Michelle Person, a 30-year-old single mother, pays just $71 a month for her Weinland Park apartment.
“When I first moved here, I did my first cartwheel that I’ve done in years,” Person says, laughing.
With her 6-year-old son, Person has lived in this subsidized apartment for six years. Now she wants a better home.
“I do need another space. A bigger place with a washer and a dryer. That would be more better,” Person says. “That would be good. And a backyard.”
There’s a big reason she hasn’t moved yet, though.
“Money,” Person says. “I don’t have the income that I should. I don’t work. My job is taking care of my son. Picking him up, taking him to school, getting him dressed, doing homework.”
Housing is the single biggest expense for many people in Columbus, especially those working lower-paying jobs. As the city makes strides in eliminating blight, residents in those neighborhoods often face new obstacles as living costs and housing prices rise beyond their reach.
Boom And Bust
Weinland Park, like many low-income areas, has seen big changes in the past few decades. The neighborhood, just southeast of The Ohio State University campus, dates back to the 1890s when it began as a streetcar suburb.
Manufacturing plants employed a lot of people from the 1940s to the ‘70s, so residents here had good jobs with decent incomes. The neighborhood was stable.
Then came globalization. Factories closed, and jobs left.
In the ‘80s, as people moved out, gangs like the Short North Posse moved in, spiking crime. Now, 56.1 percent of the neighborhood lives below the poverty line, compared to 20.7 percent in Columbus at large.
Keaha Linville grew up in Weinland Park during that transition in the ‘90s.
“I used to live right there on 4th and 8th,” Linville says. “I literally seen someone get killed right there on the corner, and it made me not want to live out here no more.”
Over the past two decades, the city, business leaders and Ohio State have worked to revitalize the neighborhood. To that end, Columbus and the university formed Campus Partners to coordinate the effort.
“So for more than 20 years, this neighborhood has been focused on both the physical redevelopment of the neighborhood and building the capacity of folks who live here,” says Michael Wilkos of The United Way, who lives in Weinland Park.
It’s not just about nicer streets, though beautification is one aim of Campus Partners. Columbus also increased access to social services – including career counseling, GED programs and child care – and all but eliminated abandoned homes.
“One of the things you’ll see in Weinland Park is the variety of housing stock,” Wilkos says. “On one street you might find a single-family home next to a duplex next to a Section Eight row house.”
According to the 2010 Census, 20 percent of Weinland Park’s homes were abandoned. That’s down to 4 percent today.
Wilkos says stabilizing the neighborhood with diverse housing choices means people of different incomes live near each other, something uncommon in Columbus, which is one of the most economically segregated cities in the country.
Bringing people of different economic groups together, experts say, increases understanding between them and hopefully encourages low-income residents to better their situations.
Keaha Linville, who lives with her young son, daughter and mother, likes the changes.
“Now it’s super quiet, it’s peaceful, it’s not really much going on here,” Linville says.
Linville hopes to move but can’t anytime soon. Though she picked up some hours at a nearby Goodwill, she doesn’t make much money. Here, she qualifies for a subsidized rent-free apartment.
“I really don’t have a job right now, a stable job,” Linville says. “So it’s best I stay here until I get a better job.”
All this attention to Weinland Park has a notable downside: the threat of gentrification.
Columbus has made concerted efforts to keep the area affordable. But Diane Dixon, who has lived in her home all her life, worries she can’t afford the neighborhood’s rising taxes.
“I get so many offers in the mail and phone calls constantly. ‘Do you want to sell your house? Do you want to sell your house?’ I’m not interested in selling,” Dixon says. “I don’t believe I should be taxed out of my home that I grew up in.”
In 2014, she took advantage of a grant through MORPC to fix up her house. Now she’s determined to stay in it.
“There’s history her. My mother died in my house, of dementia. My dad worked hard to get each of us a home,” Dixon says. “I don’t think I should have to move. I don’t want to go anywhere. I wanna stay where there’s stability, where I have friends. I want my grandson to have the same values and love that I have for this neighborhood.”
Though Person isn’t satisfied in her apartment, she also worries about what she could lose from leaving the neighborhood – most notably, social services.
“I would not have no help from the Godman Guild or the schools, because they have all types of different help,” Person says. “Job information, GED information. They do fruits and vegetables around here, too, at the school.”
Making The Jump
On Grant Avenue, at least 500 new housing units are being built on the spot where the Columbus Coatings Factory once stood. That project will feature a mix of low-income, subsidized, tax-credit rental homes, and owner-occupied market-rate homes.
A major challenge in stabilizing neighborhoods and achieving the dream of financial security, Wilkos says, is helping people in the middle – those who don’t qualify for subsidies but don’t make enough for market-rate homes.
“So let’s say you live in subsidized housing and you’re looking to make the jump to a market-rate home,” he says. “Is there anything available for people in between that gap? How do you make the jump?”
For residents like Person, the move to better living is still too far a leap.
“That’s probable one of the most critical questions we as a nation have to solve,” Wilkos says.
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