About 50 people assembled recently at the Champaign County Community Center for a public meeting to unveil the findings and recommendations of a countywide housing study. The study will serve as a working document to guide Champaign County leaders in developing strategy, policy and partnerships to help supply the county’s full range of housing needs.
Another public meeting about the study, conducted by the Greater Ohio Policy Council (GOPC), will be held at the community center auditorium at 6 p.m. on March 2.
“The study, which is now in draft form, will be finalized with public input after the March 2 meeting,” said Marcia Bailey, director of the Champaign Economic Partnership, which commissioned the study. “I encourage local citizens to attend to learn more about the study and what we can do to move Champaign County forward to meet pent-up demand for a full range of housing options, including new market-rate single-family homes and multi-family developments, rehabilitated housing, downtown loft apartments, and affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families.”
Those at the first public meeting included government and school officials, builders, developers, real estate agents, business leaders, bankers, health care leaders, residents, apartment owners and leaders of community organizations.
Low vacancy rates
Alison Goebel and Maria Walliser-Wejebe of GOPC, who presented findings of the study, reported that Champaign County has a more stable housing and population outlook in comparison to similar communities in the state. And Champaign County has fewer vacant properties than many communities, Goebel said.
They also reported that the county has low vacancy rates for rental properties and limited development of new single-family homes, with only 28 building permits issued since 2010.
Amber Smith, who owns and manages apartments with her husband, Cody, through their business, Cober Properties, said at the meeting that they rarely have a vacancy at their Urbana properties.
The Smiths and their three children live in a downtown loft apartment. They recently purchased another downtown building to renovate to become their new home and to develop into other apartments – to help relieve the unmet housing demand.
Attracting new residents
Limited development of new single-family homes is limiting the county’s ability to attract new residents, including people who drive in from outside the county for 55 percent of local jobs. Goebel said the study indicated that providing more housing options could help Champaign County attract more of the out-of-county commuters to make their home here – as well as people who work in nearby metropolitan areas but would like a more peaceful place for their families to live.
The report indicates a shortage of available land for new housing construction within the county’s incorporated areas – Urbana, Mechanicsburg, St. Paris and North Lewisburg.
The report suggests working with local educational institutions, such as Ohio Hi-Point Career Center and Clark State Community College, to prepare more students for building trades. This would help alleviate a shortage of subcontractors, a statewide problem that raises the cost of construction and deters developers from entering new markets.
· Develop a housing consortium of local stakeholders, such as builders, developers, real estate agents, local government, financial institutions and schools, to help guide decisions that promote needed housing development – including new housing and preservation and maintenance of existing housing. The consortium could also market Champaign County to developers and potential new residents. Goebel said, “We know that communities sell themselves. They can help convince developers that this is the place to invest.”
· Prioritize downtown and main street development to help maintain an attractive community core for business and residential living. This will influence improvements to surrounding neighborhoods, Walliser-Wejebe said. And downtown improvements will include ongoing development of loft apartments, to bring more residents downtown and support businesses.
– Use economic development tools established by local government to promote housing development. This includes setting up community reinvestment areas in Urbana, Mechanicsburg, St. Paris and North Lewisburg to incentivize housing development, as well as zoning to ensure more dense development to optimize use of limited land within city and village boundaries.
– Protect existing housing stock and prevent decline. This would include bolstering existing code enforcement and promoting adaptive reuse of existing properties, as is being done with the Douglas Inn and the former Urbana North and South elementary school buildings for the Legacy Place senior apartment project. Goebel mentioned at the meeting that Legacy Place, which will provide 51 affordable senior living apartments, will make available more single-family housing as seniors who move into the apartments put their homes on the market.
– Develop creative financing strategies to promote development, through a community development financial institution (CDFI) as well as other solutions, such as the local investor group that has made possible the Cobblestone Hotel project in Urbana.
Strategies like these could encourage local builders and developers to invest in new housing or repurposing existing property. When they realize a return on their investments, larger developers could become interested in entering the Champaign County market to draw new residents to the county, Goebel and Walliser-Wejebe said.
Bailey said she will take the study to city and village councils and the county commissioners for them to officially recognize the document and to begin working toward creation of a housing consortium to move the study recommendations forward.
Anyone interested in being a part of future discussions regarding Champaign County’s housing needs should contact Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-653-7200.
Submitted by the Champaign Economic Partnership.