Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part I: How I Became The Enemy

Thus begins an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

 

In 2005, I moved to Cincinnati from Elgin, Illinois. My first job in town was as a bartender/barista at a place called Kaldi’s on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine had a reputation. I knew it had a history.

I knew to hide my bartending tips in my sock on the way to my car at night. I knew to make eye contact with the people I passed on the street. I knew that the storefronts were mostly empty after 6pm every night. And I knew that it wasn’t necessary to pay the parking meter most nights because cops didn’t give a rip about parking in OTR.

I knew that the produce at the Vine Street Kroger was never up to par and they didn’t sell organic milk.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine was thick with racial tension. I knew this because if I told the man from the street that he could not use our bathroom at 11:48pm on a Thursday night, he would call me a racist.

I knew Over-the-Rhine was a dark and moody place to be.

But I also knew it was alive with a steady current of creativity and strength and survival. I knew that its residents knew enough about all sorts of things to not be afraid to be out at night like everyone else was. I knew that the stories in the news were always only half-true.

I knew that Over-the-Rhine was more than dark and moody.

But I swear that I did not know it was the next big thing.

We got married in 2009 and our first apartment was a large loft north of Liberty in an old brewery building. There were a zillion building code violations and my mom probably cried the first time she saw it.

Our apartment smelled like hotdogs on Saturday mornings from the soup kitchen next door. There were cockroaches in the bathroom. There were rats. There were beer and dog piss leaks through the floorboards of the apartment above us. There was no real heating system. There were drunk neighbors. There were loud knocks on the door and the buzzing of doorbells at all hours of the day/night by people walking past. There were drug dealers perched on our stoop–literally–every day.

The landlord may as well have lived in Cambodia the way he cared for the place. Every good thing about that apartment was done with our own hands and our own money.

It was like the Wild, Wild, West.
We were newlyweds.
The rent was $650.

By this time, I was working at a non-profit doing community organizing types of things around the city and I had insight into the things “moving” in Over-the-Rhine. They had been in the works for a few years. There were big-time investors involved. There were things like development strategies and tax incentives at play.

But, honestly, it all happened so quickly.

While we were busy learning to be married and then having kids and working at our jobs, things were changing around us. We were like the proverbial frog, boiled alive in the pot.

Vine Street.
Washington Park.
Conversations about something called “a streetcar.”

We wanted to buy a house in the neighborhood because it was our neighborhood, not because we wanted to capitalize on someone else’s loss. The only person we (personally) displaced was a man who wanted to sell his house so he could move across the country to be nearer to his kids.

Sure, we knew it was probably a good investment. Sure, we knew that OTR was going to “improve” in the next few years. But it was still a gamble. And investing in Over-the-Rhine, in general, was still a calculated risk.

I didn’t think I was the bad guy.
I was just a young, idealistic wife and mother.
We wanted to plant some roots in a neighborhood that needed more stability. We wanted to start something, build something. And it seemed like there was space enough for us here.

I tell this story because it’s important to know that people–low income, high society, black, white, and everything in-between–move where they move for all sorts of reasons.

Because we can afford it.
Because we like the way the house looks.
Because our family lives there.
Because we can walk to work.
Because we want to make a good investment.
Because of the quality of the schools.
To start our first business.
Because we’re new in town and it’s all we know.
Because it’s time to downsize.

Or we move because of a bunch of reasons all mashed up together.

Most people moving into “gentrifying” neighborhoods don’t move there to cause trouble. They aren’t trying to displace long-term residents or raise the rent next door. Often times, they (like we did) think they can help make the neighborhood better for everyone through their investment and community engagement.

But that’s not the way things usually happen, is it?

It’s only a matter of time before I just blend in with all the 30-something Friday night bar hoppers. And then it doesn’t really matter how I got here, does it? All that matters is that I’m young and white, that I like eating macarons, and that my house has (at least) doubled in value since we bought it seven years ago.

Suddenly, I’m the enemy.

Sometimes I still feel at home in Over-the-Rhine; sometimes I don’t.
Sometimes I feel great about my investment in the neighborhood; sometimes I feel guilty about it, like my very presence signifies economic injustice.

All that has happened in my neighborhood in the past 12 years and all of my thoughts and feelings about it are too much and too many to share here.

