Does Clark County need new housing to be successful?

New housing options for residents are critical to the future of Clark County, local economic leaders said, and a challenge that cities all over Ohio face.

Springfield officials have looked to cities like Wooster, Akron and Cleveland to see how those municipalities are tackling similar problems. The issue has been listed as a priority in the Clark County Comprehensive Plan, a document that lays out a basic guideline for what Clark County might look like decades from now.

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Employers like Silfex and Topre pledged last year to bring new jobs and investment to Clark County, said Mike McDorman, president of the Chamber of Greater Springfield. But in the past it’s been difficult to encourage workers from area companies to buy homes in Clark County, in part due to an aging housing stock.

If no solutions are developed, he said those workers are likely to settle down in other communities. That affects everything from schools to property values to participation in local civic groups, McDorman said.

“As we bring new jobs and opportunities, housing becomes the No. 1 issue facing our community,” McDorman said. “We have a housing situation where 50 percent of our housing is 50 years or older. (Some) of that housing is 70 years or older and that’s a real problem for Springfield. From a situation of market-rate housing, it’s obviously the biggest hurdle the city has in attracting and retaining people.”

Tom Franzen, economic development director and assistant city manager for Springfield, said local leaders are reviewing a study by the Greater Ohio Policy Center on what strategies Akron has taken to resolve a similar issue. And Franzen said the city plans to develop a report on Springfield’s current incentives for residential development compared to the cities like Akron, Cincinnati, Hamilton and Wooster.

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Sunny Dhingra, president of the Springfield Board of Realtors, said housing is a long-standing problem in Springfield that needs to be addressed. Cultural institutions in Clark County may eventually suffer if there isn’t a large enough population to support them, making the community even less attractive.

“It’s a multi-faceted problem and all of it needs to be tackled,” Dhingra said.

Need a spark

Dwayne Brubaker of Countryside Builders said the majority of work he’s seen since the Great Recession started a decade ago has been remodeling existing homes, not building new.

Along with remodeling, Brubaker said his business has primarily focused on more expensive, custom-built homes in recent years. That’s in part because material costs typically mean slim profit margins on less expensive properties.

New home development requests have improved in the past few years, but Brubaker said it’s unlikely the region will see the kind of demand for new homes that existed before the recession.

Buyers, lenders and construction firms all are more reluctant to take risks in recent years, he said.

“People have just got a little cold feet 0ver the recession,” Brubaker said.

Information from the city of Springfield showed between 2012 and last year, only 63 new residential building permits were filed, including for single family homes, duplexes and triple unit residences.

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In Clark County, 50 permits for new dwellings were filed in 2015, a number that dipped slightly to 44 permits the following year. In 2017, 70 new residential building permits were filed.

Brubaker’s not sure what incentives might spur new housing development locally, although he said the market has improved slowly in the past few years.

“I am happy to see the construction industry moving in the right direction compared with just a few years ago,” Brubaker said.

Springfield isn’t alone, said Alison Goebel, executive director for the Greater Ohio Policy Center. Cities like Akron, Cleveland, Youngstown and Detroit have tried a variety of solutions in recent years, ranging from working with nonprofits to redevelop some sites to private foundations and banks working together to provide a mortgage program making it easier for buyers to renovate an existing home.

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“Springfield is very typical of what we’re seeing in communities across the state,” Goebel said.

For years, Springfield struggled to attract jobs, said Dhingra, also owner of Always Sunny Realty. That’s improving after announcements last year like Topre and Silfex, two manufacturing firms that pledged to create hundreds of jobs in Springfield in the next few years.

But if those workers can’t find newer, affordable housing in Springfield, he said they’ll move to communities like Beavercreek and Centerville, which are building much more rapidly.

Boosting Springfield’s population is critical for everything from property taxes for local governments to encouraging new businesses and restaurants to take a closer look at Springfield, Dhingra said.

“We can have all the jobs we want, but if they don’t live here, they won’t spend their money here,” Dhingra said.

Housing in Springfield is affordable, he said, but there are fewer choices because much of the housing stock is so dated.

“For an average person trying to buy a $200,000 house, there’s nothing out there,” he said.

Clark County has qualified builders who can do the work, Dhingra said. But some kind of incentive is needed to make it worthwhile to build new homes in Springfield as opposed to neighboring counties.

“We need that initial spark,” he said.

The Akron study

Last fall, several local officials from the chamber, city and county toured Akron, Cleveland and Wooster to see how they have addressed their housing stock. Akron conducted a study with the Greater Ohio Policy Center to take a closer look at strategies that could incentivize new construction and boost the city’s population.

Local leaders are considering a similar study for Springfield, although nothing has been finalized.

That study included an analyses of all of Akron’s neighborhoods and used interviews with local home builders to develop strategies that might make sense for the city.

“You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know exactly what it is,” Goebel said.

The study included several recommendations, such as providing incentives for construction like tax abatements, developing more rental options for residents downtown and finding creative ways to combat low appraisal values in some neighborhoods that can otherwise discourage market-rate developers from building in the city.

The study also recommended using a variety of different strategies by neighborhood, depending on factors ranging from home values, rents, resident incomes and home ownership rates.

The report also pointed to case studies in Cleveland and Dayton, showing the potential impact of tax incentives and partnerships between the city and institutions that exist in those neighborhoods.

The study pointed to the Genesis project in Dayton, in which Citywide Development, a nonprofit housing developer, partnered with the city to revitalize the Fairgrounds neighborhood adjacent to the University of Dayton and Miami Valley Hospital. Those partners built 45 new homes in the neighborhood, the report says, focusing on moderate income buyers.

“The program was quickly successful, as the private market moved in and built market-rate town homes and a thriving commercial strip adjacent to the neighborhood. In fact, home values have grown so precipitously that Citywide is considering interventions like a land trust to preserve affordability in the neighborhood,” the study says.

In Springfield, McDorman said the chamber and city are working together to take a closer look at what options might make the most sense for Clark County. The city has been able to add jobs, he said, so there is some positive momentum.

“The good news is we’re getting the jobs,” McDorman said. “We need to get a lot of those people to live in Springfield and we’re creating some opportunities from a quality-of-life standpoint that will help people hopefully choose to live in a town like Springfield. We’re doing a lot of the right things as a community but housing is clearly an issue we have to address.”

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