Green Acres Discord Prompts Housing Study

Katherine Kingma, Staff Writer

The Oberlin City Council is inquiring about the city’s housing needs following its rejection of an affordable housing proposal last spring. The Council will evaluate these findings before moving forward with plans.

The city put out a Request for Proposals for a study of Oberlin’s housing needs on Monday, Sept. 21. The analysis will quantify current available housing, provide and project statistics about pertinent housing demographics, examine housing supply and demand and give public policy recommendations. According to the RFP, the study will “summarize gaps, trends [and] what is anticipated” in the Oberlin housing stock.

Arlene Dunn of the Oberlin Community Benefits Coalition, an organization that works to promote economic opportunity for locals and minorities, has voiced concern that the consultant will not take community input into account in the housing study.

“It’s unclear to me how the City Council is going to engage the Planning Commission or the community in focusing on what the housing needs analysis should focus on,” Dunn said. “I believe they think that all they’re doing is gathering data, but we believe there is possibly some anecdotal information that the people who are doing this study have to hear.”

However, according to city officials, including anecdotal information would defeat the purpose of the study.

“I think we’re trying to get away from the anecdotal and really stick to the facts so we can really figure out what the demand is,” Planning and Development Director Carrie Handy said. “There’s probably room in there for some input from different stakeholders, but this is a study, not a plan. So hopefully out of this study … issues will be identified, and then maybe we can develop a plan with the community input as to how we’re going to address those issues. I think that’s when community input really comes in to play. We just want as much hard data as we can [get].”

City Manager Eric Norenberg, who pitched the idea of the study to the City Council, echoed Handy.

“We hope this will provide objective data and facts that we can use for future decision-making rather than opinions and wishes,” Norenberg said. “Oberlin decision-makers need to be aware that the demands of young people and families are different than they were 40 years ago, and we need to be able to respond to those changes.”

Norenberg also said the study will be helpful in guiding Oberlin’s new Comprehensive Plan, which is updated about every five years to advise economic and housing development.

Despite the City Manager’s recommendation, the idea of the housing study wasn’t met with unanimous approval across the City Council.

“The Western Reserve Land Conservancy performed a property maintenance survey less than two years ago,” City Council member Bryan Burgess said. “If that information were compiled with our existing GIS and Lorain County Auditor databases, we could answer many of these basic questions with little or no additional cost. But this previous study has just been filed away. I want to see the price tag of yet another study and hear how it will benefit taxpayers before committing my support.”

Burgess also questioned whether the housing study would prove effective over time.

“As proposed by the City Manager, the housing study will present a snapshot in time: the state of housing in Oberlin [in] 2015. How relevant will this study be in a year? Five years? 10 years? Why not build a property assessment database [that can be] regularly updated?”

Norenberg presented the idea of the housing study to the City Council in May after the proposal for Green Acres, a new low-to-medium income housing development, was tabled in a City Council vote five to one because of disagreements over the site plan, the type of housing that would be provided and whether the housing was actually needed, among other issues.

Green Acres remains controversial and the proposed development looms over discussion of the housing study.

“I thought we had a chance to build a showcase and meet some of Oberlin’s lower-income needs, so I was hugely disappointed,” said City Council Vice President Sharon Fairchild-Soucy retrospectively about the delay and possible termination of the Green Acres Project. “Rather than have many units available to lower-income people, [some] people wanted higher-quality units that would be available to young professionals, but I don’t think that was the need that was being addressed. … [But] whether we do Green Acres or not, I think the information we gather from [the study that it prompted] will be very valuable.”

Dunn, on the other hand, was one of the people who objected to the Green Acres plan.

“One of the things that is happening here is that there is no ability to have a dialogue between the community and City Council,” Dunn said. “We’re very much in favor of low-income housing … but we don’t want it to be concentrated. This was originally supposed to be mixed-income housing.”

The responses to the Request for Proposals are due Oct. 16, and the consultant will be selected by Nov. 3. The consultant will present the study to City Council on Feb. 1, 2016.