Gentrification is a real thing. Affordable housing is a real concern. Equitable development is, indeed, an urgent matter. We need to be honest about how these issues affect the most vulnerable among us. But we also need to acknowledge that few things are as simple as “oppressor vs oppressed.”

The conversation about the issues facing my neighborhood and others like it need to be stripped of their unfair guilty-by-association politics so we can see each other as neighbors and friends. And that requires telling the stories about how we got here and why we want to stay. We are, after all, real people making real life decisions about how we invest our time and our money and our family life for the sake of our communities.

A community is a living eco-system and the parts all affect each other. There are both intended and unintended consequences of those decisions on the people around us. We need to be honest about how diversifying a neighborhood (socially, economically, etc.) will affect the quality of life as a whole. And we need to be honest about when the positive consequences outweigh the negative and vice versa.

Case in point:
The grocery store now sells organic milk.
But our old apartment now rents for $1800.

 

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

Class, Culture, and Race (and Racism)
How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis

My $13 Box of Macarons

Stay tuned!

 

OTR Housing: Families Need Not Apply

The issue of family-friendly housing and urban development is nothing new. It’s been an ongoing conversation in urban planning circles ever since the middle- and upper-classes decided they wanted to move back into the city and city planners decided it might be a good idea to entice them to do so.

Cities used to be full of housing stock that appealed to families of every demographic and income level. But the latter half of the 20th Century decimated our cities’ diversified housing by paving over workforce housing, tenement buildings, and large historic multi-family buildings with surface parking lots and corporate headquarters for commuter business owners and their commuter employees. The working class and middle class were now happy in their comfortable and spacious suburbs, the poor were shuffled into isolated and subsidized ghettos, and the wealthy urban dwellers ruled the urban core.

Times have changed and, responding to the desires of both a new generation of city-lovers and aging Boomers who no longer need the school systems the suburban tax-base supports, city planners and property developers have started taking a more diverse group of housing-seekers into consideration.

Supposedly, the people holding and renovating what remains of the available housing stock in my neighborhood, for example, are interested in leaving space for more than young urban professionals and wealthy empty-nesters.

Or so they say.

Take, as a case study of sorts, the recent experience of a friend of mine from the neighborhood.

A few years ago, this family purchased and began renovations on a small-ish multi-use property just a block off of the booming Vine St. business corridor. The building was completed a year or so later and the commercial space became a low-risk pop-up-shop venue. The two studio apartments on the second floor became rental units (and eventually Airbnb units). The family of six moved into the third floor.

The family’s living quarters is small.
One bedroom, two baths, a comfortable kitchen, small bits of living space, and a semi-finished attic flex space for storage and whatever else they need it for.

Time passed and, about 18 months after the family moved in, they decided it was time to sell the property. This was partially because they were facing a job change and wanted to relinquish some financial responsibility. Partially because they were tired and overwhelmed by managing both the commercial space and the rental units. And partially because they wanted a little more space for their family.

The property was listed for sale and my friend started hunting for rental housing in the neighborhood to line up for the family if the building sells.

Which brings me to the issue at-hand.

Long story short, my friend has been met with not one, not two, but three separate property management companies in Over-the-Rhine who will not rent an apartment to them because their rental policies will not allow more than four people in a two bedroom apartment (regardless of the square footage) and (surprise!) not a single 3-bedroom apartments exists in their portfolio.

Okay, so first of all:
This doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for my friend. She has a few options, including finding an independent landlord who has a single-family home or larger apartment to rent and doesn’t mind housing a larger family. But the chances are slim and the situation feels hopeless. For example: there is one 3-bedroom apartment (*ahem–a 2-bedroom with a study) currently available in the neighborhood, but it’s going rate is $3,000 a month.

But, even if she secures an apartment for her family, her situation illustrates a few important things that I’ve always said about the future of cities and of Over-the-Rhine, specifically.

– If urban planners and developers really want a vibrant, thriving urban core, they absolutely must make it more welcoming to families. I had some ideas a few years ago about how to attract and retain urban families and, were I to rewrite that post, I could probably add a few more.

There is a huge disparity between available housing for the highest and lowest income level residents when compared to what is available for middle-income families. My recent housing search in the 45202 zip code (excluding Mt Adams and East End) yielded zero rental units larger than 2 bedrooms. And there is not currently one condo or single-family home with more than 2 bedrooms selling for less than $240,000. (Most are listed between $500,000-$700,000.)

