KENT: What began as an idea brought up by Ward 5 Councilwoman Heidi Shaffer in the closing minutes of Kent City Council's final meeting of 2012 has started to take shape, with one of the city's biggest existing issues at its core.
Shaffer suggested the council explore the idea of creating an advisory group comprised of citizens and government officials to address housing issues that have been neglected with heavy focus on the development of the downtown area.
Shaffer believes the city's bicentennial plan, established in 2003, should serve as the guiding document for the group's efforts when it is finally established.
"It's something the citizens have participated in before and much of what was planned has come to fruition, but what seems to be lagging are the community initiatives, especially in the area of housing," Shaffer said. "We have been so focused on business and economic development and revitalizing our downtown district that housing has lagged behind."
Growing interest Shaffer and her fellow council members have seen from housing developers in building or renovating large housing developments for Kent State University students has raised the profile of the housing issue. Shaffer is wary of seeing certain areas of the city become dominated by rental properties instead of permanent residents.
"The city has sort of tipped that balance between rentals and owner-occupied," Shaffer said. "The bicentennial plan is slanted in favor of more owner-occupied and yet there are many neighborhoods, especially in the city center, that have tipped more toward student housing."
To address the concerns that arise from such a housing breakdown, Shaffer wants to establish an advisory group that would make recommendations to the council about address issues such as property maintenance, zoning and security.
Interest in serving on such a board has been strong since she first floated the idea at the council's December meeting, Shaffer said.
"I see it as group comprised of numerous stakeholders, and I have had a lot of interest since I raised it in council," she continued. "There is concern over property values and what I sort of call a clash of lifestyles. People feel like we're on the verge of making Kent this great, walkable city and some of those stakeholders, which are landlords and property owners and others, want the playing field to be more level because they are concerned and do a good job with their properties, so they want others held to the same standards."
Creating an advisory board stems largely from the November search for a new at-large council member to replace Councilman Robin Turner, who stepped down on Nov. 1.
Several candidates for the position raised housing and zoning issues in their addresses to the council at its November meeting and hearing their interest in the issue and in some cases, experience in housing and real estate, Shaffer developed her concept for the advisory board.
Any such group could have added value because the city's community development staff is currently shorthanded. Community Development Director Gary Locke passed away on Sept. 16, 2012 after a 13-month battle with leukemia and since then, grants administrator Bridget Susel has taken on Locke's job in addition to her own.
That arrangement has slowed progress on some issues because, as Shaffer pointed out, there simply is not extra manpower for the department.
Because her idea for a housing advisory board would necessitate some government involvement, the council will need to discuss the idea further and decide if the resources are on hand to create and operate it. Equally important in Shaffer's eyes is the willingness of the community to take an active role in the process.
"Kent is a city that does involve citizens in planning and it is important on this issue that there is a community buy-in," Shaffer said.