Harvey Graff

Part Two

The bigger picture

NorthSteppe/Stickney is only the most egregious of the offending organizations among its peers. Almost as large and faulty is HomeTeam Properties, which has purchased property on false grounds (including the house next door to ours). It also claims in printed booklets that list all its properties that it is OSU Student Housing. As with NorthSteppe, it is not. Owner-occupiers receive these fraudulent mailings in our boxes addressed to “OSU student.” Simple record checking would prevent that. My direct inquiries to HomeTeam never result in an answer or an apology. OSU appears unwilling to protect its own interests.

Not only are HomeTeam houses typically in disrepair, they also refuse to provide sufficient trash and recycle containers or instruct their tenants on the law or their responsibilities. For example, the house beside ours—formerly home to a faculty family of five— has eight single residents. HomeTeam provides one trash and one recycle bin. My wife and I, a family of two, have the same number. (A small landlord across the street does not even arrange for a recycle bin.)

For reasons of public health and safety, we allow the student renters to place their overflow in our containers when there is room. We also try to teach them and other student neighbors when and how to deal with trash and recycling. Neither landlords nor OSU Student Life and Off-Campus services do that. The same applies to noise, alcoholism, group behavior, parking, and more. HomeTeam refuses our urgent requests for them to supply additional trash containers. I have asked the City to require two containers for dwellings of more than five unrelated persons.

Owner Tom Heilman responds to OSU’s tardy and modest efforts at minimal coordination with a temper tandem and storms out of a meeting. Like Stickney and NorthSteppe, HomeTeam does not believe that they are bound by the law, civility, or decency. Over decades, the City and OSU have allowed them to adopt this damaging and dangerous fiction. This is scandalous..

Other, smaller landlords and management companies title themselves “OSUlive” and “OSUproperties.” They are not part of the university. As they mislead prospective student tenants and their typically paying parents, we ask, but get no answer: Why does OSU allow this appropriation of its name? How much is it paid for this? Why does the institution aid and abet fraud while rhetorically professing concern for its teenage and young-adult students (and also reducing its actual commitment to their safety, welfare, and civic education)? Similarly, why does neither OSU nor the landlords provide basic information to their student tenants about law, responsibilities, and obligations? The students want to know. This is a collective failure.

Looking back and looking forward: Urban process Columbus-style

Despite the efforts of Columbus’ handful of amateur historians and the long-time refusal of Ohio State’s history department which sees local history as beneath them. (In comparison, Harvard, Columbia, Chicago, Penn, Berkeley, UCLA, and other distinguished institutions actively support the study of their home cities.) Nonetheless, the University District has a history. OSU honors graduate and University of Minnesota Ph.D. Ellen Manovich researched it thoroughly. (See Ellen Manovich, “‘Is This a Real Neighborhood’: Universities, Urban Development, and Neighborhood Change in the 20th Century United States,” unpub. Ph.D. Diss., University of Minnesota, 2016; “‘Time and Change Will Surely Show’: Contested Urban Development in Ohio State’s University District, 1920-2015,” Journal of Social History, 51 [2018], 1069-1099.) Long an established, growing, and vital neighborhood of historic homes, it was always a mixture of owners and tenants, many of whom lived with the owners or in small, independent boarding houses. From Ohio State’s founding in 1870, students had no other choice close to campus. The university had no on-campus housing until after World War II and the G.I. Bill.

The University District changed over the years in expected ways until the 1980s and after. OSU increased its enrollment substantially. Demand for off-campus housing rose, especially for second-year and older students (and for third-year and older after 2010, when OSU dramatically expanded its on-campus dormitories and required two years of residence for almost all undergraduates to augment its revenue stream).

In the midst of this neighborhood change, the City of Columbus allowed local public schools to deteriorate badly and then close. Erratic replacements by private and charter schools followed. Combined with the aging of the population, deaths of senior citizens, and normal movement to retirement communities, the exodus of younger families swelled with the decline in schools and district transformations.

Instead of taking responsible action to meet an unmissable transformation, the City of Columbus did not enforce its zoning laws and allowed the transfer of properties from stable owner-occupiers to the rapid growth of unregulated rental properties owned by larger and larger landlords and property managers. Variances were granted without question. Unaesthetic small to middle-sized apartment buildings, in violation of zoning and design review standards, were also approved. They dot the damaged landscape.

No supervision, regulation, or control by any City department including the Columbus Police Department or Zoning accompanied the sanctioned destruction of the neighborhood. Buyers misrepresented themselves and their intentions to sellers, student renters, and remaining owner occupiers. Across all indicators and reporting mechanisms, the damages to owners, tenants, the city, the environment, and the neighborhood itself are incalculable.

Density rose, well beyond the capacity of the streets for safe driving and legal parking. Misbehavior from disrespect and incivility to criminality spread rapidly without City, Police, or University response—despite its visibility and reporting in metropolitan and campus media.

The district now showcases fine homes deteriorating through tenants’ abuse and landlords’ neglect. This is often a source of complaints by students but not a concern of the City or OSU. So are trash everywhere but in proper disposal containers and trash bins scattered on sidewalks and streets; illegal crowds and drinking; noise violations; illegal furniture on porches and lawns; illegal tents, shelters, and portable toilets without permits; illegal parking; illegal signage by property owners-managers and tenants; graffiti; and general incivility.