What does this mean?
This means that, apart from any low-income subsidized housing (which, I believe, is not publicly listed), assuming most prescribe to this “two to a bedroom” policy, there may be almost zero landlords in OTR willing to rent to a family with more than two children. And, if a family wants to purchase a 3-bedroom home instead of renting, they will need to be in the top 20% income bracket in our city. (Or, they can try their hand at purchasing vacant land to build on, but I could tell you another story or two about the nightmare that is for the average, middle-income, not in the OTR “in-group” resident.)

I’ve written more about this “missing middle” problem here and here because I saw it coming from a mile away. In fact, it’s perfectly illustrated by the fact that one of the largest in-the-works housing developments in our neighborhood, in an area of OTR that has historically been home to lower-income residents, does not seem to include a single 3-bedroom housing unit.

The people developing property in our neighborhood need a bigger, better vision for what a vibrant, diverse neighborhood actually looks like. It’s getting harder and harder to believe that any of these developers are motivated by anything other than the bottom line and what type/size housing unit can make them the most money. It’s all lip service. And it’s disappointing.

I read this article back in January about how cities could possibly design themselves out of the affordable housing crisis by bringing back the “missing middle” of housing. The idea struck me as so obvious and economical, but so “radical” that it seems impossible. Because, honestly, why would you build a reasonably-outfitted townhouse that sells for $220,000 when you can add a few faux-custom finishes and list it for $600,000? It would take a truly visionary homebuilder and developer to be so brave.

*As a sidenote, I am fascinated by the Betts-Longworth and City West districts of the West End for this very reason. They have the potential to be a model for a truly diverse, affordable neighborhood with all the amenities of urban living. I’d love to hear some thoughts about why City West seems to have flopped. I have some thoughts myself, but I don’t really know enough of the back story. It’s important to note, though, that real estate in these two districts has been moving faster in the past 2 years, housing values are rising, and they really could end up a (slow-moving) success story. It seems to be the commercial, not the residential, element that is holding it back.

 

And, on a larger scale, this “we can’t rent you an apartment because your family is too big” situation really begs some unfortunate questions about our American society, in general.

Among them:

Why do we think 1500-2,000 square feet is too small for a family of 6? My guess is that a lot of the single-family housing that has been lost in OTR over the last century was about that size and, at the time of use, was housing far more than 4 people. (Seriously, check this out.)

American families keep getting smaller and our houses keep getting larger. Look at the numbers. It’s absurd how much space we think we need these days. This is why developers don’t want to build 3-bedroom units; they would need to be huge to satisfy the desires of the average 21st Century American family.

And, trust me, the average wealthy family of four doesn’t want to live in a 2-bedroom home anyway. So trying to market a $300,000 2-BR, single-family home in OTR “for a family” is a lost cause. This is what leads me to believe that developers never wanted families in the first place. They are smarter than that.

Which begs the question:

Where on earth did Americans get the idea that children can not/should not share bedrooms? American families have absurd standards of privacy and personal space found in few places on the planet. If I want to let my four kids sleep in the same room, why is that a big deal? Sure, I know I’ll feel differently when my kids are teenagers and smell bad and want more privacy. But, families adapt as their needs change and good parents get creative with limited space (and resources). Shouldn’t it be up to the parents to decide what is best for their family? I mean, geez, some of my neighbors are living in one bedroom apartments with dogs the size of middleschoolers. But it’s not okay to throw an extra kid or two in a room with their sisters?

– And, then, anecdotally-speaking: Why is it now more socially acceptable to take your dog into the local coffeeshop or to the neighborhood bar than it is to live in a walk-up apartment with more than two children?

Welcome to OTR, circa 2016.
Families need not apply.

 

 

 

But Where Do You Park Your Car?

The three most frequent questions I’m asked by people (parents, specifically) who are curious about living downtown are:

“Where do you buy groceries?”

“Where do your kids attend school?”

“Where do you park your car?”

Of these three, the first two are easily reconcilable. I have good answers for both. But the third question kills the conversation pretty quickly as soon as I answer, “Well, I can usually find a spot within a few blocks.”

