MOUNT VERNON — Knox County, like many communities across America, is experiencing a housing shortage.
A series of studies conducted by Kenyon College economics student Brian Sellers in 2020 and 2021, commissioned by the Area Development Foundation, found the county would need to more than double its housing production each year for the next decade to keep up with demand.
“We build 133 houses a year in the county. We need about 281 at minimum. So we’re short 148 units. That’s forecasting for low growth, just to fill in some of the jobs we have,” ADF Vice President Sam Filkins said at the time.
“We have more people that commute into the city than in the past. It’s safe to assume those commuters can’t find housing. Economically, it’s better for the county if people live and work here.”
And several major projects have come on-line locally in the last year-plus to help mitigate that shortage.
Danbury Senior Living, a 71,000-square-foot facility with 81 assisted care/memory care units and seven villas on Mount Vernon’s east end, opened last summer.
Construction has begun on Gilchrist Estates, a 73-acre planned neighborhood development with approximately 120 single-family and condominium units on Mount Vernon’s east end. The first lot in the development sold last summer.
Progress continues at the old Mount Vernon Middle School property near downtown Mount Vernon, where developer Joel Mazza plans to build approximately 80 multi-family housing units.
And two more projects are currently in the planning stages.
The Retreat at Mount Vernon, a 38-acre multi-family development including 496 apartment units on Mount Vernon’s east end, has been approved by City Council and the Municipal Planning Commission. Developer Rockford Construction expects the project to receive final city approval in the coming months, ADF President Jeff Gottke said, with the goal of beginning construction by the end of the year.
Liberty Crossing, a 217-acre planned neighborhood development including a total of 519 units (252 multi-family residences, 109 single-family patio homes, 80 single-family homes and 78 townhouses) on Mount Vernon’s south end, has been approved by City Council. Developer Highland Real Estate will now need to go back to the Municipal Planning Commission to receive plat approvals, Gottke said, before receiving final city approval on the project.
“Highland Real Estate doesn’t build anything, they just design it and sell the project to a builder or builders, which they haven’t done yet,” Gottke noted. “It likely won’t be until next year or 2025 when they start moving dirt.”
The latest housing development to break ground in Knox County is expected to bring 96 units to Mount Vernon’s east end.
Pine Hill Independent Senior Living, an Ohio Eastern Star Home community, broke ground March 24. The planned neighborhood development will be located on 60 acres just north of the non-profit’s main facility, at the intersection of Eastern Star Road and New Gambier Road.
It will include a building with 40 one- and two-bedroom apartments, located near the middle of the property, surrounded by 56 condominiums on the perimeter (these will be grouped into three- and four-unit cottages). The apartments are expected to open in the fall of 2024, with condominiums opening in late 2025 or early 2026.
“There is nothing in Knox County like us. We are the only not-for-profit continuing care retirement community in Knox County. And so I think (Pine Hill) has the potential to fill a huge void in this county,” Ohio Eastern Star Home CEO Michele Engelbach said last week.
“Senior living is booming. And for us to be able to provide something like this in the Mount Vernon and Knox County area, I think, is paramount. It’s just so exciting to bring this to the community.”
Local officials at the groundbreaking ceremony all agreed the project would help mitigate Knox County’s housing shortage. But how, exactly?
Knox Pages spoke with Gottke, Filkins and others to find out.
‘OVERHOUSED’ NO MORE: Filkins said after the 2021 study that a significant number of senior citizens in Knox County are “overhoused.”
This means their current living situations no longer suit them, either because they can’t go up and down stairs, or they don’t need as much room.
Pine Hill Independent Senior Living is tailored toward individuals in this situation. The community will suit well those who are looking to downsize, Engelbach said, but don’t need around-the-clock care just yet.
“There are no nursing services. You just live there, and you live your life,” Engelbach said of the community.
“But the advantage to that is you’re on our campus now, so as your needs start to change as you grow older, and maybe you need more assistance, you’re already on-campus and can move through our continuum of care as your care needs increase. …
“If you get to the point where you need nursing home or assisted living care, you don’t have to start wondering where you’re going to go, or how you’re going to choose a place.”
FREEING UP INVENTORY: When local seniors are able to move into places like Pine Hill, Gottke explained, it frees up single-family residences for those who are seeking them.
