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Priced Out: Columbus Residents Aren't Living Where The Jobs Are

Paul Sableman

Dressed in an entirely pink outfit, Christina Bogardus is hunched over a computer at the Linden branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library. She says she comes here often to watch videos, chat online with friends, and over the last couple of months, apply for jobs.

“There’s not many places around where I am that are open, open for job applications, I guess, that I have easy access to,” Bogardus says.

Bogardus has a health condition that makes her unable to drive, something that severely limits her job options.  

“Basically, your only hope at that point would be either to have bus passes or a friend that can help you get from place,” she says. “And for me, I can’t always rely on people. So sometimes, I need the bus passes, but that costs money. That is very difficult to get if you don’t have a job.”

In nearly 40 percent of zip codes in the Columbus area, there are significantly more job seekers than there are jobs. Many of those zip codes are north of the city.

South of the city, the inverse is true: Job opportunities exist, but there aren’t many job seekers close by. The concept is called “spatial mismatch.”

That information comes from a new data analysis from the Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank and research group, which studied geographical mismatches in 16 metro areas in the U.S.

“What we found is that quite often in a number of cities across the country, job seekers live pretty far from available jobs and this affects both them and employers who have a hard time filling those positions,” says researcher Tina Stacy.

To conduct her study, Stacy looked closely at data from an hourly job listing website called Snag. She says that, decades ago when highways were built, many higher income jobs moved out to the suburbs while lower wage workers stayed in the city.

“But nowadays what we’re seeing is that as higher income households and individuals move back into downtowns, we’re seeing that good jobs are following them and lower wage workers are being priced out of those neighborhoods,” Stace says.

The Short North is a prime example in Columbus: There are a lot of service industry jobs, but as the area has gentrified, many workers can no longer afford to live nearby.

“This kind of problem isn’t just an issue for the job seeker, and his or her family, but also for the economy, local economies within neighborhoods,” Stacy says. “If you want a healthy economy, you need a diverse workforce and population to live nearby.”

The data set Stacy looked at was from 2017. Jeff Pullin from the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) says they’ve done a lot to address this problem since then.

“We simplified the routes, put them where many people could get to them, and also put those routes in proximity to where jobs were,” Pullin says.

Pullin says the 2017 redesign of the transit system put people within walking distance to 100,000 jobs that weren’t easily accessible before. He says the free CBus Circulator, which runs through the Short North and Arena District, and a program giving downtown workers free bus passes, are just two examples of ways COTA is trying to connect people with work.

Steve Schoeny, director of the Columbus Department of Development, says creating more housing along transit lines is just one way the department is trying to combat spatial mismatch. The other is taking a closer look at affordable housing in areas near available jobs.

“There are two ways to think about affordable housing: One is you’ve got that affordable housing that already exists, and how do you preserve and improve that, and the other is how do we create more,” Schoeny says.

The Building Industry Association of Central Ohio says that the Columbus area needs to create 14,000 additional housing units per year to keep up with demand. Currently, the city is creating just 8,000.

Schoeny says the city is working on a land-trust pilot program: building affordable homes but maintaining ownership of the land itself. The Central Ohio Community Land Trust, launched in partnership with Franklin County, will begin with a fund of $3.8 million to build 40 single-family homes in neighborhoods like Franklinton and the South Side.

“What we’re trying to do is use the power of owning the land to build in a permanent affordability to a home,” Schoeny says.

Schoeny says the program will allow lower income people to have all the benefits of home ownership in a neighborhood they might not otherwise be able to afford. And that could put them closer to jobs

Back in the Linden library, Bogardus has good news: After months of applying, she starts a new job on Monday.

“From what I understand, it’s cleaning, and I’m not completely looking forward to that because me and cleaning don’t always go along well, but I’m still willing to do it, because it’s better than doing nothing,” Bogardus says.

Her advice for other job seekers? Don’t give up the search, no matter the obstacles.