For Good: Affordable Housing in Hamilton County

Hamilton County Community Foundation believes in building a community where opportunity meets growth for everyone. That’s why, as part of our Inclusive Economic Growth community leadership initiative, we partner with those working to solve the affordable housing crisis. In this episode of For Good, we convene civic leaders for a conversation about strategies to provide more affordable, accessible housing throughout Hamilton County.

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Transcription of episode available below.


  • Tom Kilian, president of Hamilton County Community Foundation
  • Mackenzie Poole, community leadership officer at Hamilton County Community Foundation
  • Mayor Scott Fadness, City of Fishers
  • Mo Merhoff, president of OneZone
  • Jennifer Miller, executive director of HAND


You’re listening to For Good, Central Indiana Community Foundation’s podcast highlighting stories about passion, purpose, and progress in Central Indiana. At CICF, we believe in creating a community where everyone can reach their full potential, no matter their place, race or identity. This is our community and these are your stories.

Tom Kilian: Hello and welcome to For Good. I’m Tom Kilian, President of Hamilton County Community Foundation. Almost a year ago, our foundation announced three community leadership initiatives, one of which is inclusive economic growth. So how did we land on this particular initiative? Well, our communities throughout Hamilton County made it clear that they wanted to become economic growth hubs. Economists oftentimes use the term multiple sector growth to analyze the potential of economic boom. In other words, we as communities will struggle to become economic growth hubs if we are unwilling to support multiple sector growth. This not only includes the industries themselves, but the infrastructure to support them. We’re talking about the ability to create a community where everyone, regardless of their place, race or identity, has the ability to live, work, and play in Hamilton County. But as we looked at local data, we saw a persistent gap around things like affordable housing, transportation, post-secondary credentialing and overall connectivity.

Today we’re going to focus on affordable housing. Over the last year, I’ve asked Mackenzie Poole, Hamilton County Community Foundation’s Community Leadership Officer to work with organizations and individuals in our community who are leading this conversation and doing the work. We want to know what are the challenges and opportunities to creating more affordable housing? How is affordable housing defined? And most importantly, how can we as a community foundation help close these gaps and engage residents in dialogue? This is important work. We can’t ignore housing and expect to become economic growth hubs. We have to change now to plan better for tomorrow and that’s what today’s conversation is all about. With that, it is my pleasure to hand it off to Mackenzie Poole and three other individuals who are fighting hard to change the story of affordable housing throughout Hamilton County.

Mackenzie Poole: As Tom said, I’m Mackenzie Poole, the Community Leadership Officer for the Hamilton County Community Foundation. We have a great group with us together today. If we could just take a minute and everybody in the room could introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit more about who you are and what you do.

Scott Fadness: I’m Scott Fadness. I’m the Mayor of the city of Fishers. I’ve been the Mayor now for going on five years and working to create a smart, vibrant and entrepreneurial city.

Mo Merhoff: I’m Mo Merhoff. I work at OneZone, which is the Chamber of Commerce representing the communities of Fishers and Carmel.

Jennifer Miller: And I’m Jennifer Miller. I represent HAND. HAND is a housing and neighborhood development organization.

Mackenzie: Awesome. We’re happy to have all the different and unique perspectives in the room together today. I just kind of wanted to kick it off and start off with Jennifer. So in our area of work, we hear quite a few different terms when it comes to housing, including moderate, affordable, attainable, workforce. If you don’t mind, just kind of starting us off with a common definition.

Jennifer: Sure. I think for most people talking about affordable housing has to be in the broadest sense. Affordable is applicable to all of us. When you are looking at what’s affordable for you in your household, it’s spending no more than 30% of your household’s income on your housing expenses. That includes either your rent or mortgage, insurance and utilities.

Mackenzie: Now that we have a common definition, Mayor Fadness, the city of Fishers changed some ordinances as it pertains to housing. I just wanted you to talk more about that and why it’s important.

Mayor Fadness: Well, I think there’s a convergence of situations happening now. We recently reduced the minimum size of a home in Fishers. It was at 2,200 square feet and we reduced that slightly by 300 or 400 square feet to frankly meet the market demands that we find. People aren’t needing the maximum square footage that they once did. I hope that that has opportunities to reduce and make the home sale more attainable for someone, although I’m skeptical that that in itself will actually reduce the home values here in our city. I think it really is more about addressing the market demand than anything around that, but it is a step in the right direction.

Mackenzie: Mo, do you mind adding anything from the chamber perspective and are you seeing a change?

