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Price Hill Will and partners try homesteading to combat affordable housing crisis

By Hillary Copsey
6.27.2017

By supporting a homesteading pilot program, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky is hoping to build another resource to help families out of poverty. 

LISC has taken a leading role in a collection of social service and community development agencies, both public and private, supporting the homesteading program operated by Price Hill Will, a nonprofit community development organization on Cincinnati’s west side. Price Hill Will began the program in 2015 and has placed two families in homes that once were vacant and deteriorating. 

The Price Hill neighborhoods are among the poorest in the region; they also are home to large immigrant population. Rent eats up 35 percent or more of the annual income of many of the city’s tenants — 44 percent, according to the American Community Survey. 

Meanwhile, 18 percent of Cincinnati’s housing units are vacant, according to the U.S. Census, and 41 percent of the housing stock in the city was built in 1939 or earlier. 

Homesteading combats all of these problems, said Kathy Schwab, executive director of LISC of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The city also benefits as property values rise. 

“It’s an anti-poverty strategy,” Schwab said. “It’s the perfect match. It’s a win for the neighborhood, the community, the family. It helps build wealth.”
— Kathy Schwab

“It’s an anti-poverty strategy,” Schwab said. “It’s the perfect match. It’s a win for the neighborhood, the community, the family. It helps build wealth.”

This is how Price Hill Will’s homesteading program works: The nonprofit acquires a house that can be inexpensively brought into compliance with city building codes. Then, after a family is identified and screened for income eligibility, Price Hill Will enters into a land contract with the family that stipulates a low monthly payment, a list of repairs and general maintenance that must be completed before ownership is transferred, and a requirement that allows Price Hill Will to regularly inspect the home. 

After five years, assuming all payments and repairs, are made, the family owns the house. 

Each of the first two homesteading families will buy their homes for about $16,000. Price Hill Will averaged the cost of the first two vacant houses it acquired: one was donated and required about $7,000 in repairs and maintenance to meet building codes; the second was purchased for about $1,000 from the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corporation and needed about $23,000 in repairs. 

The cost and contracts for future homes likely won’t exactly match these first two contracts. 

“This is not cookie-cutter,” Schwab said. “Each family is different.”

Valerie and Noé Perez and their three children are one of the first two homesteading families. Since they signed the land contract and picked up their house keys last fall, they have cleaned stones, plywood and other trash from the yard, repaired a hole in the concrete stoop, sanded and refinished floors, and scraped and painted every wall. 

Valerie Perez, a stay-at-home mom with a part-time job, handles much of the work. It’s worth it, she said, because homesteading lowered their monthly housing costs from $475 to $250. 

Through the homesteading program, Price Hill Will and the other agencies also continue to offer support to the families. The goal is not just to fill vacant houses, but to build community. 

“I can walk into Price Hill Will and say, 'Hey, I have this problem and I need help,'” Valerie Perez said. “They're there. 'Call us if you need us.' That's what they say every time we visit.”

Along with LISC, other Cincinnati agencies are supporting Price Hill Will’s homesteading program. Santa Maria Community Services screens families for need and income eligibility, while Working in Neighborhoods helps the families assess their budgets. Legal Aid Southwestern Ohio drafts land contracts. Financial support has come from SC Ministry Foundation and Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio

The potential to help immigrants become homeowners was part of the appeal for Catholic Charities, which runs the Su Casa Hispanic Center as well as the region’s refugee resettlement program.

“(Many immigrants) can’t get a traditional loan because they don’t have the documents to do that,” said Alisa Berry, chief operations officer for Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio. “To help them get access to the ‘American Dream’ was the attraction.” 

All the agencies are looking to find sustainable, long-term funding for the project, though a $10,000 grant from Fifth Third Bank should place at least one more family in a home in 2017. Price Hill Will executive director Ken Smith estimates $1 million could turn vacant houses into homes for 77 families. 

“We can continue to watch (the housing stock) deteriorate, or we can find a way for it to be affordable and reasonable to have people use their skills and competencies to become homeowners,” said Sister Sally Duffy of the SC Ministry Foundation. “The situation in Price Hill is not unique. We’ve demonstrated that everything we hoped would be realized — pride, families helping their neighborhood — would be realized, now let’s get something started.”

The initial success of Price Hill Will’s program is drawing attention to the idea of homesteading and its potential for community building. A creative placemaking network, another LISC partnership, has connected Price Hill Will with a group that wants to brighten the community with murals on one of the homesteading houses. And other agencies, including the Cincinnati Homesteading and Urban Redevelopment Corporation, are looking for ways to get low-income families into the city’s vacant houses. 

“We’re never going to go out and build enough affordable housing, but we can take the available housing stock and put in the hands of people to build some wealth,” Schwab said. “That starts to solve the problem.” 

“We’re never going to go out and build enough affordable housing, but we can take the available housing stock and put in the hands of people to build some wealth,” Schwab said. “That starts to solve the problem.”
— Kathy Schwab