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Changing the Conversation: Affordable Housing in Cincinnati

By Margy Waller and Noam Gross-Prinz
9.19.2017

Cincinnati City Council’s final vote on taxpayer investment in the development at Elm and Liberty in Over-the-Rhine (OTR) last spring revealed that the local conversation about affordable housing is changing. Stakeholders, including elected leaders, now agree that we need new policy to support affordable housing preservation and development.

The community debate about this proposed project—110 units of market-rate rental housing and 15,000 square feet of commercial space in one of the last large pieces of vacant land in Over-the-Rhine—went on for more than sixteen months and involved thousands of volunteer hours dedicated to a campaign for a commitment to key changes to the project, including keeping some apartments affordable.

Neighbors hoped to improve plans for this significant gateway corner for multiple neighborhoods—Over-the-Rhine, West End, the Brewery District, and Findlay Market—to make sure the development is consistent with community and citywide comprehensive plans, both of which include affordable housing.

This project became an emblematic one, as communities across the country are coming to recognize the importance of affordable housing in addressing equity, labor market opportunities, and health and education quality. More and more cities are choosing to focus public efforts and funding on preserving and developing housing that ensures neighborhood stability and inclusion. There’s increasing understanding that it harms local culture when people are forced to leave the place they call home as markets shift and costs increase.

In Cincinnati, a recent report on affordable housing produced by LISC Greater Cincinnati and Xavier University’s Community Building Institute had a notable impact on the City Council conversation about changes to the Elm and Liberty proposal. Local advocates repeatedly reminded elected officials of the primary finding from the report: For every 100 of the lowest income households in Hamilton County, there are only 28 units of housing that are both affordable and available. This means there is a gap of 40,000 affordable homes.

For every 100 of the lowest income households in Hamilton County, there are only 28 units of housing that are both affordable and available.

Discussion at the council meeting before and after the final vote reveals the progress made. Council members’ public statements included explicit acknowledgment that displacement of OTR residents, those who would choose to stay but cannot find an affordable home, is a problem. Moreover, there is recognition that this is a problem that City leadership has a role in addressing, especially as it works with developers on proposed projects.

In the wake of this experience, some members of City Council expressed the need for new policies to enhance equitable development and ensure affordable homes are available across our community. In order to capitalize on this interest from Council members, we should have more discussion of our policy options for addressing these needs and engage more stakeholders in the process.

The city officials should explore establishment of a housing trust fund with clear programmatic goals and public oversight to support the creation and preservation of homes for extremely low-income households. Another specific policy could require market rate developers to include some percentage of homes set aside for people who work in jobs that pay low-wages, not enough for the basics. While acknowledging that this type of requirement requires special consideration from developers, it is worth considering, especially when the project has public investment, such as tax abatements or other public support, like zoning changes or city land.

Important follow-up to these discussions have been happening all summer. With City Council and Mayoral elections coming this fall, it’s time to start digging into specific policy proposals that will ensure our city prioritizes equitable development, including affordable housing.