Mo: Absolutely, and one of the challenges of course is our communities have a big sign out that says help wanted because there are jobs going waiting particularly in the hospitality industry, but in others too. I think the other thing that is often difficult in high performing communities like ours and like our county is the perception that diversity is detrimental rather than opportunistic, that having a diverse community economically and every other way provides more opportunities for everyone, particularly for young people and the school system. That’s a plus, not a minus. But sometimes those preconceived thoughts, even though they are not reality, can drive the conversation.

Mayor Fadness: I think to most point, these perceptions are real. I mean, when we reduced the square footage on the homes, there was almost an guttural yell back from the community saying, “This is the start of a slippery slope towards bringing in anyone who wants to come to the city of Fishers and we’re going to have a low income homes and that’ll bring crime.” It is instinctual that these people go to that immediately. We have to deconstruct a lot of that and there are challenges. When you bring a diverse set of people together in a community, there are tremendous opportunities and there are also challenges and you have to be a community that’s willing to name those challenges, whether it’s racial issues, whether it’s performance gaps in the schools, whether it’s income inequality, you have to name those things and you have to work openly and build a sense of community or otherwise those things will become real problems in your city.

But I think the fallacy that in Hamilton County that we have is this belief that diversity isn’t going to happen anyways. In the city of Fishers, we’ve already seen significant growth in the amount of diversity in our community, both income, racial, ethnic, you name it. We are becoming a more diverse community, so that’s going to happen because of global trends, things that I don’t control. What we need to do is position ourselves to take advantage of that. And to Mo’s point, we want to turn that into an asset, not a liability. People would like to talk about diversity as we’re managing diversity, that’s not the way that we want to approach it. We want to utilize it.

Mo: Well, per what the Mayor is saying, the examples, the studies on the communities that are able to pull that off, to make it happen, they are stronger. They are more active within community happenings, so they’re the ones marching for a fundraiser. They’re the ones together backing their park system. When you can get there, the community ends up winning and all of the research shows that, but that takes time and experience sometimes. Business can be impatient, communities can be impatient, but I think what our communities are doing are trying to put in place things that will help us wage that and make it a success over time.

Mayor Fadness: I think we are living in a historical hangover, if that’s a term, in that prior to 2008, Fishers in particular, I think we’re the poster child for this, but I think Carmel felt this a little bit, what Westfield witnessed it and Noblesville felt it somewhat, in the housing boom in the 2000 to 2008 timeframe, subdivisions were being built left and right. I mean, there were rooftops 12, 1,400 new homes being built a year in Fishers. There was not a lot of concern given to the sustainability of those communities, the site plans, making them truly feel like neighborhoods. It was maximum square footage in dense neighborhoods that were poorly planned and then there was also predatory lending. You were putting people into homes that they could not afford. In 2008, when the recession hit, a lot of those neighborhoods went to fonk.

I think instead of avoiding the conversation and saying, “Well, we’re just not going to go back to that,” it’s, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and figure it out how you build really great neighborhoods where someone can live for $150,000 home or less.” And 10 years from now, it’s still a great home and it’s still a great neighborhood.

Jennifer: I think to both your points, between 2000 and 2015 in Hamilton County, rentals, rental rates increased 51%. however, a household’s income only increased by 21%. And in that same timeframe, so including a recession in housing, median housing values increased 34%. What we’ve done is we’ve made it very difficult for a young family to move in generating some of that diversity, but we’ve also made it very difficult for older populations to downsize back into homes that are more suitable for their capabilities and their needs. We need housing at different price points throughout the community and it has to be diverse in itself too. We can’t just have all of one type of housing.

Mayor Fadness: I think that’s a great point. I grew up in a rural community in North Dakota, believe it or not, and even there, I think we actually had more diversity of housing than we do here in the sense that within a neighborhood, there would be a duplex, there would be a fourplex right in line with the traditional neighborhood. I think what we lost here in our pursuit of conformity was the diversity of having those opportunities. I think the other thing that gets missed a lot, whether you’re talking about race inequities or what have you, home ownership is such a tremendous opportunity for the development and growth of wealth, a person’s overall wealth, and particularly in growing counties where those homes appreciate in value. When people are stuck in a rental trap, they’re never going to grow and develop their own personal wealth.

Well, if we can create opportunities where families can get into home ownership and they can build equity into a home that’s hopefully going to appreciate if we do our jobs as community leaders, that’s something that they can pass on to children and you start to accrue wealth within generations or demographic groups that otherwise have never had that opportunity. I do think there’s both logistic and altruistic reasons for why we need to be trying to figure this issue out.

