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May
19
2024
Housing

Low-income housing proposed, transparency concerns raised

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In recent weeks, a new housing proposal has made the rounds among the village’s elected bodies. Though the proposal addresses affordable housing, a long-identified priority for the village, it has sparked community concern over transparency with regard to the public entities involved.

According to YS Home, Inc. Executive Director Emily Seibel, who spoke to the News this week, the local affordable housing nonprofit and community stakeholders have, since early March, discussed a proposal to site a 50-rental-unit development for low-income families on three acres of school-owned land north of McKinney Middle and Yellow Springs High schools.

This particular proposal, which has not yet been publicly unveiled by Home, Inc., comes five months after the nonprofit sought to construct a similar development on the Village-owned 35-acre land known as the Center for Business and Education, or CBE.

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“I think it’s no secret that we’ve been working for several years to identify a path forward for rental housing that is affordable to families in our workforce, and it is very challenging to find funding,” Seibel said. “It really requires the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.”

As previously reported in the News, a $10 million subsidy for putting housing on the CBE was available through the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. Despite the availability of those funds, Village Council stalled Home, Inc.’s plans because of the extensive steps the Village would have to take to accommodate such a project, including rezoning the CBE and negotiating land restrictions with nearby Antioch University Midwest and Cresco Labs.

“After we went to the Village and it seemed like there wasn’t enthusiasm for the CBE — which is understandable — we committed publicly to put together a group of stakeholders to start meeting and evaluate every potential site in the community,” Seibel said.

The group of stakeholders included representatives from YS Home, Inc., the Village of Yellow Springs and the Village Housing Committee, Miami Township, St. Mary Development Corporation, the YS Community Foundation, the YS Development Corporation and YS Schools, according to a statement of purpose from the stakeholder group shared with the News by Seibel. 

As Seibel outlined for Village Council members last November, when the CBE proposal was first floated, the $10 million subsidy — which would come from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, or OHFA — was available owing to the school land’s high scoring on OHFA’s opportunity index map. Now, Seibel said, a $15 million tax credit subsidy is available.

Whereas much of Yellow Springs — that is, what exists east of East Enon Road — scored 80 on the opportunity index, the rural land that immediately surrounds the village, including the land on which the schools and the CBE sit, received a higher score of 94.

Because the now-increased tax credit subsidies are still available into 2025, Seibel said Home, Inc. has shifted its focus for the proposed 50-rental-unit development to the grassy field abutting the Greene County Educational Service Center — land owned by the Board of Education. The proposed land is on the site of the Morgan Fields, where local recreational soccer programs currently practice and hold matches.

Seibel added that Home, Inc. has not yet publicly introduced the proposed plan because the nonprofit wanted to discuss it first with the stakeholder group, as well as adjacent landowners, “just to see what the options are.”

“We want to navigate what a path forward could look like, but we haven’t solidified what that path might be,” she said.

As discussions progressed, Seibel said, Home, Inc. and stakeholders had originally planned to publicly discuss the proposal at an upcoming Monday, May 20 Village Council meeting, and added that Home, Inc. “wants to engage the community” in discussions about the proposal.

Seibel also noted that, because of its high opportunity index score, the three acres near the schools are the “most viable option” for the proposed development — but that Home, Inc. recognizes the importance of the school-owned land to the community at large. She said the nonprofit is “not interested in pressuring anyone, any person to do something that they’re not comfortable doing.”

“[Home, Inc. has] been clear from the beginning that we want to move forward with a win-win — meaning that all of the parties involved feel good about it,” Seibel said. “We definitely don’t want to hurt or polarize the community; we’re not interested in taking anything away.”

Concerns over transparency

Though stakeholders had been discussing the proposed development in meetings that were ostensibly not closed to the public, general community awareness of the idea of buying the soccer fields from the school district for housing came from a livestream of the school board’s Monday, April 29, special meeting. During that meeting, board members went into a private, executive session to discuss the matter.