The parking situation in my neighborhood has become more and more of a headache in the past two years as A) new businesses have opened and non-residents have decided that OTR is the “place to be” and B) as the City instated new parking restrictions including more metered spaces, higher parking rates, extended hours of enforcement, and started actually enforcing current laws. Together, these have all have forced residents to compete for the few free spaces available. Whereas, five years ago, I could find a parking space on my own street just about any time of the day (except Final Friday), I now sometimes circle for 20 minutes if I want a nearby space and often park 3-4 blocks away. (More on why that’s a problem in a minute.)

Today, we are on the brink of a City Council decision about the fate of parking in OTR and the (likely) institution of a permit parking program that–in my opinion–is too little, too late.

But, back to the issue at hand.
For the average family, the parking issue is one of the main factors in deciding whether or not a place is truly livable, meaning a place that goes from pie-in-the-sky, “I’d love to live there someday, in another life” to an actual, potential place they can thrive as a family. 

I’ve heard many Cincinnati residents (including the Mayor himself, City Council members, and other OTR residents) write-off the parking issue with a naive and condescending “If you don’t want to pay for parking, just get rid of your car. You’re the one who chose to live downtown.” And, sure, in a perfect world or in a world-class city, it would be that easy. Heck, even in Cincinnati, it is possible for many people. But we are still a long way from having an infrastructure that supports a completely car-free life. Especially for families (those of us with more than just ourselves and our own stuff to transport around town).

So, let me explain a few reasons why inconvenient parking kills the urban living dream for the average family.

The distance between your parking space and your front door seems quite a bit more significant when you’re responsible for unloading after a family-sized grocery trip or now have to carry the sleeping babies that fell asleep while you circled the block for twenty minutes.

You cannot leave things in your car when you live in the city. Or, at least you should not. This includes that stroller you’d rather not bring in and out of the house twice a day and the groceries you’d rather just leave for a few hours while you get the kids inside the house for their nap. There is no garage to keep your car/things safe. Leave it and you take the chance of coming back to a broken window and a lost stroller.

Good luck getting friends and family to come visit you at your downtown home when there is no place to park. Other families with kids don’t want to walk six blocks from the nearest parking garage just to visit you. And Grandma doesn’t want to, either. Before too long, Uncle Elmer out in the suburbs will start hosting Easter again because it is just so much easier for everyone. And what about your babysitters? You’ll have to pay them an extra $2 an hour just to pay for their parking.

– There are definitely some housing units available with off-street or designated parking spaces, but these are at a premium and the added cost of the parking space is prohibitive for many families. Most young families I know are sacrificing at least part of an income (if not a complete income) to care for their young children. Many of them live on a strict budget. The difference between a $150k and $350k home to them is like the distance between Earth and Jupiter.

– The cost of paying for a garage space is the same way. An extra $60-95 a month might not be a huge deal to a couple with two full-time jobs and no one to feed other than themselves and a pet cat, but it’s just another unnecessary expense that a working- or middle-class family doesn’t want to deal with.

Have you ever driven an SUV down a tiny cobblestone alleyway? In homes with off-street parking, a family-sized vehicle simply cannot fit. Take us for example: we have the potential for a parking pad in our backyard. But, with three kids and a mother in-law who doesn’t drive, we need a 6+ passenger vehicle. Big cars and small alleys aren’t exactly a good match. For us, parking in the backyard would be a headache every single time.

– With young children in the house, you cannot “just leave the house for a second” to walk down the street and feed the meter. This is why I’d rather circle the block for twenty minutes than park at a metered spot (and why extended meter hours stink). This goes for babysitters, too. If my babysitter arrives in the morning and has to park at a meter, she’ll need to leave my house every few hours to feed the meter and avoid a ticket. With older kids, this is not a big deal. They can be left alone for a few moments. But what do you do when there is a sleeping baby upstairs and the parking meeting around the corner is about to expire? Or when there are three kids who you have to pack up in jackets and shoes to take with you around the corner to pay that meter? It’s obviously not impossible. But it’s obnoxious.

“Just get rid of your car” doesn’t work when there are large grocery trips and grandparents to visit. It doesn’t help when you have a sick child and need to be able to speed to the doctor at any moment. It doesn’t do the job when you have two or three kids who need to be at two different places clear across town within moments of each other. Now, sure, this could be argued as a matter of lifestyle choices. The in-laws could move within walking distance. You could do all of your shopping in small trips around the neighborhood. You could buy a $3000 cargo bike to replace your car. But, like I said, above, our city is just not at a place yet where being completely car-free is a practical decision for most families. Until it is, let’s stop pulling the “Just get rid of your car” card on people who really would like to find a way to make it work for their family.