Mo: I think also the way we build neighborhoods has changed radically. The traditional suburban of the little segments that were connected in cul-de-sac and then there’s one road in and out of your little neighborhood and that doesn’t… isn’t very conducive to neighborhoods being cross cultural and being with one another and going from one neighborhood to another. I grew up with a father who stayed with the same company, but the company moved us every four years in various places through the Midwest. We were always in a different neighborhood and in a different city, but almost always they were connectable on my bike. I could go to friend’s houses without leaving a subdivision and getting on a big road with a lot of traffic. I think those types of mixes, as the Mayor’s talking about and that I experienced, are ways to connect people. It didn’t mean it still wasn’t a cultural shift when I went from Chicago to Fon du Lac, Wisconsin, but it is a different mindset in what you want in your community.

Mackenzie: I definitely agree with Mo. I think that this is going to take time, but also it’s the fear of the unknown and a way that we can combat that is by research and by data, which Jennifer with HAND recently released their HAND housing needs assessment. If you don’t mind just touching on some of those important findings.

Jennifer: Absolutely. I think one of the more interesting points that we found in this study is centered around the discussion of affordability. Countywide, we identified 65.9% of households who could afford a new construction home and 71.6% could afford an existing homes. Specifically, when you drill down to Fishers, 66.4% could afford new construction and 74.2% could afford an existing home.

Mayor Fadness: Well, I think for Fishers, that’s quite a population segment that finds homes not attainable. One of the push pulls that we find, and I don’t know if you see this, but there’s an equal stigma around multifamily. If you start talking about apartments, I can’t tell you how many times people will tell me, “Stop building apartments because we don’t want those kind of people living in our community.” Now, I don’t… I mean, right now, even the new apartment construction’s a $1.50 a square foot rent. So for a 1,000 square foot apartment, you’re paying $1,500. So when they say those people, I’m one of those people that but there is that stigma around this. One of the things that I worry about is Fishers is actually, for the most part, and Carmel’s this way too, we don’t have that much land left to develop.

We’re filling up very quickly. And what I worry about is repeating the cycle. So now Fortville, McCordsville, Pendleton, they’re all heating up in their housing markets and I think what’s going to happen if we don’t learn from the lessons of building Hamilton County, and there’s great stories about Hamilton County, it’s a success story, but it can be approved upon. My fear is is that we’re just going to repeat this whole thing all over again in those other communities. I think now is the time to really take stock of what we’ve learned over 30 years of developing in our communities and try to share that with others and still try to perfect our model here. We can be better, but I would just tell you right now, those other communities, they better buckle up because we’re filling up and so the prices keep going up, supply and demand and Fortville, Pendleton, they’re all going to start taking off.

Mackenzie: What are options there to make housing more affordable in those areas?

Mayor Fadness: I think you need to look at urban intel projects. These little pockets where there’s opportunities, there’s places where you can definitely build more dense neighborhoods, so zero lot lines where you bring more homes in. It brings down the land price, which is an opportunity. It’s also talking about architectural standards and other things that we might be able to help alleviate some of the costs associated with that, maybe it’s storm water being detained somewhere else. All of those things are opportunities that, at least from a city perspective, we can help bring down the cost. But unfortunately, my dad was a real estate broker and he always said, “It’s always about location and schools.” As long as people believe HSE schools is a great school system, which I hope is the case for many years to come and they believe Fishers is a great location, there’s going to be a demand for those homes and the market will drive those demands. Those are the challenges that I think we really find ourselves in is how do you actually keep those prices lower?

Mo: Density is a word that brings out the posse who don’t want any changes and they mount up and on Plan Commission because they perceive density as meaning apartments, as meaning a change in the economic level. Density’s become a bad word somehow in city planning. When in truth, it makes everything more affordable, more walkable, more amenities near you. It’s the reason why major metropolitan areas in this country have always been successful, but that’s tough for us to get our heads around density.

Jennifer: I think the other thing that density… building to a higher allows for is the integration of different price points of housing within the same site, let alone the same neighborhood or larger development. Hamilton County is facing an incredible shortage in housing in general. We’re looking at a need for 3,465 rental units and over 6,700 new homes just to meet today’s demands. When we’re talking about apartments in density, one of the things that our study did find is that that market is slowing, but still existent in areas like Caramel. And in Fishers, where we’re reaching the capacity in terms of land and having to look at infill, apartments are desired. They’re needed. The market has indicated that there’s an interest in it. I think those are definitely trends in development that we have to look more carefully at and then also make sure that we’re building in capacity for affordable units. You can have them in the same building and in the same development and they don’t have to look, smell, appear any different than any of the other units that are there.

