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Jul
18
2024
Housing

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Springers 4 More Springers seeks zoning reform, more low-income housing

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It’s been six years since Patrick Bowen, of Bowen National Research, released the results of a comprehensive, 444-page Housing Needs Assessment of Yellow Springs.

Costing the Village $24,500, the months-long assessment examined the village’s shifting demography, economic conditions, employment, and above all, the qualities of the local housing market. Based on the findings in the report — including the results of a 500-villager survey — Bowen identified several crucial needs: Chief among them was more rental housing for low-income seniors and families.

In the time since the report’s publishing, Yellow Springs has made some strides to meet these needs. With the support of the Village, local affordable housing nonprofit YS Home, Inc. built the six-unit Forest Village Homes in 2018, its first slate of affordable multifamily rentals — and the first apartments to have been built in the village for many years. Then, in 2021, the organization finished its largest project to date, the 12-unit Glen Cottages pocket neighborhood off Xenia Avenue on the south side of town. Now, Home Inc. is angling to pursue $15 million in tax credits that could finance the eventual creation of a 50-unit rental development that targets low-income families.

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Still, some villagers believe the powers that be in Yellow Springs ought to do more to answer the calls of the Bowen study.

Enter: Springers 4 More Springers, a citizens action group that seeks to work with local elected bodies and residents to reform the Village zoning code, support affordable housing initiatives such as Home, Inc’s 50-unit project and serve as an advocate for tenants. As their name suggests, Springers 4 More Springers simply wants to bring more folks to town.

Beginning in 2020 by distributing illustrative zines around the village and attending Village Council and Planning Commission meetings, local residents Matt Raska, John Hempfling and Alex Melamed were, at the time, focused on liberalizing the Village’s zoning code.

“We saw housing prices in Yellow Springs steeply trending upwards, plus very few apartments,” Raska told the News earlier this week.

“So, our initial proposal was to make all nontransient residential uses permitted in all residential districts,” Hempfling added.

In other words, the nascent group sought to amend the code such that property owners — regardless of the zoning status of the land — could build on, develop or modify the uses of their property without undergoing a conditional review process through municipal channels. In their view, Raska and Hempfling said, such an amendment — going from conditional to permitted across the board — would lead to builders or developers creating more multifamily and nontraditional housing in the village, and by extension, bringing more residents to town.

“Welcoming people to Yellow Springs without condition,” Raska said of their early efforts’ goal.

Though after a number of public meetings in 2022 and 2023, the Village opted to keep its conditional process — with Village Manager Johnnie Burns stressing the importance of staff reviews for proposed developments — some code changes occurred following Raska and Hempfling’s insistence. As an example, land annexed into the village is now, by default, zoned Residential-C, which allows multifamily dwellings as a permitted use rather than conditional.

Since then, the advocacy efforts of Springers 4 More Springers have ramped up and broadened beyond the laser-focus on zoning reform. Now, the group boasts around a dozen members — many of whom are Yellow Springs renters and activists with low-to-moderate incomes. Regularly, the group meets with representatives from Home, Inc, Village Council, Village staff and the school board to chart a way forward.

One Springer 4 More Springers is Raska’s spouse, Jessica Thomas, who told the News that the village’s worsening housing market and its attendant costs-of-living may soon jeopardize her family’s five-generation-strong connection to town.

“I feel like I have roots here,” Thomas said. “I see a lot of the same problems in Yellow Springs as I do in other places, but at the very least, I feel like I have a good group of friends trying to fix those problems — that’s what really keeps us here.”

Most pertinent of those problems, as Thomas and others in the group see it, are the mounting obstacles that Home, Inc. faces as the group petitions for municipal buy-in for a possible 50-unit, low-income housing development.

Per past News reporting, the local affordable housing nonprofit has, since last fall, sought support for the organization’s pursuit of a tax credit application — due in February 2025 — that could almost entirely finance the construction of the development. However, finding a suitable location for such a development has proven to be both complex and contentious. The two primary sites up for consideration are the Center for Business and Education and the Morgan Fields next to the middle and high schools. Both properties scored high on the Ohio Housing Finance Agency’s 2024–25 opportunity index, and as such, have a competitive chance at receiving the $15 million in federal subsidies to construct the low-income housing development.

With Home, Inc. seeking to bring more families to Yellow Springs, Springers 4 More Springers has, naturally, shifted its focus.

“So, now, we’re trying to pressure school board and Village Council members to support Home, Inc. and to pursue this low-income housing tax credit project,” Thomas explained.

As Raska and Hempfling elaborated, a substantial zoning change may be a critical component of those efforts.

