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Jul
18
2024
Village Council

Present at the most recent Village Council meeting Monday, June 17, were Council members Trish Gustafson (virtually), Brian Housh, Carmen Brown, Gavin DeVore Leonard and Kevin Stokes. Sitting in for Village Manager Johnnie Burns was Police Chief Paige Burge. (Video still)

Village Council continues low-income housing talks

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Conversations around a major low-income housing development opportunity continued at the most recent Village Council meeting Monday, June 17.

As previously reported in the News, local affordable housing nonprofit YS Home, Inc. — along with stakeholders within and beyond the Village — has, since last fall, been petitioning for municipal support for the organization’s pursuit of millions of dollars in housing tax credits that could help finance the creation of a 50-unit housing development that would target low-income families.

Though those conversations have spanned eight months and have taken place in several places outside of Council Chambers, including at recent school board meetings, the question remains: Where in Yellow Springs should such a development be?

The primary two locations up for consideration are a portion of the 35 acres of Village-owned land on the western edge of Yellow Springs — known as the Center for Business and Education, or CBE — as well as three school district-owned acres adjacent to the middle and high school, where the Morgan soccer fields are located.

Both those properties — the CBE and soccer fields — scored highly on the Ohio Housing Finance Agency’s 2024–25 opportunity index, and as such, have a competitive chance at receiving $15 million in available subsidies to construct a low-income housing development, estimated to cost around $20 million.

Despite the perceived promise of the properties, both come with limitations, land-use restrictions and, as past public meetings have shown, controversy.

For the Morgan Fields, the school district, in 2020, placed a collateral lien on the land against the schools’ track and athletic stadium improvements project. Though, recently, both the school board and Village Council have taken some steps in exploring the possibility of removing that lien, therefore freeing up the Village to purchase the land from the schools.

As for the Village-owned CBE, the land is subject to restrictive covenants that permit strictly office, commercial, medical, educational, assembly, research and light-industrial warehousing and distribution — not housing. It is the site of marijuana producer Cresco Labs and Antioch University Midwest, both of which would have to agree with the Village to amend those covenants to allow for a housing provision. Twenty acres of the CBE are currently listed for sale, priced at $75,000-$125,000 per acre.

So, at Village Council’s meeting on June 17, Council members sought to disentangle the conditions of both locations, potentially allowing Home, Inc. to move forward with the pursuit of the $15 million subsidies.

To that end, Council members approved three measures by majority assent:

• $7,500 will be taken from the Village’s Affordable Housing Fund to pay for a bond attorney to determine whether the Village ought to continue its exploration of the Morgan Fields as an option, despite the collateral lien on the property;

• Council passed Resolution 2024-44, “Committing to Supporting the Pursuit of a Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Project in Line with Our Housing Vision and Village Values” — which essentially put into writing what Council members had previously agreed upon verbally;

• Council agreed to send a formal letter to Cresco and Antioch University leaderships, asking if both entities are amenable to modifying the CBE’s restrictive covenants to allow for housing on the land. Per the letter, both Cresco and Antioch have until Tuesday, July 9, to respond to Village Council.

Legal counsel

Following Village Solicitor Amy Blankenship’s recommendation, Council members voted to hire bond attorney Brad Ruwe temporarily to investigate and advise Council on “any legal restraints on the Yellow Springs School District selling certain land to the Village for the possible development of low-income housing.”

Ruwe, of Cincinnati-based law firm Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, will charge $7,500 for his services and eventual determination, which Blankenship said will take no longer than two weeks.

Blankenship also clarified that, contrary to what was said at the previous Council meeting, that money will not cover the legal fees of the school board in their own investigations, but instead, is meant as an act of “due diligence” in the Village’s own legal interests.

“The scope of the work outlined in [Ruwe’s] engagement letter is,” Blankenship said, “to undertake efforts to engage in the research, the review of documents, the provision of legal advice in connection with development matters and interact with representatives of the Village, potentially representatives of other political subdivisions and/or municipal advisors.”

In other words, after his two-week investigation, Ruwe will determine whether or not the Village can legally acquire the Morgan soccer fields, pending cooperation from the district.

“The virtue of [Ruwe] rendering advice that you could, in fact, [be able to] purchase the land, would suggest that he sees a path forward,” Blankenship said of subsequent actions Council could take.

“So, I envision this as a domino effect,” she said. “If one thing allows for another, then we can better understand what the process would look like.”

By a unanimous vote of 5-0, Council members agreed to release the $7,500 from the Village’s Affordable Housing Fund to cover the legal fees.

Resolution spurs debate

At the outset of Monday’s Council meeting, Resolution 2024-44 — a formal commitment to support groups such as YS Home, Inc. in their pursuit of low-income housing tax credits, with applications due in February 2025 — began as a draft.

Following Council member Brian Housh’s insistence to discuss, potentially amend and ultimately vote on the draft, the proposed resolution was, eventually, treated as a formal piece of legislation.

“The reason why I pushed for us to consider it tonight is that … many leaders from past stakeholder meetings have said that the Village really needs to formalize our commitment,” Housh explained.

He added: “And if we’re going to send a letter to Cresco and [Antioch University] to join us in this very important project — one that may be transformative to the village — then it makes sense to back it up with this commitment.”

The discussion among Council members mostly centered around the specificity of the resolution’s language: Should it read as support for this particular low-income housing opportunity or should it be generalized in such a way that it offers support for all future opportunities?

