Rep. Joyce Beatty Gentrified Her Way Into Political Trouble

Gentrification in Columbus, Ohio, has been profitable for power couple Otto and Joyce Beatty, but political backlash has come with it.

Representative Joyce Beatty, a Democrat from Ohio, listens during a Joint Economic Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell declined to pledge that the Fed would keep interest rates on hold through 2020. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Rep. Joyce Beatty listens during a Joint Economic Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 13, 2019. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In 2013, Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, and her husband made a significant profit on a property sold to a developer, while her husband sat on the zoning board that approved the sale, according to public records and meeting minutes reviewed by The Intercept. The buyer, developer Lifestyle Communities, purchased the property in Columbus from the Beattys one month after Otto Beatty voiced support for Lifestyle to turn the project into luxury condos at the city’s downtown zoning board, the Downtown Commission.


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Joyce and Otto Beatty have long been a power couple in Columbus. Otto Beatty served 20 years in the Ohio House before resigning in 1999 immediately before being forced out due to term limits. Joyce Beatty was appointed to take his seat, rising to become minority leader from 2007 to 2008, before becoming a top official at the Ohio State University and, since 2012, the city’s congressional representative. The Beattys have been major players in the transformation of Columbus, as it emerges from its deindustrialization period and rapidly gentrifies. Yet the very changes spurred by the Beattys have now put her own seat in jeopardy, as insurgent challenger Morgan Harper has given her the first competitive primary since Beatty was sworn into Congress. The two are set to face off in the Ohio Democratic primary on March 17, with early voting already underway at a fierce pace.

Otto Beatty has been the longtime vice chair of the Downtown Commission, a zoning board which has enabled a transformation of the city’s downtown. The condos that were developed had no affordable housing requirements, despite an estimated shortage of 35,625 low-income rental units in Columbus. The condos rent from $1,600 for a 700-square-foot one bedroom to $2,600 a month for an 1,100-square-foot two-bedroom apartment in the rapidly gentrifying city. Higher-end apartments are listed without a price. The median rent for apartments in Columbus is $1,295, according to Zillow.

“I have spent time in this building every day for years,” announced Otto Beatty to the commission in November 2013. “I’ve explored trying to keep these buildings [as they are]. It’s not there. I’m concerned about what is good for downtown. It would be bad for downtown to lose the opportunity of having this project.”

While Otto Beatty did not vote on the question, he did not disclose that he was discussing the sale of the building to Lifestyle at the time — only that he was the owner of the land, and Lifestyle would do the developing. Beatty abstained from another vote on alterations to the project, but voted on two other alterations to the project at the Downtown Commission over the years without disclosing his interest to the public.

Otto Beatty, Rep. Joyce Beatty, and Lifestyle Communities did not respond to requests for comment.

“This appears to be a classic case of self-dealing by a government official,” said Craig Holman, an ethics lobbyist with the good government advocacy group Public Citizen. “As a member of the Downtown Commission, Otto Beatty is expected to recuse himself from taking official actions that provide direct and substantial personal enrichment to himself of his immediate family. Recusal doesn’t mean you just don’t vote, it means you remove [yourself] from the whole process. The fact that he expressed support for the project carries influence with his fellow colleagues. He should have stated straightforwardly that he had a conflict of interest and removed himself from the discussion.”

The inflated price for the sale of the Beatty building contrasts with the price that the similar “Trautman” buildings immediately next door sold to Lifestyle Communities just six months earlier. In June 2013, the Columbus Business Journal reported that the Trautman parcels were sold by the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation, the city’s nonprofit development corporation, for $750,000. Franklin County records indicate that the property was appraised at $770,000 — roughly equal to the sale price. The Beatty building next door, however, sold for $800,000 despite being assessed at $510,000. (Rep. Joyce Beatty’s financial disclosure lists the sale proceeds at between $1,000,000 and $5,000,000. That may be an erroneous overestimate, or the developer may have also purchased her clothing shop, Pieces for Wear, at the same location. Beatty did not respond to requests for comment or clarification, nor did Lifestyle.)

The Trautman properties had been purchased by the CDDC for $3.3 million in 2006 and 2007.

The CDDC Board appears to have a close-knit relationship with Joyce Beatty. Board members at the time, their spouses, and PACs affiliated with their companies have contributed over $280,000 to Beatty over her career. The board and donors include Victoria’s Secret billionaires Abigail Wexner and her husband Les, who have generated controversy for their extremely close relationship with the late Jeffrey Epstein.

A close ally of Congresswoman Beatty, former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, was the subject of an FBI investigation over the sale of his real estate property in 2010. Coleman sold his house in 2010 to a Chinese businesswoman who was exploring using Columbus as a distribution hub. Coleman sold the house to the businesswoman for $510,000, who later resold the property for just $250,000. Coleman appointed Otto Beatty to the Downtown Commission.

Beatty is now facing an insurgent primary challenger whose viability is driven in significant part, ironically, by gentrification. The high cost of living has fueled anger among longtime residents, and the new residents — the gentrifiers — have been harnessed in other races as a force to upend the status quo. In 2018, gentrifying neighborhoods provided Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s margin of victory over incumbent Joe Crowley, and those types of neighborhoods are likely to side heavily in Columbus with the challenger, Morgan Harper, in the Columbus race.