City zoning and inspection, woefully underfunded, largely ignores the constant violations of code, public health, and safety. Reports to Columbus’ part-time 311 offense reporting system and to Columbus Police Department Non-Emergency get inconsistent response. City-wide problems are magnified in the area. The police force available for patrolling and responding in the largely white, middle-class student area is inadequate to their tasks and often uninformed about the nature of the University District. The UD is not on their radar as a problem area, in part because of its complexion and in part because officers are confused about their responsibilities as opposed to OSU’s and their fear of confronting out-of-control drunken parties of hundreds of students.

Among the contradictions, the greatest numbers of students want to obey the law, behave properly, be respectful, live civilly—as 20–24-year-olds—and learn. They long for information and adult counsel. My wife and I provide that to our immediate neighbors, but we cannot take the place of OSU’s ineffective Student Life, or the legal responsibilities of property owners or parents. A small number of the student tenants are anti-social delinquents and should be prosecuted. I call another small group “clueless”: they need to be reminded regularly of what is responsible and legal. By and large, they respond.

By all accounts, no one in the City government or the media noticed the massive transformation—at least not with respect to the laws on the books—or had an interest to notice and respond. That is one consequence of the lack of a representative City Council with no one responsible. Inseparable from that is the almost complete uselessness of the city’s subsystem of Area Commissions.

To take one example of the decline, through the 1970s and into the 1980s, the three blocks of East Frambes Avenue east of High Street were almost 100 percent occupied by people with university affiliations. Over the century, senior and distinguished professors lived within blocks of their offices. By 2010, none were left; only one owner-occupier remained. West Frambes Avenue was one of several streets that were closed permanently for campus expansion. The City made no effort to preserve one of its most established and attractive neighborhoods, one of numerous examples of the absence of urban planning and an integrated urban vision.

For its part, OSU barely noticed the changes despite creating its slogan-dominated and developer-assisting Campus Partners for Urban Community Development in the mid-1990s in the midst of the neighborhood decline. Campus Partners has never shown interest in the university’s adjacent UD on which it depended historically for faculty, staff, and student housing, and for post–first-year (now post–second-year) student housing.

Faculty, students, and neighborhood residents made many pleas and proposals for OSU/Campus Partners to purchase vacant dwellings in the UD and to turn them into student housing, including distinctive theme houses. Many other universities have done this successfully to the pleasure and benefit of their students. Theme houses offer a variety of academic and extracurricular emphases.

Regardless, Campus Partners purchased less than a handful of for-sale properties for resale, an option they could and should have employed regularly if their slogans had any meaning. Instead they overpaid for properties on High Street, held them for lengthy periods, and then resold them to developers for substantial losses. (See Graff, “Slogans are no substitute for concrete university policies and programmes”; “Sloganeering and the Limits of Leadership”; and “Disconnecting Gown and Town: Campus Partners for Urban Community Development, Ohio State University,” forthcoming.)

OSU did institute an employee mortgage assistance program that can only be called paltry if not self-defeating and insulting for faculty and staff. It offered at first a loan of $3,000, then of $5,000, a fraction of the efforts of other universities to preserve homeownership in mixed, mature, off-campus neighborhoods. OSU failed to inform new employees of the tiny benefit. When it publicized the wee effort, or fraudulently defended it, the staff and University Communications regularly confused the boundaries of the UD.

Within the first two decades of the 21st century, OSU’s limited presence and responsibility actively declined while its rhetoric and slogans did not. In the first decade of the century, OSU operated a 24-hour “hot line” to report problems, conducted occasional Campus Safety patrols, and both senior Student Life personnel and then President Gordon Gee visited both students and owner-occupiers. They loved to have their photos taken drinking beer with undergraduates. There is debate about the motivations and efficacy of those appearances. But they disappeared before 2010.

Even a dramatically exaggerated, relatively minor increase in crime in summer 2021 (following a tragic but isolated shooting death in 2020) failed to prompt more than flurry of chaotic, ineffective, rhetorical responses that pivoted around portable lamp posts that the OSU president falsely claimed to be effective. They actually did more harm than good, and were probably installed illegally.

OSU’s trademark “leadership by slogan” promised an inadequate expenditure on safety of $2 million per year. But that remains without plan, timetable, or budget. In addition, the university briefly instituted a directionless, symbolic Buckeye Block Watch that “patrolled” without authority for a few hours on Wednesday through Saturday evenings only in part of the district—as if crime took place on their schedule. (See Graff, “Ohio State falters again, a continuing higher education tragedy”; “Ohio State versus ‘campus safety’”; “Columbus isn’t Cowtown or Silicon Valley Heartland; It’s the lawless, wild-wild-Midwest.”)

Is the physical and human damage reparable? Will Columbus, the offending large landlords, and Ohio State University pay appropriate reparations? I sincerely doubt it.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. His Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is forthcoming. His essays appear in Inside Higher Education, Times Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe, Publishers Weekly, Columbus Free Press, and other outlets. Specialties include the history and present condition of literacy and education including higher education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society