Nevertheless, activists say the fight for affordable housing is far from over
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Ohio House Bill 430, pushed by the entrenched Ohio Republicans and passed in September, had a simple enough title: “Regards property development.” It made a slew of changes to the Ohio Revised Code, such as revising laws for orphaned oil wells and designating April as “Ohio Work Zone Safety Awareness Month.”

But as HB 430 wound its way through the legislative process this past summer, the Ohio GOP, with help from the Columbus Apartment Association (lobbyists), slipped in an additional amendment: That no municipality, such as Columbus, may pass or enact any law that “impos[es] or require[es] rent control or rent stabilization.”

HB 430 made Ohio the 31st state forbidding rent control laws, and while local mainstream media never covered it, the bill’s passage inspired the University of Cincinnati Law Review to write, “The continued imbalanced favoritism of landlords in this State continues to disproportionately harm tenants in an inexcusable way.”

On the flip side, many Columbus landlords big and small cheered with (greedy) pride. Because they all knew a group of local activists had back in April launched a campaign for a citizen-driven rent control initiative.

“The passage of a statewide rent control preemption is one of the most important legislative and regulatory victory ever achieved by the Columbus Apartment Association [CAA],” said Stephen Papineau, President of CAA, as more and more of our street corners are becoming crowded with people holding cardboard placards.

Seemingly overnight (and post pandemic), Columbus landlords boosted rent from relatively affordable to extremely stressful for tens of thousands of people. But HB 430 derailed a common sense law that would have put the brakes on Columbus’s rocketing cost of housing by limiting what landlords can charge.

According to local activists, 71,000 Columbus households are “rent-burdened” – spending more than half their income on housing. Also alarming is how 51 percent of Black residents are rent-burdened.

The citizen initiative was the idea of the Columbus Coalition for Rent Control, run by several well-known activists, such as Jonathan Beard, Joe Motil, and Chair of the housing committee for the local faith-based group B.R.E.A.D, Noel Williams.

The timing of HB 430 was no coincidence, they believe. Rent control panicked not only the Columbus Apartment Association, but also the pro-developer influence that has sway over City Council and the Mayor. To the extent this entire bunch was forced to kiss the feet of the Ohio GOP. They probably told the Ohio GOP that rent control scares away developers, especially those building $1,800-a-month “crampartments” for privileged young white professionals. And when stacked high in a mixed-used property with a concierge at their beck and call, this no doubt puts upward pressure on market rate.

Jonathan Beard says it succinctly on what happened with HB 430. That the undemocratic radical Republican Statehouse supermajority, which recently proposed a higher standard (60 percent) required for passage for citizen-led state constitutional amendments, are no friends to democracy, he says.

“In response to Columbus citizens seeking to enact laws to ensure the livability of Columbus for all its residents, the Ohio General Assembly stripped all Ohio citizens of a right to pass local housing laws to address local housing conditions – a right we have had for more than 100 years,” said Beard.

But even if their rent control law was swiftly killed, the Columbus Coalition for Rent Control is still asking City Council to do something. Several weeks ago, Beard met with Council President Shannon Hardin and Councilmember Shayla Favor, who chairs the housing committee. Favor told Beard they are working on their own affordable housing strategies, but she didn’t divulge much to Beard. The Free Press asked Councilmember Favor about these plans but have yet to hear back.

Not long after HB 430 passed, Beard pivoted with his own plans for the Columbus Coalition for Rent Control. He re-filed their proposal, seeking a “Columbus Fair Housing Code,” which he hopes City Council will hold hearings on, possibly even vote on, and if not, they’ll collect signatures to put it on a future ballot.

This housing code isn’t seeking a cap on rent, it would allow landlords to charge whatever they want, but they will be subjected to a windfall profits tax if they go above what will be established as “fair rent.” The code makes the City determine “fair rent” by basing the amount on 2020 rent averages. Also factored in will be Franklin County wage increases up until 2025, when the code would make “fair rent” law. The windfall tax dollars will be spent on affordable housing or fixing the homes of seniors and low income.

The housing code also would eliminate price gouging by landlords, prohibiting any annual rent increase over 15 percent. But the City wouldn’t enforce this, says Beard, citizens would. The code would give citizens a private cause of action by allowing them to sue if a landlord boosts rent over 15 percent after one year.

A recent article by the Associated Press had local housing experts sounding alarms on Intel’s arrival, which they believe is going to make Columbus’s affordable housing crisis even worse. Beard believes the time to act is now and act decisively, because, “We are at an existential moment for Black folk in Columbus.”

“Columbus has a pool of about 234,000 housing units that need to remain accessible to its residents,” says Beard. “If you lose pricing control over that large pool to a high-demand market, it is game over for Columbus, especially Black folk. There is no way to build enough affordable housing to keep up with that loss – even the $200 million housing bond issue [passed November 8th] doesn’t begin to scratch at the surface of that.”