Affordable Housing Shortage Poses Risk to College Employment

(Photo Courtesy: Craig Akiri ’23).
Samuel Boudreau, Editor in Chief
Gianna Hayes ’26, News Editor

For many College of Wooster employees, driving to the College for work is a daily task that may take employees upwards of an hour to complete before a day on the job. 

Sources within the dining staff, who wished to remain anonymous, estimated that roughly 75% of hourly dining workers live outside of Wooster’s city  limits, with 25% living within the city. Sources also told the Voice that several dining staff members face daily commutes that total a roundtrip of nearly two hours. In April, 2022, one custodian said that several of their colleagues’ commutes were upwards of an hour long. “Our people had to drive in to work,” said the custodian, “some live at least 40 minutes, if not close to an hour away.”

Marjorie Shamp, Director of Campus Dining and Conference Services, told the Voice that several staff members asked her about relocating closer to Wooster. “One such employee was looking for a rental that would accommodate a pet,” said Shamp, “but [the rentals] were reasonably priced, and [the employee] found it difficult.”  

When asked for comment on the general locations of the College’s employees, the College’s Human Resources (H.R.) department declined to comment, citing that “we are unable to provide the requested information.” 

For the College’s faculty, Leslie Wingard Cunningham, Wooster’s former Dean for Faculty Development from 2021-2022, said that candidates for tenure-track faculty positions and visiting faculty positions had little to no difficulties finding housing in Wooster. “Most [candidates] were very pleasantly surprised by the cost of living in Wooster and surrounding places,” said Wingard Cunningham, “that was much lower than the towns from which they would be moving.” 

Additionally, Wingard Cunningham said incoming faculty members had a multitude of options to find homes in Wooster.  “They also knew it was highly possible to rent the furnished homes of professors on research sabbatical for a semester or a full year,” she said, “and considered that a wonderful option while they got the ‘lay of the land’ in Wooster, Ohio and other cities outside of Wooster from which they might commute.” 

While several faculty members live upwards of an hour-and-a-half from campus, Wingard Cunningham said that these employees “are dedicated to their Wooster jobs as well as thriving both personally and professionally.”  

While Wayne County housing is cheaper relative to other metropolitan and micropolitan areas in Ohio, Wooster city officials delivered a presentation to the Wayne County Housing Authority on March 15, 2023, stating that “Wayne County has a lack of housing,” where “many employers are now hiring entry-level workers from outside of Wayne County, but when new hires cannot find affordable housing, they leave to avoid the time and money costs of commuting.” 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stated that affordable housing is “housing where the occupant is paying 30% or less of the gross income on total housing, including utilities.” 

To learn about the relationship between college employees’ annual salaries and  affordable housing in Wayne County, the Voice made an information request to the College’s H.R. department for the average annual salaries across departments at the College. Jenn Williams, Director of Benefits & HRIS, declined the Voice’s information request, citing that “HR does not share that information.” 

 According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)’s 2018-2019 compensation survey, professors at The College of Wooster make an average of $98,000, associate professors make $77,300, assistant professors make $63,200 and instructors make $55,900. 

While the Voice does not have access to staff members’ annual salaries, a source within dining that a “safe minimum average” in dining is roughly $31,200 with a starting wage of $15. 

Following the Great Recession of 2008, Jonathan Millea, Wooster city government’s development coordinator and Wooster Growth Corporation’s project manager, said that Wooster’s homebuilding market, as with much of the nation’s, was “basically destroyed.” With people leaving the housing industry, many housing units were unable to be maintained due to a loss of investment. 

Wooster is a unique example in Northeast Ohio, however, where the population has increased by 4.26% from 1999 to 2020, as surrounding cities such as Akron, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Canton have seen their populations’ decrease by the thousands, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

Millea credited Wooster’s positive population growth to con   BREAK OFF tinual  “innovations and advancements” made by employers in the area, such as Schaeffler Transmission Systems, Gojo Industries, American Axel Manufacturing, and Western Reserve Insurance Group. These employers have created more job opportunities “for wages to go up as demand for workers goes up.” Wayne County’s housing market, however, has not been able to keep pace with this economic growth. “As your demand for jobs are growing, you’re going to need to pay more for workers,” said Millea “and, if those workers don’t have a housing opportunity to locate here, it means you’re going to be looking for most of your new hires, either encouraging somebody to come over to your company or you’re going to be reaching out further into the marketplace.” 

In Wooster, the majority of workers live outside of the city, and employers have continually expanded their search for workers into cities like Massillon, Canton, Barberton and Akron, according to Millea. Due to expensive commuting rates from these cities to Wooster, more workers look for houses in Wooster, leading to an increased demand for affordable housing. 

The increased housing demand has led numerous employers to speak in front of city council and call for additional housing in Wooster’s city limits. This led to aggressive efforts from the city to look at areas in the city for regional developers to establish developments. “We’ve worked hard to try and evaluate sites that are open for development,” said Millea, “and we’ve tried to promote that to regional developers.” 

According to the city’s presentation, there are several projects with regional developers to potentially provide employees with approximately 700 housing units in Wooster and Wayne County. 

