Housing is unaffordable for half of Portage County renters, among the worst in the state

Photo via Howard Hanna

Portage County is among the worst counties in Ohio for housing affordability, with residents spending a higher percentage of their income on their rent and other housing costs, according to a recently released U.S. Census Bureau report.

Portage County is second only to Athens County in high housing expenses, with 6.7% of residents paying 30% to 34.9% of their income on housing costs while 46.9% spend 35% or more to live in one of the county’s 17,288 rental units.

Rentals are not considered to be affordable if occupants have to pay more than 30% of their income on housing costs, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Affordable housing, or the lack thereof, is probably the biggest problem in Portage County,” said David Shea, director of Community Action Council of Portage County, which fights poverty through financial assistance programs. 

“According to HUD, since Covid, rents have gone up approximately 28%, with huge increases in 2023,” Shea said. “Let’s say you’re a family with three children. You’ve got to rent a three-bedroom home. It’s going to cost you $1,300 a month, and we’ve seen rents that are higher than that.”

Something both Athens and Portage counties have in common are major universities — Kent State and Ohio University — and the housing demand that comes with them. But local officials said those don’t explain the high prices.

Local Realtor Kellie Kupusta, who is also a Franklin Township Trustee, agreed with Shea that the presence of universities is only partially responsible for the stats. Many of her clients have nothing to do with the university, she said.

Summit County, home to the University of Akron, ranks 27th of Ohio’s 88 counties, with 9.7% of renters spending 30% to 34.9% of their income on housing costs, and 36.4% spending 35% or more. Summit County, according to the census report, has 70,319 rental units.

Cuyahoga County, home to multiple universities, ranks 19th, with 8.6% spending 30%, and 38.2% spending 35% or more for the county’s 213,331 occupied rental units

“It is clear by the numbers that demand is there and supply is not,” Kapusta said. “We do not have enough housing for the demand that is here in our county.”

Given the county’s lack of affordable rentals, sometimes all CAC can do is provide assistance so people aren’t evicted. Recently, CAC helped a single individual in Kent cover her delinquent rent payment of $1,225 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, Shea said.

“The cost of housing in Portage County is an extreme burden,” Shea said. “Let’s say you’re a young family or a senior. When the cost of housing gets so high, you have to make choices. Sometimes it’s a matter of heat or eat.”

Some stats:

According to 2021 U.S. Census data, as of July 1, 2021, there were 71,037 housing units in Portage County. Countywide, the census data found 70.4% of county residents living in owner-occupied homes in 2017-2021, with a median home value of $168,500. 

The median household income in Portage County from 2017-2021 was $64,163, a bit lower than the national median of $69,021. The median per capita income during the same time period was $34,290, compared to the national figure of $37,638 — all of which translates to 12.4% of Portage County residents living in poverty, compared to a national percentage of 11.6.

Portage County residents with a mortgage spent $1,382 a month on housing costs; those without a mortgage spent $522 a month, the data found. The median gross rent from 2017 to 2021 was $921.

Portage County also ranks among the highest in the state for the number of mobile homes, once thought to be an affordable alternative to site-built houses, Shea said. However, even those costs are increasing dramatically. People may own the mobile home, but still have to absorb monthly lot rents in mobile home parks.

Community organizer Frank Hairston noted that lot rent in those parks has skyrocketed from about $50 a month in the 1970s to between $400 and $600 a month today. According to a U.S. Inflation Calculator, which uses the latest U.S. government consumer price index data, $50 in 1975 is equivalent to $278 today. However, Shea and Hairston say what renters are being charged is double that figure.

Skyrocketing rent is only part of the problem. The situation for people looking to buy a home is no better. In most transactions, sellers are getting offers above their list, Kapusta said.

David Bissler, a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway Stouffer Realty, agreed that supply and demand in Portage County is driving prices for renters and would-be owners alike. Buyers are offering anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 over list price, which has a direct affect on affordability. Many transactions are cash offers, he said, noting that those offers make it more difficult for people who must obtain financing.

“People are staying in their homes. They’re not downsizing,” he said. “The days of having a little cash left over just aren’t there anymore. That’s why a lot of people are staying where they’re at.”

Senior citizens in search of single-story living are faced with a grim housing market. One of Kapusta’s potential clients was unable to purchase a single-story home and was left with no alternative but to become a renter. She had to be put on a waiting list for a senior living community that has special accommodations for older residents. (Not an assisted-living facility, but a simple development geared for older adults, Kapusta clarified.)

But because ranch homes require a larger footprint, single story homes cost more to build than multi-story homes, Kapusta said.

Housing complexes billed as “affordable” fill up immediately and have waiting lists, Bissler said.

“We need more of that, to help ease the burden,” he said, adding that developers are hoping to score government grants to erect such developments. Some Ohio lawmakers have suggested various bills, but so far none have gained traction, he said.

In January, the average sale price of a home in Portage County was $213,792, Bissler said, citing stats from the Akron Cleveland Association of Realtors.

Shea confirmed a dramatic increase in home prices, noting that some people may opt for fixer uppers, which come with their own problems: a person may well buy a $200,000 home, only to spend another $100,000 making it livable. Such homes are probably worth “much less than what they’re selling for,” but buyers have little choice, Shea said.

Though CAC can also help with measures like adding insulation and energy-efficient appliances, the county’s aging housing stock presents a real roadblock.

It’s hard to justify insulating a home or replacing an inefficient furnace when the roof leaks and the foundation is crumbling.

“We have an aging housing stock, and as housing ages and people age, you can’t take care of it. The maintenance costs become very high. You can’t afford to replace your furnace, you can’t afford to repair your roof, and if you don’t replace and repair, it gets worse,” Shea said.

Roof repairs on a small single-family home can run $12,000 to $15,000, and septic problems can cost $25,000-$30,000, he noted. (CAC does not replace septic systems due to the exorbitant cost, but can sometimes help with repairs, Shea said.)

CAC recently received a $300,000 Ohio Housing Trust Fund grant to help low-income homeowners with home repairs, but the money is a drop in the bucket, Shea said.

Examples of home repair projects are roof replacements, electrical and plumbing repairs, and new furnaces and hot water tanks. Low-income homeowners who believe they may qualify for the funds should contact the CAC at 330-297-1456.

“One of the goals of our home repair program is to help people with those repairs so they can receive weatherization or energy conservation services, so they can reduce their residential heating costs,” Shea said.

Agreeing with Bissler, the real need is willing developers and supportive communities to build affordable housing communities. That’s not assured, and nothing happens overnight, Shea concluded.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.