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Can ‘heritage homes’ help solve Ohio’s housing shortage?

A backdoor to a white brick house is surrounded by a tall fence.
Jason Hawke
Small towns all over Ohio have streets full of old, sometimes dilapidated homes. Ohio University researcher Brent Lane says fixing up these homes could attract young, first-time homebuyers to an area and lead to economic development.

Walk through a small town in Ohio, and you’ll likely find streets of older homes.

Built before the ‘70s, some are well-manicured and preserved, but others sit in various states of disrepair.

They often lack historical significance, said Ohio University researcher Brent Lane, “but they were reflective of the community's architectural history.”

Lane has dubbed these homes ‘heritage houses,’ and he believes they could be part of a solution to tackle the state’s housing shortage, while simultaneously boosting the economic development of small town Ohio.

“If we recognize what an opportunity they represent,” he said, “I think that will mobilize us to address some of those challenges and restore those homes to not only make them available for current and future residents, but also to preserve the distinctiveness and the attractiveness of our small towns.”

Ohio’s housing shortage

Like states across the country, Ohio is in the throes of a housing shortage.

According to its 2024 Housing Needs Assessment, the Ohio Housing Finance Agency found that developers have been steadily building new homes in the state, but not fast enough to keep up with demand.

Particularly for extremely low-income renters in Ohio, it found a shortage of more than 270,000 units.

But the housing shortage isn’t limited to affordable housing.

Central Ohio, for example, needs to build thousands of new housing units to keep with demand as new industries move into the region.

How ‘heritage housing’ can help

Ohio’s small towns are in an interesting position to help tackle this shortage, Lane said.

For a long time, young professionals left the state’s small towns to live and work in big cities.

But in the era of remote work, that’s no longer necessary.

“Many people who were renters in cities, with the prospect of being able to work remotely, were looking for opportunities to live further away where they could buy a house,” Lane said.

But many ran into a problem.

“In order to buy a house, there have to be houses. And in a lot of the surrounding smaller communities, there were not a lot of available, attractive houses.”

That’s the case in the village of Chauncey, a village just north of Athens, Lane said. But the area does have a number of older homes, in various states of disrepair.

"I think too often we look at our older homes simply as things that need to be done away with or demolished. And we've underestimated what the market opportunity is in this new remote work environment."
Brent Lane

Lane and his team studied a portfolio of those houses. They calculated the cost to fix them up, and then calculated the economic impact that doing so would bring.

“We found that rehabilitating an older house has a large economic benefit in the community,” Lane said.

Lane says new homeowners benefit by saving money on the cost of a house.

And communities benefit in more ways than one. For example, renovating older homes raises property values in the surrounding area, Lane said, and the renovation work itself provides local job opportunities.

Plus, younger families bring an important demographic back to small towns that have long seen diminishing populations.

“Those young families, those first time homeowners can help revitalize our small towns,” he said.

So, instead of waiting for ‘heritage houses’ to fall into a state of despair so severe they require demolition, Lane suggests fixing them up sooner.

“I think too often we look at our older homes simply as things that need to be done away with or demolished,” he said. “And we've underestimated what the market opportunity is in this new remote work environment. There are people who would like to move to our small towns. Fixing up older houses, the heritage houses that are 50 years or older, can meet that demand.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.