Mayor Fadness: I mean, to put it out there on the table, I think we have to talk about, when we talk about affordable housing, this is probably a controversial statement, but there are two things that I have found people care about the most in public policy at the local government level. One, if it affects their children, and two, if it affects their most valuable investment, which is their home. And when we talk about bringing in different socioeconomic classes, people immediately think, “Well that’s going to crowd the schools with kids that are going to have performance issues, that are going to have challenges and that means our school isn’t going to be as good. My kid isn’t going to get the attention. And therefore that’s going to do undo harm to my child.: If you talk about bringing that home that’s half the price of your home and you’re going to build that subdivision next to my house, they’re going to start to say, “Well, when they do the appraisal, that value is going to diminish.”

Wrap all that with a bow around racial issues and racial concerns and people’s implicit or explicit race issues, all that gets wrapped up into this conversation and rational thought goes out the door. But there is some truth to the fact that if we’re going to create diverse communities, we have to get good at diversity. And that means how do you close performance gaps in the schools? How do you build better neighborhoods? I think until we solve those problems, I think this is going to be a really difficult issue to tackle.

Jennifer: Well, I think it’s important too to debunk those myths and look at what the research and the studies say. I mean, kids who have stable housing, regardless of income, kids who have stable housing tend not to drop out of school, they engage more in a classroom, they don’t suffer from the same learning disabilities or behavioral problems. I think a lot of the social issues that we have a tendency to deal with come from the stresses and burdens of not having affordable housing. And again, affordable being in the larger context of affordable for your household’s income. When we’re talking about not wanting to invite those quote unquote, and I’m using air quotes here, “those people” to our community, I think it goes back to the discussion we were having on diversity. We are a stronger community when we are a diverse community and diversity isn’t limited to just race or gender, it’s also about income.

Mackenzie: Yeah. So I just wanted to kind of switch the conversation a little bit and talk about what are the barriers to building or making more affordable housing attainable and then how do we overcome that?

Jennifer: I think one of the biggest challenges is the amount of subsidy that is available for the development community in terms of building affordable housing. There’s almost always a financial gap. A lot of times developers, especially if they’re open to exploring affordable housing, will pursue tax credits. In the state of Indiana, tax credits are offered in two different groups. There’s the group called the 9% and there’s a group called the 4%. From a developer’s perspective, the 9% deals are very competitive. And over the last several years, the state of Indiana has reviewed over 60 applications a year and typically awards between 15 and 18 applications. That’s because of the limited number of tax credits that are received. And for the benefit of those listening, tax credits are an investment tool that organizations will use to lower their tax burden by investing in a tax credit deal.

When that occurs, that allows that developer then to offset… When they accept that, it allows them to offset some of their construction costs through those credits that are earned. A lot of times, it comes with heavy restrictions because we’re talking about restrictions set on people’s tax dollars. It comes from the federal government. The state adds another layer of regulation to it and there’s limits on who can live there, what their household income can be, their standards for development in terms of using green materials, recycling materials. A lot of times, you’ll find that developments that are built using those funding sources are far more sustainable longterm and far more green than most traditional building.

Mackenzie: How many of those 9% deals has Hamilton County received in the past couple of years?

Jennifer: In recent years, none. I can tell you that HAND was successful with two Lytec applications in the early, mid 2000, 2010 era. We have applied several times in recent years and there are definitely points set asides in the applications that could work for us.

Mayor Fadness: One of the challenges with the tax credit program, and keep in mind for people listening, tax credits are only about four rent products, so we’re talking about multifamily type deals, the 9% and 4%. We’ve competed on these. We’ve had some good conversations with Lieutenant Governor saying, “If the policy is to try to put integrated and diverse housing into suburban areas, and we really need to look at that scoring and figure out if there’s different ways to do that.” I think the second… You asked a very pointed question about what are the challenges associated with affordable housing? I’ve thought a lot about this. There’s the perceived and then there’s the practical. So on the perceived side, and this is going to be maybe a little bit too blunt, no politician that sits in elected office today and the City Council in Carmel or Fishers or anywhere in the suburban market, if you’re looking at a political calculus ,benefits by leading the charge on affordable housing.

If we want to just be honest, they’re going to take it on the chin if they try to do that. There’s the political realities of that and that is fueled by a perception that people have around what social consequences come with a more diverse housing stock, so there’s a perception issue. On the practical side, we can’t deny the fact that we haven’t figured out how to build diverse communities well that are sustainable for the longterm. Better neighborhoods, figuring out how to achieve the performance gaps in the schools, these are things that we need to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to do so that we can chip away at the perception that exists, so then alleviate some of the political hardship on the elected officials so that we can start to do this. That’s a long road that some of us are willing to try to take on and that hopefully we can accomplish.

