Hey Columbus: Stop, Look and Listen


Like most other major American cities, Columbus, Ohio, has long been bedeviled by slum hotels and motels – human hellholes where drug dealing, human trafficking, gun running and gangbanging are the order of the day.

But city officials have had enough. Starting last summer City Council members began sanctioning bad actors and closing legal loopholes that have for decades allowed disreputable operators to keep renewing their permits.

Yet for all the upsides associated with the city’s efforts to clean up or shutter these modern-day dens of iniquity, there is at least one harmful if unintended consequence: the eviction of impoverished, law abiding, overwhelmingly minority residents – roughly one-quarter of them children – whose only crime is sharing a roof with some very bad people.

Insult to injury for those being forced to relocate, mostly out-of-town land speculators have signaled interest in the most potentially lucrative complexes for resale to mostly out-of-town developers – a course of action all too common in Columbus as “limited liability” companies snatch up distressed properties, rent them to poor folks and perform little to no essential maintenance.

If this pattern seems familiar to Council members, it should. It’s the same seamy process brought to light in a Nov. 13, 2013, expose in the Columbus Dispatch.

Logged by Dispatch staff Mike Wagner, Mark Ferenchick and Jill Riepenhoff, the article (“Neighbors of Neglected Homes Feel Forgotten”) describes the urban blight in Franklinton, a long-neglected Columbus neighborhood where dilapidated properties may change hands multiple times in the course of a year – each resale a calculated move to make it increasingly harder for the city to track down the actual owners.

As the writers’ profile of Franklinton (alternately known as “The Bottoms”) illustrates, the economic impact of slum and abandoned properties are as obvious as the proliferation of rotting structures; but the damage wreaked upon the area extends to its government, schools, libraries, policing and what one faith-based service provider in the area termed “psychological decay”:

“The deplorable condition of the housing in the neighborhood creates an environment where a lot of people don’t care about life … It’s a psychological decay … the feeling is: No one cares, so why should I care?”

Residents interviewed for the story gave a litany of reasons for this chronic state of mental strain: unsafe housing; food insecurity; limited access to medical care; domestic and gun violence; prostitution; drug trafficking.

But there is something else burdening the minds of Franklinton’s most hearty citizens. It’s a concern they share with those being turned out from their hotel and motel rooms a few minutes’ drive away.

The fear (and possible fate) shared by those who live in the seedy hotels and crumbling houses is gentrification – the de facto evacuation order that unless mitigated by the government that issued it could put them on the street.

Save among those who stand to profit most, gentrification is a sticky political, economic and moral wicket, pitting potential revenue increases and curb appeal against the current residents’ financial reality and/or desire to stay put.

The Dispatch profile of Franklinton captured this tension in layman’s terms in an interview with Hubert Davis, a resident and middle-aged father trying to make ends meet on a dishwasher’s pay:

“Most of us are only here because this is all we can afford. Every dime I earn goes for rent and food. It’s terrible around here, but if they come in and tear all these houses down and replace them with nice places, then where are we all going to go?”

Columbus Council members should look stop, look and listen before they go any further on the issue of large-scale gentrification. There are other cities, such as San Antonio, Texas, where officials are proceeding slowly rather than cave in to the firms and companies clamoring to buy up whole blocks of devalued real estate. (San Antonio is floating resident-friendly plans that include low interest home loans, relocation subsidies, low-income housing credits and affordable housing units.)

It won’t be easy for the movers and shakers in Columbus to resist the wealthy contributors and itchy opportunists in their own backyard.

Which is why it’s time to stop. And look. And listen.

Before the bids and contracts start flying.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2016


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