Okay, now let me be frank for a second. 

My husband and I knew what we were getting into when we moved here. We knew that parking could be difficult. And for the past seven years, we’ve dealt with it as one of a few nuisances among the many benefits of city living. We have also adapted our lifestyle to make it easier on ourselves and, at this point, can go quite a few days without actually needing to use our family vehicle. But I’ll admit that there are times when I’ve been so angry with how hard it is to find a decent parking space that I take those laps around the block red-faced and cursing under my breath so my kids can’t hear.

I don’t consider us your “average family.” Your average family may have never moved here in the first place. And they most certainly are not going to move to place that almost requires playing the parking game we have these days in OTR.

So why does it matter? Do we really want a bunch of average families moving to the urban core of our city. 

Yes, absolutely.

And if you want a city that the average family actually considers livable, you have to build your city with them in mind. Amenities like grocery stores and affordable restaurants are key; healthy and thriving schools are an absolute necessity. Add the availability of family-sized housing that is affordable and offers off-street or near (affordable) parking, and they’ll be moving in droves. Trust me.

For now and for our city, I’m feeling a little helpless at the moment. Not about the neighborhood, in general, but about its livability for families like mine. High-cost developments and inflated market-rate housing costs have already priced-out most of my peers. Neighborhood schools don’t seem to be improving. And this ridiculous parking situation may, quite honestly, be the nail in the proverbial coffin for most working- and middle-class families.

I know that, from an economic standpoint, parking in busy urban districts can seem to be the quickest way to make a buck. Sure: raise the rates, increase the hours, charge visitors a pretty penny to visit our booming downtown. But we need to remember that it’s a city’s residents and business owners, not its visitors, that keep it alive. What our Mayor and City Council are saying to us right now is, basically, they care far more about making some extra cash than they do about ensuring that the urban core remains a livable community.

And that’s an awful shame.

Read This: The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs

I was very happy to discover this today, as I searched for a few links to include on my letter to Cincinnati’s City Council regarding proposed parking changes in my neighborhood. I might post that letter a bit later but, for now…

An excerpt:

“…cities desperately need conservatives. These are places that have been abandoned to the left for decades. Many urban dwellers are hungry for better government. They want a more responsive bureaucracy. They favor unwinding many of the stifling regulations and perverse subsidies that have built up over the years. They are angry with the political patronage systems run by a governing class that has been unchallenged for decades. Why would conservatives cede this ground so easily?

Read it here: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/the-conservative-case-against-the-suburbs/

Welcome to the Neighborhood

I’ve mentioned before that a lot of people give me the ol’ “Oh, I’d love to move downtown, but…”

“… but we love our kids’ school.”
“… but my husband/wife would never do it.”
“… but we don’t want to leave our perfect house.”

Etc.

So, then, what drives a family to actually pick up and move to the urban core? More than that: what motivates them to not just rent for a year to “test the waters,” but jump in head first and invest in a longterm residency by purchasing a property and then launching an entrepreneurial project to boot?

Let’s find out.

Meet the Bethunes.

When I met Levi Bethune, it was a brief “Hey, a friend told me I needed to meet you!” kind of moment. We had a few mutual friends who knew that, among other mutual interests, we both a) had a few kids and b) were into living downtown. Heather (his wife) wasn’t around at the time and I wasn’t sure when we’d run into each other again. But over the course of the next few months, I connected with Heather online and we started spending time together. It’s been a pleasure to know them through this exciting time for their family.

The short version of their OTR story is this:

Man lands a job in Cincinnati.
Man and wife sell their house and move to Cincinnati, with children in tow.
Man falls in love with OTR.
Wife begins to, as well.
The property hunt begins with strict parameters and, therefore, little hope.
Craigslist yields a magical buyer-seller relationship.
Rehab loan.
Permits, permits, more permits.
Hold-ups.
Construction begins.
And here we (well, they) are now:

Simple Space. Have you heard of it yet?

SS-Bethunes-Emily

The Bethunes (with friend/Simple Space partner Emily) via impulcity.

 

You see, what started as a small “what if we moved downtown?” inkling has grown into a full-on family business endeavor. And what could have been a simple rental unit or renovated single-family home is set to become an exciting community resource–a space for entrepreneurs, artists, party hosts, etc. to stretch their legs in a prime location but with a low-stress, short-term commitment.

