Program helps low-income families find nicer homes, better schools, learn life skills

By Mark Ferenchik 
The Columbus Dispatch 

Bessie Jackson moved from the East Side to Gahanna in August, figuring it would be better for her 10- and 6-year-old sons.

Jackson felt that they weren’t getting a good-enough education at the schools they were attending, plus they were being bullied.

They now attend Jefferson Elementary School. So far, so good, she said.

“Overall, it’s fantastic,” she said. “You can see the love and care the teachers have for the kids.”

Jackson and her sons were able to move through a pilot program called Move to PROSPER, aimed at providing low-income mothers and their children with better and more stable housing through temporary rent subsidies and life coaching. The monthly rent for Jackson’s two-bedroom apartment is $1,000; she pays $665 and the program pays the rest.

Move to PROSPER is an initiative of the Ohio State University City and Regional Planning program and other partners. Ten families were chosen and placed in apartment communities in the Olentangy, Gahanna, Dublin and Hilliard school districts, where they will live for three years.

The families wouldn’t have been able to move otherwise, because rents in many communities have skyrocketed. According to the real estate website Zillow, median rents in the past five years have jumped 34 percent in Bexley, to an average $2,155; 26 percent in Grandview Heights to $1,822; and 14 percent in Upper Arlington to $2,439, all places with higher-rated school districts. Even in Columbus, median rents have risen almost 22 percent, forcing some tenants out of their homes in certain neighborhoods.

In Dublin, the median monthly rent is $2,397; in Hilliard it’s $1,678.

The families have been in their new homes just a few months, but they seem to be settling in, said Rachel Kleit, Ohio State’s associate dean for faculty affairs in the City and Regional Planning Section and Move to PROSPER’s steering committee chairwoman.

“One of the sentiments that I’ve been hearing from them, because they’re not stressed out and worried, is that they’re able to take care of their families,” Kleit said. Before, many of them were overcome by day-to-day emergencies.

The program provides a coach to teach them financial and problem-solving skills.

“They don’t have the aunts or parents to ask for advice, or a financial adviser,” Kleit said.

Amy Klaben, an affordable-housing consultant and Move to PROSPER’s project facilitator, said one of the women in the program paid her rent late all the time. That cost her $50 a month in fees, or $600 a year.

Sometimes, good parenting is as simple as showing up for parent-teacher conferences.

“If you’re not used to doing that, you may not do it,” Klaben said.

The coaching revolves around housing stability, financial capacity and stability, improving physical and mental health, and teaching career and education goals. Because of the coaching, one parent has signed up for classes at Columbus State, Klaben said.

So far, Move to PROSPER has raised $458,000 for the three-year program from the Columbus Foundation, the United Way of Central Ohio, the Columbus Realtors Foundation, Fifth Third Bank and a number of individuals.

Bridgette Mariea lives in the Dublin school district in Delaware County and volunteers with the program. She discovered the program through the Columbus Foundation, and she and her husband already had been looking to find a rental property to buy in the school district to rent to a low-income family so they could benefit from Dublin schools.

“The advantage of being in our neighborhood is tremendous,” she said.

Lizzie Rosen