During Rep. Joyce Beatty’s time as state House minority leader, the couple attracted controversy due to Otto Beatty’s work as a lobbyist for a payday lending firm as the Ohio legislature was considering broad-reaching bipartisan reforms to payday lending. Beatty opposed the reforms until her husband’s work was revealed by the Columbus Dispatch. Then state Rep. Bob Hagan said to the Dispatch about the reform legislation: “So I’m running into a roadblock — and it’s not a very comfortable roadblock because I have been around too long to not realize something else is behind it. It’s disappointing that this is what has been happening. I don’t know whether this legal work is influencing her or not, but I do find it disappointing.”

As the Cleveland Plain Dealer later reported, “The revelation, which came after Joyce Beatty had puzzled political observers by staunchly opposing the payday lending legislation, shook up members of the House Democratic caucus who were unaware of Otto Beatty’s work in Virginia.”

Like Otto Beatty, Joyce Beatty was term-limited out of her state House seat, which represented the Ohio State University. Beatty, after leaving office, went to work for OSU doing community outreach and engagement for a controversially large salary. That position made her one of the school’s leading voices in talks with the community around the question of gentrification, which OSU’s expansion drove considerably. That position’s salary allowed her to inflate her pension from the State of Ohio to over $250,000 annually.

Beatty, ahead of winning the job at OSU, had claimed a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati/Pacific Western University, which was unaccredited and has since been forced to close by the state of Hawaii. She no longer makes that claim and instead writes in her congressional bio that she “completed all requirements but her dissertation for a doctorate at the University of Cincinnati.”

Observers and opponents of gentrification in Columbus have raised concern about the cost of living increases that accompany rampant development like the Beatty project. “One of the problems that I see is that powers that be want to control everything in these neighborhoods instead of empowering people to be involved,” said Joe Motil, a community activist in Columbus. “With agencies like the CCDC and the Downtown Commission, they buy the land, they make the decisions, and they control the money to develop it. They’re not empowering lower income people to purchase abandoned homes. They are stacked with people with money who also contribute heavily to our electeds in city hall.”

Miranda Martinez is an associate professor at Ohio State who studies gentrification. “For me what has been interesting is how rapid the gentrification has been and how little public comment and input there’s been. There often seems to be no provision for affordability as a concern,” said Martinez. “Columbus is turning away from a place that had relatively plentiful cheap housing into a place where that’s not the case.”

After the 2010 tea party wave, the new census knocked down Ohio’s congressional delegation from 18 to 16. Republicans began gerrymandering the state, and entered into negotiations with Otto Beatty and Joyce Beatty over the contours of the district that Beatty now represents, according to testimony by Ray DiRossi, a Republican operative involved with the gerrymandering effort. DiRossi testified that “a number of people, including myself who had worked with [Joyce Beatty] thought that she would be an ideal candidate” for the new gerrymandered Democratic district. Stuffing so many Democrats into one district — Republicans referred to Columbus as “dog meat voting territory” and a “Franklin County Sinkhole” — enabled Republicans to amass a 12-4 majority in the House delegation, despite the state being more evenly split between the parties.

The heavily Democratic Columbus district helped Republican Steve Stivers get reelected in a newly drawn and more comfortably Republican seat, and also helped make another suburban district more Republican. DiRossi, meanwhile, testified that Republicans helped clear the path for Beatty by drawing a potential opponent out of the new district.

Republican Ohio House Speaker William G. Batchelder III denied he had ever referred to Columbus voters as “dog meat” but admitted he “intend[ed] to draw a district that [Joyce Beatty] could potentially win.” He noted that he was close friends with Otto Beatty and had served with Joyce Beatty. Troy Judy, Batchelder’s chief of staff, confirmed the arrangement, testifying that the  “relationship with Congresswoman Beatty and her husband Otto Beatty led him to have a priority to create a central district in Franklin County encompassing Columbus and having representation specifically for Congress[wo]man Beatty.”

There was a legal rationale for the admission. Batchelder and other Republicans argued that they had drawn the district specifically for Beatty because of their close relationship with her and their earnest support for minority representation in Congress. But the district court didn’t buy it, ruling that, “In sum, even accepting all of Defendants’ proffered justifications for drawing District 3, we conclude that they were secondary to the map drawers’ predominant intent: conferring Republican advantage by packing District 3 and facilitating the cracking of Districts 12 and 15. We also conclude that District 3 actually packed Democratic voters.”

The potential opponent Beatty drew out of the district was Mary Jo Kilroy, who had beaten Stivers in 2008, but lost to him in 2010 and had been signaling a rematch. Kilroy ran anyway against Beatty, and in a four-way primary, Beatty edged her out by 1,500 votes. She then easily won the general election, and has served since.

While in Congress, Joyce Beatty’s estimated net worth has increased from $2.6 million to over $10 million, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. As of 2016, she was the 35th wealthiest member of the House.

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