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Columbus Expects 3 Million Residents By 2050. Where Will They Live?

Austin Place development just west of the Hilltop. Columbus is struggling to build enough housing to accomodate its rapidly growing population.
Adora Namigadde
Austin Place development just west of the Hilltop. Columbus is struggling to build enough housing to accomodate its rapidly growing population.

Under the 90-degree sun, two men in hard hats install air conditioners in the backs of apartments. A second pair climbs ladders to install windows, while another drills screws into white-painted doors.

They’re constructing a 12-building multi-family apartment complex called Austin Place, just west of the Hilltop outside the I-270 belt. When the project is completed, it will boast 256 apartments, a mix of one- and two-bedroom units.

The project is by Metro Development, which has constructed more than 10,000 apartments in Central Ohio in the past 15 years. Although CEO Rowland Giller says business is booming, he says it's nowhere where it should be.

Central Ohio is growing quickly, but the area doesn't have enough housing to keep up with projected population growth. A study by the Building Industry Association of Central Ohio said Columbus needs 14,000 new housing units a year to accommodate an estimated 1 million new residents by 2050. But the city is only building about 8,000 units a year.

Solving that problem will require a major rethinking of what kinds of housing Columbus must build, and where. It's something the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and city of Columbus hope to figure out through their long-term "Regional Housing Strategy" plan.

Thinking Strategically

Part of Central Ohio's problem is regulations on density. Zoning groups don't typically want a lot of apartments, instead favoring single-family homes.

Giller has worked in development for more than 30 years. He says there's no clear way meet Central Ohio’s housing goals at this time, so the Regional Housing Strategy will prove necessary.

“Typically, the individuals on the zoning boards of the neighborhood groups are not that comfortable with or have a desire to have multi-family housing specifically apartments within their particular area,” Giller says.

Yet, it’s exactly that sort of housing that allows the most density.

“When you start with a product type that is not widely desired, and you start from that position as you’re going through the process, it makes it very difficult for you to get all the way through the process and jump through all the hurdles that you have to,” Giller says.

Metro Development CEO Rowland Giller says Columbus has clashing needs and desires for housing.
Credit Adora Namigadde / WOSU
Metro Development CEO Rowland Giller says Columbus has clashing needs and desires for housing.

MORPC and Columbus, along with other partners, are still early in the process of developing their long-term plan. So no one knows exactly what it will include.

“This is really a chance for the region to get in front of some of the challenges that could be sort of unintended consequences of growth,” Noll says.

According to a request for proposals issued by MORPC, “the goal of the Project Partners is to foster a housing market where every household with a full-time wage earner can obtain housing in the private market, and to effectively supplement the market where we cannot achieve that goal.”

The strategy aims to assess existing conditions in the Central Ohio housing market, develop investment strategies and policies, provide regulatory and business recommendations, develop metrics to track the area’s progress, engage with the community and, once that's all done, issue a final report.

The area's population is expected to hit 3 million people by 2050. Columbus Department of Development director Steve Schoeny says that if Columbus does not get ahead of the housing curve, it will become a less desirable city to live.

“Our economy is doing well, unemployment is low," Schoeny says. "But housing is something that is becoming more expensive and it’s making us less competitive as a community."

He says the strategy will identify up to five regions similar to Central Ohio’s economy and housing market to study for tips on best practices.

Density Downsides

While the fast-growing population means that work is booming for people like Giller, it's also proving difficult to meeting competing demands and desires.

Brandon Dean lives across the street from the Austin Place development.

“Sometimes it gets noisy,” Dean says. “And sometimes we get a temporary speed bump over here and it’s very terrible.”

Those complaints are likely to get more common as development spreads.

“More people are preferring to live in more dense environments,” Noll says. "So there’s a mismatch between what is desired and what is permitted in a very technical sense, in terms of what you can get permits to build in Central Ohio.”

Noll says shifting demographics also impact what sort of housing developers should build.

“Some of that can go back to our Baby Boomers and younger adults who might be looking for smaller homes or homes that are single story or require less maintenance,” Noll says.

At the same time, Noll says, “there’s also a growing preference for neighborhoods themselves that are maybe more walkable, have better access to public transportation, closer to our jobs and kids’ schools and places we want to go.”

Since the Great Recession, Noll says the number of multi-family unit builds increased significantly.

“That might speak to a growing preference to rent,” Noll says. “It may also speak to a growing need to rent as housing costs continue to increase.”

Renting rates compared to owning costs, quality of housing stock and location of housing in relation to employment will all be assessed in the Regional Housing Strategy study.

MORPC plans to announce project partners in the coming weeks, and wrap up the strategy formation by Spring 2020.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.