Think Tank Think Tank



Creatively Adapting Existing Stock to Solve Urban Problems

Addressing the current housing crisis means more than simply building new houses.

Ross Jackson

Columbus, Ohio is experiencing a housing crisis—the demand for housing far outweighs the supply. Additionally, central Ohio’s population is projected to increase to three million by 2050 . . . that is an increase of one million people.1 Columbus does not have enough housing stock to meet demand. The solution is not simply to build more housing, but to build more housing that considers the needs of the those affected by disinvestment. The city needs to move quickly to solve this dilemma.

Many neighborhoods in Ohio are neglected from a development perspective. According to a recent study performed by the Economic Innovation Group, the number of US neighborhoods with a poverty rate above 30 percent has doubled between 1980 and 2018.2 Only 10 neighborhoods in Ohio have reduced poverty rates from above 30 percent in 1980 to below 10 percent in 2018.3

This pattern of poverty is expected to worsen. Columbus’s population has increased by 59 percent in the last 30 years. At the same time, the city’s housing stock is at an all-time low.4 Soon the boundaries between the low-poverty and high-poverty neighborhoods will become even more stark, creating enclaves of wealth within the area. This will drive regional housing shortages as low-income families struggle to find housing within their budgets, while price increases ultimately squeeze out the most vulnerable.

Reinvesting in these neighborhoods will help alleviate the poverty level, but in what form should this reinvestment manifest? While gentrification can be a source of positive change for a community, it can also force vulnerable populations from their homes due to rising housing costs.

For example, Columbus’s Short North neighborhood (strictly speaking, the Short North is the High Street corridor between 5th Avenue to the north and Goodale Boulevard to the south but colloquially also includes Victorian Village to the west and Italian Village to the east) is one of the areas in Ohio that has reduced its poverty rate from 30 percent in 1980 to 10 percent in 2018. Columbus’s downtown core was once a thriving community. In the early 1900s, wealthier residents began to move to the north of the city and build large Victorian homes, forming the area now known as Victorian Village. Eventually, these wealthy residents moved even farther from the downtown core and left their estates in Victorian Village to be converted into apartments.5 This continued to happen in the 60s and 70s as suburban sprawl took higher-earning residents away from the downtown core. This part of town had a reputation for being rife with crime. The police called the area the “Short North” since it was north of downtown but short of The Ohio State University.6

In the 1980s, newly graduated college students, specifically artists, gravitated to the area for the lower rent rates. Some business owners saw the influx of artists and formed art galleries. The art galleries attracted people from other parts of Columbus and the area drew other businesses.7 This cycle kept feeding itself until the residents and businesses that made up the fabric of this community could no longer afford to rent there.8 Now the area is home to several large apartment complexes that are too expensive for the people that need housing the most.

We must reinvest strategically. Solutions must solve the problems of limited housing stock and high poverty. Policy and legislation will be critical to reversing these trends in Columbus, but what might be the role of the architecture industry?

A strategy could be to convert our existing abandoned infrastructure into housing. This not only alleviates the affordable housing crisis in Columbus, but it can also be a more environmentally friendly solution. The buildings have already been built—let us use them.

One example of a sufficiently large structure that could support several hundred residents while providing amenity and parking space is the dying American shopping mall. Once large, indoor microcosms for shopping and entertainment, malls now offer us the chance to rethink the role of megastructures in the American urban environment. Mall spatial organization reflects that of an American residential street: dwellings define the edge of a greenspace, which defines the edge of a passageway. The greenspace is filled with the activity of the residents and the passageway allows for circulation of the residents to their homes. In this new mall-neighborhood, the greenspace and passageway are combined.

The mall-turned-multifamily residence is not a new idea. Alderwood Mall in the Seattle suburb of Lynwood uses this strategy.9 The residential-mall hybrid consolidates shopping, housing, and entertainment in one location. While it is too early to tell if this strategy will provide relief, we need to explore every avenue to combat the current housing crisis.

Ross Jackson is a project associate with Legat Architects Columbus. He has experience designing housing across central Ohio.

1. Brown, TC. Columbus Monthly – Central Ohio’s Housing Shortage. Feb 3, 2021.

2. Benzow, August and Fikri, Kenan. The Expanded Geography of High-Poverty Neighborhoods. Economic Innovation Group, May 2020.

3. Segedy, Jason. The Geography of High-Poverty Neighborhoods – The View from Ohio. Economic Innovation Group, July 8, 2020.

4. Henry, Allen. Central Ohio Housing Inventory Hits All-Time Low. NBC4i. March 26, 2021.

5. Victorian Village Handbook. Columbus Department of Human Services and Division of Neighborhood Services. Autumn 1988.

6. “History,” Short North Arts District. Accessed July 5, 2021.

7. Brent, Cindy. An Artful Vision: How Sandy Wood Helped Change His World. Short North Gazette. October 2002.

8. Ferenchik, Mark. Rent Hikes in City Core Push Columbus’ Poor Farther Out. The Columbus Dispatch. June 4, 2017.

9. Sisson, Patrick. The Dying Mall’s New Lease on Life: Apartments. Bloomberg CityLab. June 30, 2020.