Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of a five-part series about the challenges low-income renters face and potential ways to address them. The series is supported by Wayfinders Ohio. Click here for part one, here for part two, here for part three and here for part four.

MANSFIELD — The new triplexes on the corner of Fourth and Benton Street are simple, but clean.

Two-story rectangles, gray roofs and bright white siding contrast with the deep red and pale blue of the Victorian-era colonials next door.

A matching set of duplexes sits on the other side of the street. There are installation stickers on the windows and patches of dirt waiting for grass seed — telltale signs of new housing construction the corner hasn’t seen in nearly a century.

The apartments are some of the latest constructed by Blue Door Development, a local company founded by two former Alaskans.

William Barber arrived in Mansfield in 2017. He and his business partner, Jonathon Wiese, saw something in downtown Mansfield other residential developers haven’t — opportunity.

“It was affordable here,” said Barber. “The costs were much lower than anywhere else I was looking at.”

Barber said the company used to own and manage its rentals, but it’s transitioning away from that model. He now builds for various investors, all of whom are out-of-town.

“Where they can afford a brand new triplex here, they couldn’t even buy land and build a house anywhere else,” Barber said.

Blue Door Development has built dozens of rental units on vacant lots from the Richland County Land Bank. Nearly all of them are in “opportunity zones” — census tracts with tax incentives designed to promote development in low-income, “economically distressed” areas.

a city map with certain census tracts marked in red
Census tracts 5, 6 and 31 in Mansfield are all designated opportunity zones.

Barber called the capital gains deferments available a “big incentive” for building in the area.

He hopes to bring Blue Door’s total constructed unit count up to 84 by the end of the summer.

“What Blue Door Development is doing is absolutely wonderful,” said Amy Hamrick, manager of the Richland County Land Bank. “I am excited about the role the land bank has played in Blue Door’s success.

“They are setting an example for other developers not only in Richland County but throughout the state.”

For decades, Hamrick said low property values and high construction costs have deterred development in certain parts of Mansfield.

“When William started building rentals in some of these areas, he had so many people tell him he was crazy,” she said.

“There was a time I thought no one would build on Fourth Street. It took someone from Alaska to come in and see it because no one local would.

“Too many people gave up on Mansfield.”

Wanted: 7,000 housing units by 2032

Last year’s countywide housing study found residential development has been sluggish in the region as a whole. Only 9.5 percent of the county’s total housing stock was constructed in the last 20 years. Nearly 75 percent was constructed prior to 1979.

The lack of development and overall age of the county’s housing stock have contributed to a shortage across income levels.

Richland County will likely need at least 2,475 additional owner-occupied housing units and 3,364 renter-occupied units by 2032, according to the Richland County Housing Needs Assessment.

The authors of the housing study note that is a conservative estimate based on Richland County’s growth from 2010 to 2021. It doesn’t take into account potential growth spurred by Intel’s expansion near Columbus, the growth of remote work or other economic development efforts in the county.

Meanwhile, Richland County is projected to lose 1,694 units by 2032 due to demolitions and deteriorating properties. 

If those numbers hold, Richland County will need to build at least 7,000 housing units in the next decade.

“The housing study tells me that I could build as much as I’ve been building for the next 10 years and I wouldn’t meet the need unless I doubled what I’m doing now, which I’m not going to do,” Barber said.

According to Barber, the demand for housing is part of the reason Mansfield presents such a great opportunity for developers. It may also be part of the reason why his projects are appraising for more than anticipated.

“Even I was a little bit surprised by (the numbers),” Barber said.

He believes the new construction will help elevate property values for surrounding homes, potentially spurring on additional development.

“That’s where it’ll start changing is with new development,” he said. “I do think (Richland County’s housing problems) are solvable. I think we need more developers. I think we need more people trying to solve them.”

One of Blue Door Development’s first new construction projects, a duplex on Rowland Avenue

Barber said the company does its best to keep rents reasonably priced for the area — $850 for a two-bedroom unit and $995 for a three-bedroom unit.

Nevertheless, Barber said he doesn’t like the term ‘affordable housing’ because of the stigma it can carry.

“I build these exactly how I would live in myself,” he said. “They (have) granite countertops, luxury vinyl planking.

“They’re not the traditional affordable housing units.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mansfield’s average median household income was $37,009 in 2021. Richland County’s was $52,605.

The Richland County Housing Study predicts that by 2032, the county will need an additional 2,687 “deeply affordable” housing units — those for households making less than $20,000 a year with a monthly rent of $500 or less.

