Why Columbus is Behind on Affordable Housing and How We Can Get Ahead

August 17, 2021
Liz Maso Sr. Designer, Architect

As an architect and designer, I take the responsibility of my profession seriously, recognizing that it’s our duty to design spaces that elevate human experiences, enrich lives, and serve a greater need. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working on projects across the country while living in different cities, and have gotten familiar with different housing requirements and specifications outlined by the city’s legislation.

Comparing my experience with those requirements, I have noticed something.

Columbus, we have a huge opportunity.

We need to catch up on affordable housing, and with a need that great, our responsibility to support this underserved market can’t be ignored. For a city so vibrant and so forward-facing, we must prioritize affordable housing, and all the people and families that rely on it, accomplished by making the time to put housing requirements to the forefront of discussion.

What is Considered Affordable Housing in Columbus?
Affordable housing is dwellings specifically reserved for low-income households. Low-income is typically defined as households that make less than 80% of the median income in the local area (Yglesias, 2014). Residents of affordable housing units must apply and meet specific credit and income requirements to become potential tenants.

A general rule of thumb when outlining housing budget parameters is that households should not spend more than 30% of their income on their mortgage/rent and necessary utilities. Based on the median income in Columbus, this means that Ohioans need to make around $20 an hour to afford a typical apartment based on fair market rent. As we see an increasing trend of rising housing costs outpacing the rise in incomes, this may not be feasible for many people (BeMiller, 2021).

The Bottom Line? We’re Behind.
If a person can’t afford fair market rent, what’s the alternative? If families lose an income, where will they look to live? With pushes from the government and initiatives led by Mayor Ginther, like his recently announced $10 Million investment in affordable housing, we must work collectively to create the change that is so desperately needed.

From my personal experience, my recommendation would be for the city to incentivize incorporating affordable housing into market-rate multifamily developments to encourage a positive trend.

Larger urban areas, such as New York City and Washington D.C., require a percentage of all new multifamily developments to include a minimum percentage of affordable housing units in the building. When I worked with multifamily apartment buildings in Washington D.C., the city specifically required 8-10% of residential floor areas to be allocated to affordable housing units (DC.gov). It was a well-known, consistent rule that builders and developers understood and prepared for. However, in Columbus, I have not been privy to any requirements and have not seen an inclusionary zoning section within the City of Columbus.

How Will This Affect Our Cities?
Market rate housing is increasing. The threshold to live in urban neighborhoods is increasing, prompting high-income workers to populate these areas.

But what about the shop workers, teachers, students, construction crews, waiters, etc.? The individuals who work and contribute to the vibrancy and functionality of these areas, but can’t afford to live anywhere near it? Well, they get pushed out to the periphery.

Why Blended Communities Are So Important
Communities with mixed-income residents form sustainable, more culturally vibrant, and wide-ranging neighborhoods. It allows our cities to be more diverse and equitable. The disparity between the average median income and cost of housing is making it more and more difficult for low-income, or even middle-class households, to live in the more desirable neighborhoods, such as the downtown area. The more homogeneous these neighborhoods become, the faster we lose the pulse of our favorite city streets.

Building Affordable Housing Complexes: How Can We Design These Spaces to Truly Feel Like Home?
The main essence we want to exude when building affordable housing complexes is approachability. We want these buildings to feel open, inclusive, and inviting. Sometimes it’s the use of landscaping, choice of materials, or the overall layout of the space.

When I walk up to this development, what does it feel like to me? If it feels like a place a potential resident could call home, then we’ve done our jobs.

You Don’t Need a Big Budget to Build Beautiful Spaces: 3 Tips and Tricks
The difference between developing a luxury or fair market housing building versus an affordable housing building obviously boils down to cost. Therefore we must plan ahead and think: where is the primary design value in these buildings and how can we use our funds to make the greatest impact?

Of course, it’s fun as a designer to have an elaborate budget, though what I have learned is that creating beautiful spaces doesn’t need to cost a lot of money.

Many successful spaces stem from simplicity, functionality, and the essence you feel when you approach the front door. To achieve this, these are three guiding principles we use.

1. Start from the Ground Up
While luxury apartments emphasize features like rooftop pools or penthouses, we think of affordable housing design differently. High impact design is mainly at the streetscape and ground floor where you can see the exterior materials and landscaping up close, and this is for two main reasons.

Most of the social activity typically occurs at the ground floor, so that is where most of the public amenities are situated. To promote a true community feel, we intentionally design the space to promote interaction. That means a walking trail around a playground, a basketball court next to tables and benches. Therefore, we want the aesthetic of these common areas to feel welcoming, inclusive, and safe.

Focusing our attention on one main part of the building also helps from a cost perspective. To stay within budget, we default to less expensive materials. However, to uplift the aesthetic and make the building feel approachable and warm, we reserve higher-quality materials for the lower portion of the building. This may mean using brick along the first story, more landscaping around the entry points, introducing more luxurious materials like hardwood or stone, etc. This helps achieve beautiful design within budget.

2. Cater Your Amenities and Create a Shared Experience
We must think about the main demographic of the potential residents when developing the program of shared amenities. For example, some affordable housing units have a 55+ senior community. As designers for this age group, we wish to promote movement, wellness, serenity, and respite. Therefore, we love to create more intimate, outdoor spaces perfect for stopping after a walk, having a cup of coffee, or reading a book. We may include areas like healing gardens, library parks, or walking trails, experiences we know these residents would enjoy.

For units that will likely be inhabited by families, spaces are prioritized to be group activities. This may mean centrally located playgrounds, basketball courts with floor-to-ceiling windows, a teen clubhouse, or clusters of tables and benches for parents to relax or share a meal. We also ensure there are open lines of sight throughout the common areas for safety and security. We always design with people in mind.

3. Prioritize Flexibility
The key to feeling “at home” is the ability to truly make a space “yours”. We know residents of these units will come from different walks of life, have different family dynamics, and will need their space to function in different ways. Therefore, we design individual units to be timeless, versatile, and durable. We want residents to add their own personal layer to the space based on their needs, so we provide the footprint to do so.

For some, a small balcony and outdoor space may mean a place to sit and enjoy the sun, or hang-dry their child’s laundry, or plant their own vegetables. A room off the kitchen may mean a dining room, or a child’s playroom, or an office. We want to simplify the design of the space, so residents have the freedom to make that choice and create their own interior identity.

Continue the Conversation
Want to chat further about affordable housing needs and how to design for it? Feel free to reach out to me at lizm@designwithma.com.

BeMiller, H. (2021, June 26). HUD Secretary Fudge calls for collaboration on affordable housing, says U.S. can’t ‘build our way out’ of crisis. The Columbus Dispatch. https://www.dispatch.com/story/news/2021/06/26/hud-secretary-marcia-fudge-visits-columbus-discuss-housing/7779470002/.

DC.gov. (n.d.). Inclusionary Zoning for Residential Developers.

Yglesias, M. (2014, April 10). Everything you need to know about the affordable housing debate. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2014/4/10/18076868/affordable-housing-explained.