The Columbus City Council on Monday accepted $26.8 million in federal money for rental assistance money that can be put toward new and existing COVID-related relief programs.
The council also approved spending $267.7 million for the “Lower Olentangy Tunnel Project,” launching what is believed to be the second-most-expensive municipal construction project in city history. Over the next five years, the city will bore a large tunnel 50 feet below ground to handle wastewater overflow.
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The new federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program made available $25 billion to assist households nationwide that are unable to pay rent and utilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with funds going directly to states and local governments to administer. At least 90% must go toward direct financial assistance, including utility payments and home energy costs.
“Helping people stay in their homes is one of the most direct ways we can support families in Columbus,” said Elizabeth Brown, council president pro tem.
The Columbus rental assistance program will be administered through the nonprofit IMPACT Community Action’s Hope Fund. In order to receive assistance, tenants must meet certain requirements, such as having a valid lease, a rent payment at or below 200% “fair market rent,” and meet certain income requirements.
Households also must have experienced a financial hardship due directly or indirectly to COVID-19, such as a layoff, business closure, reduction in work hours, or being unwilling or unable to participate in work due to a high risk of severe illness, according to an IMPACT Community Action statement.
According to the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an estimated 15.1 million adults nationwide who live in rental housing, or about 1 in 5, were behind on rent as of mid-January. Renters of color were more likely to report that their household was behind on rent: 36% of Black renters, 29% of Latino renters, and 16% of Asian renters said they were behind on payments, compared to 12% of white renters, the center said on its website.
The Lower Olentangy Tunnel Project will divert stormwater overflow from Tuttle Park, north of Ohio State University, to Downtown, following a path generally along the Olentangy River. A tunnel-boring machine will be used to worm a stormwater overflow tunnel downstream to keep stormwater from overflowing sewage treatment plants on the South Side during heavy rains.
Water in the tunnel will then be gradually released on to the sewage treatment plants as part of of a long-term plan to meet orders from federal and state environmental protection agencies to end raw sewage being released into city streams and rivers during storms. .
The first five-mile stretch of tunnel between the South Side and the Arena District was completed in 2015 at a cost of about $371 million — making it the most expensive city construction project in history until now.
City water and sewer customers have endured almost constant rate increases over the years to pay for the project, financed through low-interest state loans. The ultimate goal is that Columbus sewage overflows into rivers that result from major rains happen no more than once every decade.
In a bid to lower the total cost by $1 billion, the city began diverting some stormwater from going into sewers and instead into the ground through “rain gardens” and water-absorbing pavement.
The contract to build the new tunnel segment went to Granite Construction Co., of Northbrook, Illinois, which the city said gave the lowest and best bid. Work is expected to be completed by late 2026.
In other business Monday, the council made its second installment payment — $12.5 million — toward the city’s $38 million cash contribution to the Mapfre Stadium redevelopment, intended to transform it into a state-of-the-art training facility for the Columbus Crew SC and a planned city recreational sports park.
While the Crew’s expanded facility is under construction, with a 75-year lease approved by the Ohio Expositions Commission in January, the city Recreation & Parks project remains without state approval for needed land from the state fairgrounds adjacent to Mapfre.
“I would just remind us that when we talked about this (recreational green space) commitment, we talked about the proximity to more than 200,000 of our residents, and we just have to make sure that we are focused on that commitment,” Council President Shannon Hardin said.
Councilman Emmanuel Remy, chair of the economic development committee, replied that, while the city still has no state lease, “we are making progress in that area.”