As I’ve mentioned, these first few weeks are essentially preparing me for the meat of my summer here at Habitat. Researching allows me to get grounded in the field of urban development and understand the history of Habitat, the evolution of housing policy in Central Ohio, and the state of low-income housing in the region at present. In this research, I’ve come across many interesting histories about Columbus neighborhoods. Having taken a city and regional planning (CRP) class at OSU, I’m not a complete stranger to this field of study. CRP 310 gave me the bare bones of planning and a broad overview of planning in the U.S., from colonial Savannah to 20th-century garden suburbs.
With the end of World War II and the increasing physical mobility brought by improved infrastructure and affordable personal vehicles, the decline of the central business district (CBD) began. A story told a hundred times, the development of suburbia created a donut pattern in many cities – a hollow core with a fat outer ring. Needless to say, affluent urbanites left the city’s dense center for more spacious lawns and larger homes in Bexley, Upper Arlington, and Worthington by the 1940s. Without jumping into a comprehensive history, the phenomenon of white flight left the city’s formerly grand streets (Town, Rich, Broad, Bryden, Neil, etc.) blighted and fragmented. Landlords created multi-family units and neglected properties for decades.
The 1960s (roughly) brought a wave of urban renewal policies that advocated for “slum clearance” and the restoration of the city core. Now on to the relevance of this snooze-fest: while perusing the Columbus city code online, I noticed a section titled “Urban Homesteading Program.” In the CRP class, we learned about urban homesteading as a precursor to textbook gentrification. The municipality offers incentives to people who purchase homes in select neighborhoods and require that they bring the property up to code within a specified time period. The policy also states that the new owner can only own one residential property, and the owner must occupy the residence. The city might waive a lien or give a tax abatement to the new owner for their efforts at getting the property up to code. Columbus’ history with this type of “urban renewal” is rich.
The Short North, again, is a textbook example. Grand Victorian and Queen Anne homes were selling for under $100,000 in the early 1980s. Today, Victorian Village is one of Columbus’ most desirable neighborhoods, with home prices well over $600,000 in The Circles neighborhood and on Neil Ave.
Back on point, the Columbus city code’s “Urban Homesteading Program” section (3523) was repealed in 2009. The language of the code was not available on the website for the city code (municode.com) and the only information listed was the word “repealed.” Of course I wanted to find out what Columbus’ version of this policy was, so I called the general city code phone number for Columbus. I should have known when I dialed “311” that it wouldn’t be the contact I was looking for. The person on the other end asked me for a zip code. I gave our office zip code, and then was transferred to the code officer for the district. I explained that I wasn’t reporting a code violation, but trying to get a hold of a part of the code that was repealed and not listed online. The code officer was supremely confused and kept asking me what violation I was attempting to report. Finally he mentioned the City Attorney’s office, so I ended up calling over there.
The woman who answered my phone call at the City Attorney’s office walked me through the steps to access the city code online and discovered that the code in fact said “repealed,” with no further information. I was referred to City Council and gave them a ring to explain my research request. Again, the contact was trying to explain that the code is accessible through municode.com (really?) and that I should check online. I got through to someone else who put me through to someone else who finally understood (or so I thought) what I was looking for. I told them I’d be in that afternoon to take a look at the code which they told me they had pulled for me and would keep at the front desk until my arrival.
Arriving at City Hall was akin to entering Fort Knox. I was interrogated by a firm security woman in the lobby of the Beaux Arts building on Front St. and after nervously explaining my intent for entering a municipal office, was granted access and even given my own ID badge to paste proudly on my breast. I went upstairs, walked down a long marble hallway, and entered the City Council office. I was greeted with a smile and directed to an open binder on the counter. I looked down. The page below my eyes contained these words: “Section 3523, Urban Homesteading Program. Repealed.”
Luckily, a competent woman came to my rescue. She asked me to catch her up to speed on my request, and she diligently set to work finding my highly desired research request. After standing for a bit, she told me that her supervisor said, “We’re not going to be able to get this while he’s standing there, it’s going to take some time.” So, with dual-natured smile, I exited City Hall (after getting lost in the labyrinthine corridors) into the blustery downtown streets. I immediately called Erin (my co-worker) to voice the hilarity of the entire situation.
Monday rolled around and I was on a quest. I had a voicemail from the City Clerk’s office asking me to call back and talk about my request. When I called, a new person answered. Finally, the real deal. He completely understood my request and said he had the language ready for me down at the office. He told me he would fax it (their scanner was broken). I gave him a fax number and he faxed it within 10 minutes. I opened the fax, which is a confusing modern fax mechanism that converts the document to a .tiff file and emails it to the recipient, and page 1 and 4 showed up clean and clear. Pages 2 and 3, however, were put through the perils of a digital scrambler of some kind, appearing only as a series of Tetris-tic black and white rectangles. Embarrassingly, I called him back and asked him to fax it to our old fax number, which is a bumbling traditional fax machine. Nothing came through for 2 hours. I called him back and he said it just kept ringing and ringing. After asking around the office, I found out that the traditional fax is…”temperamental.” I told him I’d come down to pick up the information. The trip downtown was more than worth it—after days of seeking, I finally got to read the fruits of my labor. This time, the information was actually there. They had it stapled and everything, even with a pretty pink post-it with “Mathew Adair” [sic] written on it. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh.
Now I have a repealed section of city code that applies extremely tangentially to my work here at Habitat.