Millea, however, told the Voice that there are a multitude of “constraints” to these developmental plans, claiming that “[t]here is, in general, an anti-development sentiment that we have encountered at more of a county level where the thinking is that ‘we don’t want to have any expansion of our city’s limits.’” For regional developers who require at least 60 acres for the possibility of housing developments, “there is not enough space to move the needle to accommodate the need that’s going to provide a more affordable housing opportunity for somebody who may be commuting to The College of Wooster from 45 to 60 minutes away,” said Millea. To the east of Wooster is a large swath of agricultural security area which protects farmland from non-agricultural development and provides tax benefits to the area’s landowner, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. To the west of Wooster’s city limits is a floodplain that “basically blocks development to the west.” 

When asked by the Voice on how the city will make sure these developments are affordable for employees searching for houses in Wooster, Millea said that price points “are going to be significantly higher than what one will find with an older, pre-existing unit.” With new structures, however, Millea said that demand is slightly satisfied, lowering “pressure of appreciation for other real estate prices in terms of rent elsewhere.” When new housing developments stabilize the marketplace, Millea said that “a good number of individuals […] who purchase a home will already own an older home elsewhere in the community, either in Wooster or Wayne County.” This cycle creates spaces for Wooster employees to become homeowners.

While wages have grown in recent years, Millea said that “our wages were very low, and that was one of the reasons we had trouble attracting developers, because [developers] sentiment was ‘well, the wages need to go up in this area before we can afford to build.” 

Within Wooster’s city limits, there are multiple barriers that present themselves to affordable housing. One of the organizations combating the shortage of affordable housing is the Wayne Metropolitan Housing Authority (WMHA). As stated on their website, “WMHA manages and administers several rental assistance programs,” and collaborates with other agencies such as OneEighty and Wayne County Job and Family Services. In an interview with the Voice, WMHA director Debra Catlett presents landlords as key players in the affordable housing issue. According to her, the main holdup is that there are “simply no units available, if they are, they’re rented on the open market because they can get more money, so there aren’t as many landlords working with our program.” Because WMHA has to adhere to federal HUD standards and pricing, more landlords choose to rent in the public sphere to charge their own rent, which can be much higher than what is actually affordable for those affected by the housing issue. According to the 2022 Fiscal Year Fair Market Rent Documentation System, the HUD standard of rent for a one-bedroom living situation was $598 per month, but has risen to $719 per month for the 2023 fiscal year. This discrepancy will only exacerbate the unaffordability of renting. WMHA offers vouchers to help support this increase. 

According to the City of Wooster Official Zoning Map, there are six zoning districts devoted to residency within Wooster’s city limits: R-1 Suburban Single Family Residential, R-2 Single Family Residential, R-T Traditional Residential, R-3 Attached Residential, R-4 Multi-Family Residential, and R-5 Manufactured Home Park.

While there are a few differences between the two, Manufactured Homes are commonly known today as mobile homes and the “R-5 Manufactured Home Park” term refers to mobile home parks in Wooster’s city limits. According to the “City of Wooster Official Zoning Map,” there are two R-5 Manufactured Home Park Districts in Wooster’s city limits: Shelmar Mobile Home Park and Melrose Village Mobile Home Park. However, there used to be another–Larwill Mobile Home park–which was abruptly shut down, forcing all residents to relocate.

Attorney Doug Drushal offered insight into the situation, stating “The city administration and mayor and director of administration were opposing [mobile homes], and their stated reason was that sometime before 2018, there was a third mobile home park in Wooster, on Larwill street, and it unquestionably became a nightmare for the city in that they had several hundred thousand dollars of unpaid water bills to the city and all the mobile homes there were in a sad state of disrepair.” 

According to The Daily Record, Larwill Mobile Home park was made up of three parcels of land owned by Richard and Carolyn Lawrence–but when the park fell into disrepair, the property was foreclosed in 2013 and it was found that the Lawrences owed more than $250,ooo in taxes, fees and utility bills. Carolyn Lawrence reportedly blamed the disrepair on tenants unable to pay their rent, as well as vandals who destroyed property and interfered with maintenance. As John Scavelli, Director of Law for the city administration, explained during one city council meeting, “Manufactured homes are supposed to be able to be moved. After a period of time, they can’t be moved anymore, so what you have are people that…have to lose whatever equity they have in that rented home.” By the time the property was foreclosed, many Larwill residents were unable to move their homes, both due to age and the poor maintenance of the park. By 2016, footage from The Daily Record showed Larwill Mobile Home park with many of the immovable trailers still there, rusting. On the side of the road laid overturned couches with stuffing spilling out of torn upholstery, alongside cardboard and insulation littering the grass. Since the transfer of the land to the Wooster Growth Corporation in 2017, all that remains of Larwill is a grassy lot. 

Opposition to the building of manufactured homes instead favor modular homes, and have cited the Larwill incident as a grounds to nix the building of more affordable mobile homes.

In November 3, 2022, the City of Wooster requested an approval from the City of Wooster Planning Commission to City Council for Text Amendments to Chapter 1109 (Principal Use Regulations) of the Planning and Zoning Codes, allowing mobile home parks, specifically Shelmar, to accept more tenants and therefore create more affordable housing opportunities.“The owners of Shelmar contacted me to work on changing the ordinance which itself had been changed in 2018 to allow existing mobile home parks to stay the same but not to expand even within their own land that was properly zoned R-5,” said Drushal.  “It was kind of a crazy law that was intended to shrink mobile homes.” 

Drushal said that changing the city law to provide “an option for affordable housing [is] not for everybody, and it’s something that’s not going to take over the town, so to speak, but you can have a decent, clean, nice, new place to live in a mobile home park that’s well kept, clean and affordable.” 

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