When people drive by the three buildings rising from the ground along North 17th Street on the Near East Side, they see a typical construction site: carpenters driving nails into plywood, laborers pouring concrete floors, electricians installing wire.
Isabel Toth sees something greater.
“I see the hope that our residents have in their potential future,” said Toth, CEO and president of Community Properties of Ohio.
The buildings being constructed are part of Columbus Scholar House, an innovative housing concept that places low-income families in safe, affordable locations with services they haven’t had – services that will allow them to attend college, provide better care for their children, and create a support system. Ten units are already in place on Long St. near 17th.
While owning subsidized properties isn’t new to Community Properties, the approach is – and new to central Ohio as well.
In 2003, Community Properties, an affiliate of Ohio Capital Corporation, was encouraged to acquire the nation’s largest collection of scattered, low-income, Section 8 housing—a portfolio of 250 buildings with more than 1,335 units clustered in seven inner-city neighborhoods.
“When we took over in 2003, this portfolio needed improvement,” Toth recalled. “There was a lot of criminal activity, people weren’t in compliance with their leases” because the tenants, mostly young, single mothers, allowed their boyfriends to stay with them to help pay the bills. Some of them were in gangs, she said.
Ohio Capital and its affiliates invested $133 million over six years to renovate the properties, add security, and enforced the leases. Still, they knew providing safe, affordable housing wasn’t enough.
“As we started working more closely with the population we serve, we found there was a real need for services for residents beyond what a property management company can provide,” said Sarah French, marketing and communications manager for Community Properties. “We identified core areas where if we provided the services they needed, we could really help the residents move forward.”
Borrowing from an approach she saw in Louisville, Ky., Toth’s organization brought together the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority (which provides rent subsidies) and other organizations to open Columbus Scholar House in August of 2012.
“It’s been wonderfully successful,” Toth said, noting that one of the first tenants began at Columbus State Community College and moved to The Ohio State University.
The success of the first phase—10 units on the top floor of the Charles Building at the southeast corner of Long and North 17th—led to the expansion now underway. Once finished this fall, this expansion will add 28 more units (18 apartments and 10 townhomes) to the project.
“Our goal is to take this concept across all of the units we own – which is about 1,000 units,” Toth said.
The growth and importance of the Scholar House expansion was noticed by The Columbus Foundation, prompting the Foundation to recognize Community Properties as one of its “5 Nonprofits to Watch” in 2016.
“These are people who are getting support from others who are in the same position and have had similar experiences,” said Lisa S. Courtice, Ph.D., executive vice president of the Columbus Foundation. Their shared perspective is this: “This is so hard to go to school. I have no money. I don’t have a support system. I’ve never been to school before or I’ve never been successful in school before,’ and we’re doing this.”
Those involved say the initiative helps two generations simultaneously.
“These are students who are parents, and so you have to have a two-generation approach,” French said. “We’re working with a mom and helping her child with early childhood development, focusing on helping both in tandem. It works toward the goal of ending generational poverty.”
To qualify to be part of the Scholar House program, a person must be a full-time student at an accredited Ohio university, maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average, have primary custody of at least one child and meet income requirements. With the assistance of the YMCA, Scholar House residents will receive child care at a building being renovated on Long. “We’re primarily a property management operation so we want to partner with an agency with a proven track record,” French explained.
When the idea was conceptualized, Toth said the belief was most residents would be Columbus State Community College students. But most have been Ohio State University students, she said. The expansion may draw students from the 10 universities that are within four miles of the location.
Toth said Scholar House does more than just give its current residents hope. “It’s a place I can take people to – investors and community-minded people – and a place I can take residents and potential residents and speak to what’s possible.”
She noted that her organization doesn’t market their properties because they stay occupied through word of mouth.
“We say our 8- and 10-year-olds will become our lease holders in eight to 10 years unless we do something different,” Toth said. “This is something different.”