An Open Letter on Housing in America

Below follows a response I wrote to an individual interested in moving into the neighborhood where I live–the King-Lincoln District in Columbus. This individual wanted to get a feel for the area before making the huge decision to purchase a home. I took it as an opportunity to express and explore my own thoughts on the issue.  Here’s the letter:

…So, I’m going to try to speak openly and honestly. I will to my best to avoid the class and racially-coded language of real estate agents–of “dynamic areas” and the like.

NoBo is a great area in some aspects and not in others (like pretty much any neighborhood though many ignore that fact). I’ll first hit on why we moved here. We liked what HomePort/Columbus Housing Partnership is doing–trying to rejuvenate an area that has historically been neglected by businesses and civic government. In general, we approve of HomePort’s goal of creating affordable, mixed-income housing which attempts to avoid gentrification and displacement (occurring, for a while it seems, in Olde Town East to our South).

The King-Lincoln District as a whole bears the marks of American segregation and general white flight. There is no grocery store that’s at all close for example. There aren’t many shops around. It is poorer than a lot of other areas around Columbus, and thus there is a perceived risk of crime (I personally don’t know if this area has more crime than others in Columbus or not–the University District, for example, I do know is not terribly safe). We know some people in the neighborhood whose houses have been broken into. Ours hasn’t; we’ve had a great experience but we come at it with a certain attitude. There is a greater population of African Americans than in other parts of the city such as Clintonville or Short North. This alone, I’ve found, makes people nervous. I usually can count on raised eyebrows when I tell people where I live.

At the same time, my partner and I are products of and quite different from our parents’ generation and certainly the generation before them. We come from a very privileged background, but if things are going to change from how they used to work then we need to try practical, on the ground actions. This is to say we’re aware of the tensions and anxieties many might feel about the issue–on both sides–and feel that we can (try to) openly address them as, I hope, this letter communicates.

However–and I mean this–this is not a call for everyone to do this nor is this a call for everyone to do what we do. Instead, we thought long and hard about where we wanted to live and what we wanted to do through that purchase. In the end, HomePort’s goal of rejuvenating a neglected area while trying to avoid gentrification was one of our first priorities. We were not very concerned about the greater neighborhood of King-Lincoln because it was poor or largely black.

In fact, this is one of its strengths: the history and culture here is not like where I came from. And I like that. I realize I have the privilege to make that comment as a white kid from Colorado, but it’s how I feel. To get a little corny for a moment, America wouldn’t be nearly so great without its diversity, and maybe that’s one reason why I moved here. If, in fact, NoBo is avoiding gentrification is to be determined. But, we thought it was worth a shot from what we learned. (But, for example, they’ve now started selling houses for $160,000, roughly $25,000 to $35,000 more than their previous models.)

If there are other reasons why one might not want to move here, then this area might not be what one is looking for.  It’s not suburbia or the Short North with lots of bars, restaurants, and boutiques.

For instance, if I had children, I’m honestly not sure what decision I would make. This issue has its own complications. Columbus City Schools are simply not as good as those found in Clintonville and Grandview–certainly not those in Dublin, Worthington, and Upper Arlington. That is a bridge we’ll cross when we get there, but is something to consider.

All of that said, we have found a community in NoBo that is unlike any I’ve known in my, albeit, small amount of living experiences. It is certainly different than where I grew up in Fort Collins. We have a neighborhood association who takes a progressive view towards helping the area improve when we can. We apply for grants for helping individuals with home improvements, hold litter clean-ups, and meet with local police officers. For example, as a group, we have generally avoided (in my personal opinion) the possible pitfall of condemning the local corner-stores because some associate them with crime or things like “loitering.” Instead, we’ve invited the owner to our meetings to discuss the perceived problems from common ground. These are small steps, but practical ones in the end.

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