how affordable housing benefits the community, its leaders believe. Its membership has doubled in the last 10 years to between 300 and 400 members. And affordable housing was one of the top priorities for participants in last year’s Village visioning project. MacQueen attributes the growth in support to the strong track record the organization has built by creating good quality housing and serving people and families who are committed to the community. More villagers, though not all, also agree that the affordable housing is a public purpose, MacQueen said. That attitude is reflected in the 50-year-old federal and state affordable housing agencies and in a growing number of municipal governments across the country that participate in building affordable housing in their communities, she said.
But Home Inc. is just one way to affect local housing. Changing the zoning code to allow more density, cooperative housing and mixed-use property would be a huge boon to affordability in town, MacQueen said. The Village should also consider inclusionary zoning, which requires all new developments to make a certain percentage of its homes affordable.
Individuals can also contribute to the effort by downsizing to free up larger spaces for larger families. Homeowners can go a step further by looking not just for top dollar for their home and considering how the buyers might add to the community, Hollister said.
“People could be more conscious about the sale of their property, like when family members sometimes give other family members a break when they sell their house,” he said, likening the process to property owners who choose to sell the development rights on their land.
Hollister also suggested that sellers could aim their sale at younger buyers, a group that typically has difficulty purchasing a first house. He remembers, for instance, when Lance Grolla advertised in the 1990s that he would reduce the price of his house by $1,000 for every child the buyer had.
“Is it a community benefit to pull down the average cost of a house in Yellow Springs? I think it is,” he said. “I continue to think that small population and slow growth is good, but it pushes property values up, so I also support measures to allow people who can’t afford to live here to do so.”
Contrasting views on Cemetery St.
Though many villagers support Home, Inc., the organization’s projects have received no funding or incentives from Village government aside from the waiving of a utility hook-up fee on a recent project. But with an impending joint public-private partnership to develop four houses on a half-acre of village-owned land on Cemetery Street, the issue of public participation in affordable housing is again stirring debate.
In a Memorandum of Understanding with Home, Inc. last month, the Village agreed to offer the land at half the appraised value and to pay for the appraisal, waive up to $500 of zoning and tap fees per unit and cover the installation of a new fire hydrant in the area, estimated at $61,000.
Some villagers have challenged the notion that housing attracts residents and that the public should dedicate resources to develop affordable housing. According to former Springfield economic development director Ellen Hoover, local governments should participate in jumpstarting both economic and housing growth. But to increase a community’s population, jobs may be a greater draw than houses.
“I think people will want housing when there are jobs, but right now there are not all that many jobs in town,” Hoover said. “I’m a believer that the more job development you have, the more folks will want to move closer — they’ll need the housing to go with it.”
Governments should focus primarily on economic growth, she believes, and housing development can also be supported by maintaining the least prohibitive zoning policies and practices and harboring a developer-friendly attitude.
Theoretically both economic development and affordable housing could be pursued simultaneously (both are official goals of the current Council). But declining tax revenues in an uncertain economy may require an exercise of caution in allocating the Village’s scarce resources, according to former Council member Jocelyn Hardman. That includes selling Village-owned land for less than market value or taking on the costs of extending utilities for developments.
Much of the controversy surrounding the proposed Glass farm project centered around the Village’s planned donation of what some considered a prime piece of land, which could be sold to a conventional developer to increase village coffers. Similar arguments are being made about the proposed Cemetery Street project, and Hardman has also raised questions about the legality of offering a reduced price for Village land instead of selling the land to the highest bidder.
Township Trustee Chris Mucher said he believes public officials need to balance the investment in affordable housing with other community needs, such as farmland preservation.
“I’m really supportive [of affordable housing] if it’s done on a private basis,” he said. “When you talk about the use of public funds you get into the idea that public officials need to balance their revenues versus the demand [for affordable housing] and be accountable to that.”
But supporters of government participation in affordable housing say that the long-term economic and social benefits are worth the initial public investment.
“I see residential development as economic development,” said Council member Karen Wintrow, adding that investing in infrastructure for an affordable housing development, such as the proposed Cemetery Street project, would bring returns by adding to the tax rolls.
And some feel the Village’s investment in land preservation should be balanced with its support of affordable housing, since the Village’s commitment to green space raises housing costs by making land scarce and also more attractive. Just as the greenbelt is part of the Village comprehensive plan, so should be affordable housing, said former Home, Inc. board member Don Hollister.
“Part of the reason I support reducing housing costs is because I support the greenbelt, and I’m aware of the causal effect one has on the other,” he said.
As MacQueen sees it, if villagers want to maintain current borders surrounded by green space and still have an economically, racially and generationally diverse community, more housing inside the village will be needed, she said. Still other villagers consider green space more important than affordable housing, a view which MacQueen says is common throughout the U.S.
“People say they support [affordable housing] but when it comes down to it, they don’t,” she said. “We were surprised to see that that was true in Yellow Springs.”
Rick Donahoe, for one, feels that the momentum for more development and housing is likely to claim the Kinney and Pitstick farms between Dayton Street and Fairfield Road. That could eventually add a great many houses to the village, at which point he feels that open space will be very precious. And while he would like to see housing costs go down, he wonders if the entire community is committed enough to affordable housing to give up things such as agreeing to a tax increase or denser neighborhoods, which have both proven unpopular, he said.
Assessing our housing needs
Before the Village pursues its stated goal of increasing affordable housing, some argue that more information is needed on the status of the village’s housing stock and the housing needs being unmet by the local supply.
Wintrow has suggested that an assessment should cover not just how much affordable housing is available, but the amount of housing across all price ranges.
“I feel like we are just lacking in housing at all levels, whether it be rentals, moderate, low, and high,” she said. “It bothers me that people that work at YSI can’t find a house in Yellow Springs to buy and it bothers me that people that were at the lower end of the income range can’t find a house.”
The Village has received two proposals from outside consultants to complete a housing assessment in partnership with Home, Inc., but has not yet contracted for completion of the study.
An analysis of current housing might include, for instance, the number of rental and owned units, their age, condition, affordability, accessibility and whether they are suitable for families, according to a memo sent to the village by Home, Inc.’s MacQueen last summer.
To determine housing needs, MacQueen suggested in the document that Village leaders come to an agreement on the type of people the Village hopes to attract over the coming decades. The Village could develop a plan for increasing the number of affordable units and decide the extent of its participation, which may vary from zoning code changes to offering developer incentives.
But agreement on the ideal level of diversity in the village may be difficult, Hardman said. Part of the problem is that the 2000 Census used a new method of calculating race to allow for the selection of multiple-races by a single individual. As a result, the data is not comparable across decades. In addition, while racial diversity may have declined slightly from 1970 to 1990, the village still remains much more diverse than the typical community in the state, she said.
“Populations change,” Hardman said. “It seemed more like scare tactics. [The Census data] was being manipulated in order to create this sense of threat that was contrived to fit an agenda,” she said of Glass farm proponents.
Instead, Hardman said she believes the investment to be too great and that Village monies would be better spent on long-term capital improvements that benefit the entire community, rather than housing for a few mostly moderate-income residents.
But Council President Judith Hempfling said she believes affordable housing is firmly in the interest of local government. To her, attracting more young families to the community with affordable housing is a way to increase property taxes, support the schools with more children and offer a community in which residents can start their own business.
“As a democratic government, when our citizens say there are certain things they care about, like affordable housing, and that they want the public good to be advocated for, we should be involved,” she said.