“There are a number of seniors who are overhoused. So having some options for them to go into locally that fit their lifestyle needs will free up their current houses for families who need that type of housing. …” Gottke said.
“It would free up a large single-family home for a new family, for example.”
This would simultaneously open up more affordable housing options in the community, Gottke said, meeting a need the ADF identified in the 2021 study.
“We know that existing homes are more affordable than new construction,” Gottke explained. “So from an affordability standpoint, this will help with that supply as well.”
A WIN FOR RURAL PRESERVATION: Filkins emphasized in late 2021 that preserving Knox County’s “rural character” would need to be a priority for local officials moving forward, as they looked for ways to address the community’s housing shortage.
“With all of this, we don’t want Knox County to lose its rural character,” he said at the time. “Balancing need with character is a tricky thing. I think it’s important for us to always be aware of that.”
Filkins and the ADF encouraged density, placing new housing in and around urban centers, so as not to disrupt life in the rural parts of the county. Doing so would also make infrastructural sense, he argued.
Pine Hill follows this vision to a T.
The planned neighborhood development will sit on a previously vacant lot, landlocked in the middle of a residential community. It will not require city services to be extended into new territory, and it will not involve the elimination of agricultural or wooded land.
“This is a great example of an infill project because the city isn’t going to be extending services beyond where it currently (offers them). It’s not going to mean more water lines or sewer lines, and the police and fire departments already serve that area. And it’s in a community. …” Filkins said.
“It’s about 20 acres of land that can be developed without losing farmland or overextending the city, and it can be leveraged in the way it was supposed to be. This wasn’t a wooded area, so you’re not cutting down a whole bunch of trees or digging up farmland. It’s for development.”
A ‘WIN-WIN’ FOR KNOX COUNTY: Mount Vernon Mayor Matt Starr was quick to point out during last Friday’s groundbreaking ceremony that Pine Hill will help with Knox County’s housing shortage.
“Now we have more independent living – another option for seniors to age in-place here in Mount Vernon and Knox County, and a great option that we have for our housing stock,” Starr said. “And so we’re very happy about that.”
But the mayor also noted the cultural benefits the new development will offer.
“One of the things I think is incredibly important to talk about is their mission here, which is providing a means by which fraternal and community relationships can be encouraged and improved. What a great fit,” he said. “This is a community within a community.”
Caring for the community’s seniors is “a huge part of (the city’s) value system,” Starr said, and this project helps accomplish that.
“We value our seniors, and this provides them an opportunity to age in-place. They can stay in the community. This is just another option for them to take advantage of. And we want to keep them in the community, and (for them to) continue to be active citizens. …” Starr said.
“I just think it’s important that the people who have spent their lives building this community have a nice option to continue to live out the rest of their lives here. And they’re so close to health care, which is a really nice convenience.”
Offering an intermediate living situation for local seniors will encourage them to stay in the community, Filkins agreed. But it will also make the aging process easier, leading to increased quality of life.
“There’s kind of a gap (between single-family and assisted living),” Filkins said. “If we don’t have any independent, age-in-place housing, you go from being overhoused to living in assisted living, and that’s a big jump.”
While Pine Hill will benefit local seniors, Gottke said, it will also likely attract new residents to the community.
“The thing that happens with senior-targeted housing is, it’s a mix of locals that move in there, but then also it’s a large percentage of parents of locals that move in there,” Gottke said.
“So it kind of adds to the quality of life for local residents because maybe now their parents, who live out of town – and they have to spend a lot of time driving back and forth to see and check in on them – now they have options to move here, which can provide increased quality of life for both parties.”
Filkins called the project a “win-win” for Knox County, when it comes to housing and community development.
“I think it shows that we’re trying to help support housing in a diverse array of ways,” he said.
“There have been multi-family projects that have gotten a lot of news coverage over the last couple months, between the single-family development off of Newark Road and the Gilchrist Estates, but it’s also senior living options. The cheapest house to buy is one that’s already built, and if those folks move (into places like Pine Hill), their houses become more affordable.
“So it’s a win-win. Seniors get new and attractive housing, and more housing locally comes on the market. We are interested in that.”