April 2022

Group pursuing Columbus ballot issue to create rent controls, landlord registration

Courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch
By Mike Ferenchik
April 27, 2022

A group has begun circulating petitions to put an initiative before Columbus voters that would create residential rent control in the city and require landlords to be licensed.

If approved by voters, the proposed initiative would create a new city Department of Fair Housing that would be tasked with licensing landlords and running the residential rent control program.

“I’ve watched how rents have gone up the past two to three years,” said Jonathan Beard, a community activist and a co-leader of the effort, which involves about 14 active members and is called the Columbus Coalition for Rent Control.

Beard, 57, a homeowner who lives in Franklin Park on the Near East Side, said he can’t see how young families can afford such rent increases as the area continues to suffer a housing shortage.

“This has just gone crazy,” said Beard, an official with the state education department. In 2013, Beard led a coalition that unsuccessfully tried to repeal the public purchase of Nationwide Arena through a voter initiative.

Rents in Columbus: How much are they?

According to the rental site Dwellsy, the median asking rent in Columbus increased by 12.3% between March 2021 and March 2022, which corresponds to a rent hike of $129 a month. The median asking rent in March was $1,145. Beard said he doesn’t believe Columbus officials are doing enough to resolve the affordable housing problem here.

An effort such as this is long overdue, said Tyrone Thomas, 65, a co-chair of the effort and a renter who lives on the Northwest Side.

“People don’t realize rent control is affordable housing,” said Thomas, who is director of transportation for a company that drives people with special needs. “If you can’t afford to pay your rent you become a victim of homelessness.”

How would rent control work in Columbus?

According to the proposed code language submitted to the city, the new Department of Fair Housing’s primary purpose would be to stabilize residential rents and neighborhoods “so that Columbus reverses the long-term trend of increasing deficits of affordable housing and increasing unaffordable housing and the displacement of neighborhood residents to more distant neighborhoods and suburbs due to rising rents and becomes a city that can better support all its residents, and not primarily its wealthy.”

The proposed new city department would set base rental rates, then adjust them based on the percentage increase of the annual change of compensation and benefits the U.S. Department of Labor publishes. For seniors and disabled residents, annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) would guide their rents.

The proposal would allow for higher rents for owners of new or substantially renovated apartments, but that would be capped.

A Fair Housing Commission would be created to hear hardship appeals from landlords. The commission would have 21 members, which would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. Recommendations for commission members, the ballot group envisions, would come from such groups as the Legal Aid Society, the NAACP, the Columbus Urban League, the Columbus Apartment Association, the Community Shelter Board, the Democratic Socialists of America and others.

A division in the new fair housing department in Columbus would collect information about rental housing supply, demand, price and availability.

The license fee for landlords would be $25 a year. The new city department would create an online database for filing registrations.

Excluded from registration would be college dormitories, housing operated by religious institutions, medical rehab and drug and alcohol facilities, domestic violence and homeless shelters, and housing operated by nonprofit groups.

The city’s general fund would pay for the fair housing department under the proposed initiative, but the language also says the Columbus City Council could consider taking 1% of the Department of Public Safety’s budget to help fund it because of the “community empowerment nature of the department with respect to its administrative tools to address drug activity and human trafficking in licensed residential rental property.”

Apartment association says initiative would ‘add significant cost’

Laura Swanson, executive director of the Columbus Apartment Association, which represents just more than 300 members who own 125,701 units in Greater Columbus, said the proposed initiative might actually end up hurting renters.

“Upon initial review, we believe that the proposed initiative would significantly reduce the amount of rental housing produced in Columbus,” Swanson said in an email,.

“The bureaucracy that is created by this initiative will add significant cost to rental housing,” she said.

Joe Motil, a long-time community activist from Clintonville who is also part of the ballot effort, said the proposal is one more way of addressing the city’s affordable housing crisis.

“Landlords are jacking up rents,” he said.

Damon Blanchard knows all about rising rents. He has lived in the Bexley Commons apartments on East Livingston Avenue on Columbus’ East Side

Damon Blanchard poses Monday outside the Bexley Commons apartments where his monthly rent more than doubled this year from $450 in 2021 to $970 this year.
Last year, his monthly rent was $450 for a one-bedroom apartment. On Jan. 1, the property owner more than doubled it to $970, including a base rent of $800, plus another $150 a month premium for a month-to-month lease and $20 for water service.

“A lot of people moved out. They were scared,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard said rent control would protect tenants.

Bexley Commons apartment complex

Bexley Project 1 LLC, which gives a Cincinnati address, is the property owner of record. A message left with the Bexley Commons office was not returned.

Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein’s office will review the pre-circulation petition to see if it meets city charter requirements.

In an emailed statement, Melanie Crabill, spokeswoman for Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, didn’t address the proposal other than to say the city attorney’s office has yet to vet it.

As to the housing crisis, she cited Ginther’s proposed bond package to go before voters in November that would set aside $150 million toward affordable housing, and also noted policies that require developers to build affordable housing in order to receive abatements.

Rent controls, normally found on coasts, moving into Midwest
While expensive coastal cities such as New York and San Francisco have long had rent control, none in Ohio ever have. But other Midwest cities have already taken steps.

For example, St. Paul, Minnesota’s rent control ordinance goes into effect May 1, with voters approving a 3% rent cap. However, draft rules would allow landlords seeking waivers to incorporate inflation and “self-certify” residential rent increases up to 8%.

Keith McCormish, the director of the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless, said his group advocates for affordable housing, but has not discussed rent control.

“It’s just such a touchy subject,” he said. “Obviously there’s some value for the renters. I don’t know how the landlords could make it unless there’s some subsidy on the back end.”

Officials at the Community Shelter Board, which works with 20 agencies to address homelessness in Columbus and Franklin County, don’t have an opinion yet.

“It’s very dense legislation that requires a lot of study and thoughtfulness,” spokeswoman Sara Loken said in a text.

The Columbus Coalition for Rent Control has a year to collect 4,935 valid signatures of Columbus registered voters to place the issue on the ballot. That would meet the requirement of at least 5% of the number of voters who cast ballots in the November 2019 Columbus mayoral election, which was 98,698.

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