Jennifer: From the developers perspective, even the more practical points, I mean because we are who we are in Hamilton County, land prices, especially in the southern portion of Hamilton County, which is going to score better on those applications, are through the roof. That’s a huge factor. The other side of it is the cost of construction, the materials. And then lastly, and this goes back to employment, we have a gap in employees for skilled trades. Labor, the cost of labor is increasing 10 fold and we don’t have new employees moving into those markets at the same rate that people are retiring from those industries. That also presents a huge challenge to getting affordable housing off the ground, housing of any types.

Mackenzie: We attended the last Fisher State of the City and we loved it. The point that you got across was Fishers is a great city, but there’s always room to improve. Off of that, what are some things that the community can do or be involved in that you want them to know about how to move affordable housing forward in our community?

Mayor Fadness: I would tell you that we’re putting a lot of work into this. There’s power in naming things. There’s power in calling things out and saying, “Hey, this is something we should work on,” and not be afraid of that. I think too often in political life, if you name something that’s a problem, then therefore you’re showing weakness. I don’t subscribe to that. Around affordable housing in Fishers, what we’re trying to figure out, are there policies that the city has today that are burdensome and are causing unnecessary cost increases to the ability to build homes? Are there density issues that we need to take care of? How can we come up with thoughtful designs and we’re talking about diversity of housing products within a neighborhood. It would’ve been sacrilege five years ago to say, “Well, why can’t we have a fourplex in the middle of a subdivision?”

Now we’re starting to really start to talk through like, “Well, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with riding your bike by a house, a house, a house and then a duplex?” I don’t understand why that’s somehow a travesty in modern urban planning. We’re working through that right now and trying to discuss that and figure out how we can implement things like that in new development, while at the same time talking to our community about why this is an important thing. My goal is to have some… I would love to perfect what an affordable neighborhood could look like, that everyone can be proud of for the next decade. I mean, that is one of my goals is to figure that out and be an example of what can be done and hopefully lead the way on that front. I just know I’ll have to stay off of Facebook for a period of time after that.

Mo: I think from a business standpoint, a lot of this will be driven by wanting employee… by employee base and needing to continue feeding the system. Because more and more in our communities, unlike a lot of more edge metropolitan areas, our business people tend to live where they work. I mean, the people who are at businesses in Fishers, by and large, are there, but where we’re losing out the bottom are those, “Well, you can’t hire workers at entry level. You can’t hire workers at various stages of that.” And all of our communities are dealing with that and will probably continue to, but that’s why it matters to business. That’s why this isn’t, “Well that’s a residential problem. We don’t really have anything to do with it.” Yeah, we do because we want to be able to hire people who not only want to work for our company, but stay with us and not decide to go to Denver or Nashville or the… because we’re going to offer them something here that is unique and can compete with.

Mayor Fadness: I think there’s something that we have to do that is really important and that is when people hear about this fordable housing conversation, they think of Cabrini Green in Chicago and Section 8 housing. I dare anyone, regardless of how big their home is or how big their wallet is, to look a husband and wife in the face that are both working full time and raising their kids who follow the law and tell me why you’re better than that individual. I think the face of affordable housing unfortunately has been captured by some of the worst sins of affordable housing of the last three or four decades.

Jennifer: And I think something that we need to keep in mind also in this conversation is that how much does a first year teacher make? How much does a firefighter make? How much does it police officer make? A $35,000 salary or an entry level job may be college educated, those younger couples also still can’t afford it.

Mayor Fadness: My first job was $39,000 a year. My wife made 37. We moved to Fishers and we had to rent in one of the CP Morgan developments until we could build up enough money to buy a town home, which is a diversified housing product. It as was our entry home. So we are part of that story, but we’ve got to change the face of this or we’ll never get past the political pressures that come with it.

Jennifer: I agree. Not only do we have to be open to having discussions about a topic that’s difficult, but the step that follows that is collaboration and it’s going to take everyone to deal with this issue. It wasn’t created by a single industry or by a single organization or form of government, it spans all of us. It’s going to take all of us to make sense of this and provide real solutions that are going to help our community.

Mackenzie: I think that collaboration has shown here today. We have a nonprofit, we have Mo who represents businesses and we have a city official. It’s great to see everybody all together in the same room talking about such an important topic. I just wanted to thank each one of you for being here and participating today and thank you for the work that you’re doing to make our communities a more inclusive place to live.

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