Local agencies building affordable, supportive housing

The Mansfield Metropolitan Housing Authority is currently working to develop more affordable units at the Turtle Creek apartment complex.

Although Turtle Creek’s existing units are specifically for seniors, the new two- and three-bedroom units will be available to renters of any age.

Most of the units (102) are for households earning 60 percent or less of the area’s average median income. The remaining 18 units are for those making 30 percent or less of the average median income. 

Site plans for the proposed Turtle Creek Extension project show existing buildings in gray and new ones in brown.

The units will be available to anyone who meets the income guidelines, regardless of whether or not they have a Section 8 housing voucher.

During a meeting with Turtle Creek residents in June, developer Michael Shae said he hopes to begin construction during the first quarter of next year, with the first units becoming available towards the end of 2024.

Steve Andrews, executive director of the MMHA, said the agency is exploring the possibility of using rural housing development funds to continue work throughout Richland County.

Meanwhile, the Area Agency on Aging is wrapping up an affordable senior housing complex on Ohio Street.

Ritter’s Run will consist of 12 modular units. The $1.5 million project was funded by the Area Agency on Aging District 5, with financing from Mechanics Bank, $740,000 in contributions from the City of Mansfield’s HOME Investment Partnership Program funds, and a contribution by the Richland County Foundation.

Chief Operating Officer Nicole Williams said she hopes to see Ritter’s Run complete by the fall.

“Although we have had many setbacks, we are moving forward, and things are starting to fall into place,” she said.

Williams said the agency will continue to focus on housing. There are currently more than 100 people on the waitlist for Ritter’s Run.

“We are hopeful that sometime in the future the right stars will align and we can build our next set of housing in Richland County,” she said. “We did submit a project to the Richland County Commissioners for review when they were allocating ARPA dollars, but have currently not been selected as a project.”

The Richland County Mental Health and Recovery Services board is in the process of building a 12 unit apartment complex for people with severe and persistent mental illness, according to the agency’s executive director Joe Trolian.

He estimates it will be about a year before the units are ready.

“I know a lot of folks are looking at building other types of affordable housing,” Trolian said. “People have to be patient. They don’t happen overnight. It seems like our housing crisis came up over night, but it takes time to build housing facilities.”

How have local leaders responded to the housing study?

The housing study listed dozens of recommendations for tackling the shortage of housing for all income levels across Richland County.

Adrian Ackerman, community development and housing director for the city of Mansfield, said a housing study committee meets monthly to discuss what comes next.

“The primary focus to this point has really been on the zoning,” Ackerman said.

One of the greatest obstacles to addressing Richland County’s housing shortage is the lack of developers and builders in the area.

Local leaders say more consistency across the county’s 13 municipal zoning codes would make it easier for developers working in multiple jurisdictions.

Jotika Shetty, executive director of the Richland County Regional Planning Commission (RCRCP), said the agency applied for $30,000 in state grant funding to “clean up” zoning codes earlier this summer.

“What I am envisioning is a model township regulation and then townships could consider adopting that model,” Shetty told county commissioners in June.

RCRPC also applied for $20,000 to put towards increasing the local building trades workforce. Shetty said the agency should hear back about the grant proposal by late September.

“The steering committee has been looking into seeing if there is a program for people, especially those coming out of recovery and looking for re-entry, working with the building unions,” Shetty told commissioners.

Shetty said the agency also plans to apply for a new grant through the Lead Safe Ohio program, which could help make older homes in the county safer and healthier for residents.

Ackerman’s department is also working on a rental registry proposal and updating the city’s zoning code.

“My primary goal at this point is to ensure decent, safe and sanitary conditions for our residents,” she said. “We are, of course, actively working on that daily within the Codes division.

“I hope in the next 10 years to have a more efficient way to identify serious existing housing concerns and appropriately guide owners and tenants on how to address the concerns safely. There may be several steps and research needed to identify what works best for Mansfield long-term.”

As for the Richland County land bank, Hamrick said it will continue tearing down dilapidated homes, with the aim of making room for something new.

“The Land Bank’s main role will continue to be to acquire vacant and abandoned properties, reduce blight, and returning these properties to productive use, however, there is the possibility of expanding our role depending on future funding sources,” Hamrick said.

Staff reporter at Richland Source since 2019. I focus on education, housing and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. Got a tip? Email me at katie@richlandsource.com.