While Council members eventually sided with the former option, and after agreeing with Blankenship to change the language to reflect the fact that the Village itself would not be the applicant for these or future tax credits, the conversation shifted into a debate about the CBE’s covenants.

“It’s really interesting to me that I am the only [Council member] opposed to putting housing on the CBE,” Carmen Brown said. “We purport to be a progressive town. Putting people who can’t afford to be anywhere else on industrial sites is not done anywhere else.”

Brown added: “I understand that we’re desperate and that there are a lot of us who want to get this done by any means necessary, but we’re not considering the people who would be living there.”

The industry to which Brown referred dealt primarily with the medical and recreational marijuana growing operations of Cresco Labs, which produces ambient light from its greenhouses, occasional odors from its thousands of plants and the sounds of the comings and goings of employees and industrial vehicles.

The adjacent Antioch University Midwest campus, by and large, has sat quiet and predominantly vacant since 2020 when many of its in-person programs were absorbed into the university’s online program.

“Imagine you have a child with sensory issues, and in the middle of the night, they hear heavy equipment moving — ‘beep, beep, beeping’ at 11 o’clock on a school night,” Brown said.

Council Vice President Gavin DeVore Leonard recognized those concerns, but wondered about working with Cresco and Antioch University to mitigate them.

“We haven’t really been presented with systemic information from either,” he said. “So, couldn’t we work out when the lights are on or when the beeping happens?”

According to Solicitor Blankenship, likely no.

“We have no legal authority in any form or fashion to go in there and start making recommendations about sound, noise or anything else they’re doing,” she said. “They are keeping the light and smell limited to the point where it’s satisfying their neighbors, AUM and the vacant land — operating under the protection of those covenants.”

She added: “But there is certainly no harm in asking.”

Council President Kevin Stokes reined in the debate and said, “We shouldn’t conflate the intent of this legislation, which is a broad ‘We are in support of this project and are willing to commit funds.’ That by no means says that the property that will be identified will be on the CBE.”

In approving the resolution, all Council members but Brown verbally affirmed their support by saying, “Aye.”

To: Cresco and Antioch, From: Council

Addressed to Cresco Founder and CEO Charlie Bachtell and Antioch University Chancellor Bill Groves, the letter, co-signed by Village Council members, begins with the context that the Village has been presented with a “transformative opportunity to secure $15 million … to build 50+ affordable family rental units in Yellow Springs.”

It continues with an explanation of the ongoing, eight-month-long process to identify a suitable site and that, owing to the land’s high score on the opportunity index, the land on which both entities reside is a top contender.

“After an extensive process to identify three acres for the project, it has become clear that there are only two viable sites for this vital affordable rental initiative, which addresses the housing crisis our community is currently experiencing,” the letter reads. “One is the Center for Business and Education … [and] the best placement is to the immediate southwest of Antioch University Midwest.”

Later, the letter says, “Village Council is asking you to partner with us in pursuing this opportunity to build family/workforce rentals at scale.”

Both entities have just a little over two weeks to respond before, as some Council members indicated, the CBE land may be taken off the table entirely as a possible site for this low-income housing project.

In order to amend the CBE’s restrictive covenants that presently prohibit housing, land owners representing 75% of the total average of the lots must consent; that means the Village, Cresco and Antioch University must be in consensus.

“I want everyone to know that — yes, we’re going to extend this ask — but [Cresco and Antioch] are not obligated to respond,” Brown said, “And if they don’t, that does not make them the ‘bad guy.’”

Much of Council’s conversation around the verbiage of the letter focused on “softening the tone” of the document, as Council member Trish Gustafson put it.

“Maybe make it more of an invitation to talk,” she suggested. “This is the first official communication from all of us [on Council] and I don’t want it to be off-putting. Ask them for some time to talk and sit down for a discussion; add something that acknowledges the benefit of having them in the community.”

Housh maintained the need for urgency.

“I don’t think we should be hesitant in this request,” he said. “It’s appropriate for us to be direct. We’re down to the wire.”

That pressing timeline to which Housh referred stems from the February 2025 deadline for Home, Inc. to apply for the low-income housing tax credits. And before that application can take place, the local affordable housing nonprofit needs the support of a larger community housing development organization, or CHDO.

Most recently, Home, Inc. had the backing of Dayton-based St. Mary Development Corporation — that is, until St. Mary removed itself from the ongoing, villagewide discussion, citing community push-back and the tight timeline as prohibitive factors. Now, sometime in the next eight months, Home, Inc. must partner another Ohio CHDO before it can apply for the tax credits with any hope of being awarded the funds. One such organization is the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation of Columbus, which earlier this year helped secure funds for a 30-unit development in neighboring Springfield.

“So, we have eight months — not a lot of time, but enough time to make this happen,” Housh said. “That’s why I noted the [July 9] deadline in the letter.”

Ultimately, Council agreed to deputize Housh to continue to work with Village Clerk Judy Kintner to make some minor changes to the letter before sending it to Cresco and Antioch University. The decision was endorsed by a 4-0 vote from Council members, with Brown abstaining.

The next Village Council meeting will be Monday, July 1, at 6 p.m. Note: This is one hour earlier than previous Council meetings; they will be held at 6 p.m. in perpetuity.   

The News will continue to cover the ongoing discussions around the proposed low-income housing development. In next week’s paper, the News will highlight grassroots, citizens-led initiatives to support municipal and school district efforts for more affordable housing in Yellow Springs.

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