A Hopeful Vision for the Future of Columbus and Some of Its Most Historic Neighborhoods
Elijah Carter, a 31-year-old retail professional who recently bought and made energy-efficient upgrades to his first home, discusses the importance of energy efficiency education in cities like his native Columbus, Ohio.
Columbus, Ohio, is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States and ranked as one of the top places in the nation for young professionals like Elijah Carter (shown above) to live and work. As one of the 25 winners of the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge, Columbus is also on its way to becoming a model for how a city can transform into a booming, energy-efficient destination.
In March, Columbus took a big step toward meeting its carbon reduction goals by passing a new benchmarking and transparency ordinance, and on October 7, the city celebrated yet another major milestone of the Climate Challenge: the completion of 30,000 home energy audits as part of its Sustainable Steps initiative. In partnership with AEP Ohio, Columbia Gas of Ohio, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), and Impact Community Action, the Community Energy Savers Program helped identify simple fixes for residents in neighborhoods across the city to reduce utility bills while also lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The program focused on performing audits of homes in the Linden, Franklinton, Hilltop, Milo-Grogan, University District/Italian Village, and Near East neighborhoods.
Carter, who was born and raised in Olde Towne East, one of several smaller neighborhoods that make up Columbus’s Near East, recently solidified his commitment to and investment in his community by purchasing a home there. The retail professional and Ohio State University graduate served for four years on the board of the Columbus Urban League, an affiliate of the National Urban League, a historic civil rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment and promoting equal and equitable access to resources. Carter, who was also a founding co-chair of its young professionals organization, characterizes his experience with the Urban League as one of the best of his career so far because of the strong connection to community it afforded. Below, he shares his thoughts on the importance of programs like the Community Energy Savers for neighborhoods like his and, more broadly, on the promising future of his beloved city.
What is your neighborhood of Old Towne East like, and how has it changed from when you were younger?
Olde Towne East, which is one of our really historic neighborhoods here in Columbus, has been through several rounds of gentrification. It’s technically pretty much gentrified—I would say 70 percent gentrified—and King-Lincoln, which is where the Urban League is, is probably about 30 percent. For me, it was very important to buy a house in the community that I wanted to support.
At one point in time, this neighborhood actually had been very affluent. When my family bought into it, it was honestly very much not so—pretty much everyone had left for the suburbs. So there were these beautiful homes but they weren't maintained. Since then, Old Towne East has done a complete 180. This neighborhood received investment dollars and so many people—across all races, across all demographics—have moved from the suburbs back into the community. One of the things that has contributed to the revitalization has been how our downtown has evolved a ton since I was growing up here. It’s like a little mini city within the city.
And the homes are all unique. There's just so much richness in the story that these homes tell.
Tell me a little bit about the process about buying your first home and what you did to ensure the home was energy efficient.
I recently had it completely renovated. I wanted it to have all of the original charm—keeping the home’s original flair—and the Olde Towne East historical community aesthetic was super important for me, especially being from this neighborhood. But the contractor also did a lot of work to make sure it was up to code and energy efficient. Everything in my entire home is brand-new: the HVAC system, the furnace, all of the appliances. Being able to make those types of decisions is definitely tied to the Columbus Urban League young professionals’ programming because I took their home buyer course, which allowed me to make smart decisions about renovating the home in the first place. I feel like it’s a triple win: for me, for the community, and for the environment.
I also just love these homes in this neighborhood! They have the best character. You get real brick, you get real wood, you get fireplaces—my home has three fireplaces—stuff you don't typically get in the more suburban neighborhoods. It was something that attracted me to this area. But more important than that was being involved in the community.
What can initiatives like the Community Energy Savers Program mean for neighborhoods like Old Towne East and King-Lincoln?
It's about uplifting the community and making sure it's sustainable. A lot of the homes that are still maintained by BIPOC families are in a lot of ways very inefficient. And they are either overpaying because their home is not energy efficient, or they're using more energy than they should and adversely impacting the community and the environment at large.
So when I think about programs such as this—and a lot of the programs and initiatives that the Columbus Urban League has been tied to—I think it's an education piece. Because typically, it is really just a lack of awareness. Who doesn't want to have an energy-efficient home? Who doesn't want to save money? And who doesn't want to help the environment? But oftentimes, those resources aren't readily available to people. So if you don't have grassroots organizations or pioneers who are buying in the community and can spearhead what those initiatives can mean for their community, many times the resources go underutilized. Not for lack of intention, but just lack of awareness and exposure.
For me, it’s about the ability of organizations led by people of color to support underrepresented people of color and give them access to opportunities that aren't readily available to them in their everyday life. The ability to have access to resources such as home energy audits is definitely a huge asset and value-add to communities—specifically ones like Old Towne East that are becoming more integrated—so that people are on the same playing field.
It’s also so important to have resources like this because, as the community grows, we want to make sure the community doesn’t die. For me, it's super important to be involved in organizations and initiatives that encourage and empower the people who are from these neighborhoods to make smart decisions and stay where they are. That could be loans or grants but also it’s helping them utilize their properties to the fullest extent by taking advantage of initiatives like the Community Energy Savers Program, which can help make their homes smarter, more energy efficient, and more sustainable.
You’ve touched on the links between home ownership and racial justice. Can you elaborate a bit on how that plays out in Columbus?
When I was first on the path to buying this home, I went to a home buyer course that Urban League offers for anyone. It was so eye-opening because it was mostly people of color, but there was also a big age variance of people buying homes and starting from complete scratch. They had no bearings, no reference point. Oftentimes, that is what prohibits people of color from taking that first chance to buy a home. You have this fear of not knowing what the process looks like, or being scarred by the trauma of losing a home. So I think programs such as the home buyer course and other initiatives that support education break it down into bite-size approaches. Like, this is doable.
It's interesting and truly impactful to know there are resources available that can help take away the stigma that people of color often face when it comes to taking a leap of faith and becoming a homeowner.
What is your vision for the future of Columbus?
Columbus is an amazing city, and I think it has a lot of opportunities for people of color and non–people of color alike to live together in communities that are rich in culture and rich in history. And I'm optimistic that through energy-efficiency initiatives like the Community Energy Savers Program and community-engagement resources like the Columbus Urban League—and plenty more—we can make sure that not only are we integrated but we're also educated as we integrate, so that everyone is able to get a fair shot at the resources that are available to the city.
I'm optimistic that 10 years from now, we won't have to have this conversation around the social and environmental injustice that take place here in Columbus. And I'm optimistic that if we do talk again in 10 years, it will be about how we've grown to where that's no longer a factor for the success rate of all residents and how the resources that are here are more readily available. I think we have a lot of strong advocates fighting for that to be the case. I am very passionate about that, and I think there are a lot of other young professionals—and more seasoned leaders—who are as well. And I'm very optimistic that we will get there in due time.
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