Collectively, the group is about to launch a campaign to encourage all elected bodies to, in the coming months, consider reworking the zoning code such that the soccer fields — presently zoned R-A, or low-density residential — could accommodate high-density housing. A more liberalized code, according to Hempfling, would place Home, Inc. in a better position to have a more competitive chance at receiving the needed tax credits.

“It seems really doable. Both Village Council and the school board have already said they’re committed to exploring all possibilities,” Hempfling said of the bodies’ earlier decisions made by majority votes.

So, with the guidance of Village staff — in particular with Zoning Administrator Meg Leatherman — and in collaboration with Village Council and school board members, Springers 4 More Springers is set to spend the coming weeks working on a proposal to broaden the provisions around density limits in the municipal code.  That includes increasing the Village’s density limit, building height limit and reducing the front setback provisions.

Additionally, the group may also seek to align the zoning regulations of R-A and R-B (medium density) to match R-C (high density) multi-family, two-family and attached single-family permitted uses.

In essence, the group is returning to Raska and Hempfling’s initial 2020 proposals.

While Springers 4 More Springers explores these possibilities, Home, Inc. will seek out the support of an Ohio-based community housing development organization — one that would help the organization apply for the tax credits next February, as well as with eventual construction. Additionally, all the above groups and other stakeholders will work to find a suitable replacement site for the soccer fields.

Most recently, Council agreed to take $7,500 from the Village’s Affordable Housing Fund to pay for a bond attorney to determine whether all these groups can continue their exploration of the Morgan Fields as an option, despite the lien on the property which, in 2020, was placed as collateral against the schools’ track and athletic stadium improvements project.

Because of all these intimidating odds and potential stumbling blocks, Raska, Hempfling and Thomas all admitted that it would “take a miracle” to see the 50-unit development through to the end. Nevertheless, they — as well as the rest of Springers 4 More Springers — are trying, just the same.

“Our short-term goal is simply to push this project as far as we can,” Thomas said.

To that end, Springers 4 More Springers has instigated two recent efforts to show their support for the municipal decision-makers. Presently, they are circulating a petition to urge Council to continue their support for the low-income development project as well as to, more broadly, build more affordable housing. Further, the action group launched an online fundraiser to generate money to defray any additional legal costs associated with the pursuit of the project. As of press time, the fundraiser has gleaned over $3,300 from donations.

“This is a good faith effort from community members, individual villagers who want to see the Village do more to create affordable housing in Yellow Springs,” Thomas said.

Where does that good faith come from? Thomas, Raska and Hempfling agreed that it stems from a love of Yellow Springs and a desire to share in the social and cultural wealth of the community with others.

“I see three categorical benefits to having more affordable housing in Yellow Springs,” Hempfling said. “Social, economic and political.”

Socially, he said, affordable housing brings working class people into communities to bolster local organizations such as Cub Scouts, the Oddfellows and the Rotary Club.

“There’s a reason urbanized settings feel more vibrant — there are more people involved,” he said.

Economically, having more people living in Yellow Springs would create a greater tax base — people paying into municipal and school coffers, thus leading to improved infrastructure — as well as more customers for downtown businesses. Moreover, affordable housing could provide low-wage workers with in-town living opportunities.

“I hear people complain about the Emporium not offering burritos as much as they used to, no more paninis at the Tom’s Market deli, not enough lifeguards at the pool,” Raska said. “Who does this work? Working class people who can’t afford to live here now.”

And of the political benefits of more affordable housing, Hempfling said: “The lack of it or action to build more of it signals to working class people that their voices and concerns aren’t being heard — and that creates an environment of cynicism that leads people to be less engaged in local politics. By seeing institutions take action, then they will, too.”

Raska added: “And the schools get more students.”

Looking ahead, Springers 4 More Springers aims to bolster that kind of grassroots engagement far beyond their current political battles.

Over the coming months, the group intends to host several focus groups that, as Thomas suggested, will bring together local renters and people who want to one day live in Yellow Springs to talk about their housing-related challenges and obstacles.

Another possibility: a villagewide tenants union.

“A group of renters who could exercise their rights and collectively lobby for more affordable housing and better living conditions,” Raska elaborated, noting that Springers 4 More Springers could help such a union advocate for their interests.

“But really, we’re not interested in telling people what they need — just responding to what needs are already stated,” Thomas clarified. “If, from our focus groups, we hear a need for a union, then yes, we will organize a union. But no matter what, we do need more affordable housing.”

To get involved in the organizational efforts of Springers 4 More Springers, email springers4morespringers@gmail.com.

To donate to the group’s fundraiser to defray legal costs associated with the exploration of the possibility of siting a low-income housing development on the Morgan Soccer Fields, go to http://www.bit.ly/4chxXF5.

To read the Bowen study in full, go to http://www.bit.ly/4eBv8Ap.

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