Also present for that executive session were Village Council member Brian Housh and St. Mary Development Corporation President Tim Bete — both of whom were invited by school board President Judith Hempfling — because the two “had been a part of past conversations,” Housh told the News this week. During the public portion of the school board meeting, Housh said he was present as a representative of “the Village of Yellow Springs,” but suggested that school board members direct their questions to Bete during executive session, as Bete would “have the most info.” Home, Inc.’s Seibel was unable to attend because she was out of town for professional development.

Before entering into executive session, school board member Amy Bailey cited a concern over public transparency regarding the planned discussion. Bailey said she felt it was unclear that the discussion about the property would fall under the strictly laid-out Ohio Revised Code, or ORC, restrictions that govern what public entities may discuss in executive session.

Section 121.22 of the ORC allows executive session discussions for the consideration of “the sale of property at competitive bidding … if premature disclosure of information would give an unfair competitive or bargaining advantage to a person whose personal, private interest is adverse to the general public interest.”

Bailey made the case that the potential sale would not constitute a “competitive bidding” situation, and thus discussion of the property would not be allowed in executive session under the ORC. Hempfling said she had discussed the matter with the district’s legal counsel, who had advised her that the use of executive session was appropriate. In a letter to the editor submitted to the News this week, Hempfling added that the board spoke about the matter in executive, rather than public, session, because “part of the discussion involved the possibility of buying land to replace land sold,” referring to the same section of the ORC, which permits executive session discussions to “consider the purchase of property for public purposes.”

Superintendent Terri Holden ultimately requested that the board “follow the advice of [the district’s] legal counsel.” As laid out in ORC restrictions, no decision was made in the executive session.

Still, some local citizens and members of both Village Council and school board had reservations about both transparency and Housh’s presence for that executive session of the school board meeting.

“We fully understand the CBE issue is dead due to the covenants and that the school land scored highly,” Dino Pallotta told Council on Monday, May 6. “However, [Housh] being allowed to go into the executive session and doing so with St. Mary’s is a problem. You’re supplying information without proper guidance and direction of Council.”

Echoing his concerns was Kristi Nowack Myers, who wrote a letter to Council prior to this week’s meeting.

“I am deeply concerned about the Village Council’s representation at the Yellow Springs School Board executive session on Monday, April 29,” Nowack Myers wrote. “I find it frightening that two governing bodies in our community are operating in secrecy. Taxpayers deserve to know how you are planning to spend our money and what you are planning to do with school property.”

At the April 29 school board meeting, Bailey also expressed concern about Housh’s presence at the executive session.

“I am not agreeing with who we’re inviting into executive session,” Bailey said during the public portion of the meeting. “I don’t know that [Housh has] received permission from Village Council to be the representative for Village Council in our executive session.”

Bailey and board member Dorothée Bouquet ultimately voted against including Housh in executive session discussions; Hempfling and board members Amy Magnus and Rebecca Potter voted in favor.

Responding to community concerns and similar questions from Council members Trish Gustafson and Carmen Brown, Housh said he believed he was justified in his presence at the executive session, and that it was strictly in the interest of “sharing information.”

“I never said, nor would I think any of us [Council members], ever suggest that we speak for Council,” Housh said. “If anyone thinks that any one Council member can speak for all of Council, then I guess we’ll need some more education. We can’t do that. I was invited because I had the information that hadn’t yet been shared [to the school board].”

Addressing concerns about the alleged disappearance of soccer fields at the expense of a new housing project, Housh added: “I’m not going after anyone’s sports fields. There are a lot of benefits in terms of taxes and housing at play here.”

Similarly, in her letter to the editor, Hempfling wrote that she had discussed the matter with organizers for the local youth recreational soccer program, and that it was “clear from those conversations that the soccer program can be protected as part of the plan.”

The proposed plan will be discussed at the Village Council’s upcoming Monday, May 20, meeting; it will also be included on the agenda of a Tuesday, May 21, special meeting of the school board. Seibel reiterated that Home, Inc. “would love to invite the public to these public meetings,” and encouraged local residents to reach out to the nonprofit with any questions they have.

“We’re committed to communicating with a broader community,” she said.

Ed. note: Reporter Lauren “Chuck” Shows, who contributed to reporting on this story, lives in a house purchased from Home, Inc., and is married to a member of the Home, Inc. board.

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