You can read more about Simple Space itself at the above link. I’d rather focus for a second on what it’s like to be a woman/wife/mother who takes the leap from renting in the first-ring suburbs to committing long-term to the urban core.

What would drive a woman to move her family into OTR?

Well, I asked Heather a few questions to find out.

Whose idea what is to move to Over-the-Rhine?

“Initially, it was Levi. He had the pleasure of riding his bike around and through downtown on a near-daily basis to get from Northern Kentucky (where we currently rent) to his office at Longworth Hall. He was “romanced” by Cincinnati in this way… getting to experience all the alley ways and historic architecture up close and personal, interacting with people enough to start to recognize faces & names… it did something for him. He’s always loved cities, and Cincinnati has such a wealth of history, feels established and yet… isn’t overwhelming. Instead of being intimidating as big cities often are- Levi felt welcomed and in turn wanted to be a part of what’s happening in the heart of the city. Once he realized how he felt about it, and why, we started being more intentional as a family about spending more time downtown and in OTR. We wanted to see how our kids would respond to the urban atmosphere and also, of course, if I would love it as much as Levi did. And I did. Though my experience and perspective isn’t identical to his, I truly love Cincinnati and sense that I will only grow to love it more. I am drawn to cities for their intricacies and smart uses of small spaces. I love the creativity that cities can draw out of it’s inhabitants. I can’t wait to be one.”

Can you remember a moment when you realized “Yes, I want to live here?”

“I think I had several of those moments walking down a street with Levi and the kids on a beautiful day. That (alone) will do it.I am also completely in love with the architecture of OTR. I remember the first time I started to really look at the spaces above the store fronts and realize, “People live there! What must that be like to be able to just walk out your front door and go to ____ (wherever we had just come from)?” I know that’s a bit of a romaticized view but I think that’s okay. As with anywhere you live, you have to be a bit dreamy-eyed about some of it to balance out the challenges it poses (for instance, living in suburbia and having to load all your kids in a gas-guzzler to drive to ANY place you want to go because there is nothing but a mailbox within walking distance of your front door).”

What are you most looking forward to about living/working in OTR?

“Walking to as much of our everyday living as possible. Off the top of my head: parks, library and little shops like the shoe repair or hardware store. I’m also excited to be near the hub of public transit – especially the streetcar. Once that’s in it will definitely expand our borders and make it very easy to shop at Findlay Market and enjoy the riverfront more. I’m also really excited to own again. We bought our first house in Virginia only a year before moving here, and since selling, we’ve rented. We’ve never owned a building and commercial space before, so I know we’ve got a lot to learn. But I’m excited to do that and to be a part of the story of Over the Rhine.”

Would you like to know more about the Bethune Family and their new creative child, Simple Space? “Like” them on Facebook and, if you’re so inclined, you can contribute to their Indie GoGo campaign. (Don’t worry. Donations go specifically to the commercial event/retail space, not to outfitting their private residence.)

Welcome to the neighborhood, Levi and Heather!

Parking Permits, Grocery Trips, and The Dream of a Car-Free City

So how, exactly, are we going to pay for the operational costs of our new streetcar system? That’s the question of the age in Cincinnati, isn’t it?

A few solutions seem obvious to me: rider fares, sponsorships, and minimal tax increases in the immediate area (known as a TIF district). Beyond that, I’m not city-savvy enough to even pretend to have any easy solutions.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Cranley made a seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion that the City simply charge downtown and OTR residents a couple hundred bucks a year for a residential parking permit and that those funds be used to operate the streetcar. I’m not going to waste time making judgements about the Mayor’s intent in proposing this solution. Instead, let me offer my perspective on the idea itself.

First, OTR absolutely needs a residential parking program.
This has been a topic of conversation for a few years now as the development in the neighborhood brings more and more non-residents into the neighborhood and as more employees need a place to park during open hours. On a personal note, the difference between the ease of parking four years ago and the situation today is nearly night and day. And with a 600-seat music venue opening around the corner, I’m preparing for a rude awakening for all of us in a few weeks.

The folks at UrbanCincy.com think that the Mayor’s idea is reasonable. (You can read the editorial here.) The basic gist of the editorial is that driving is already subsidized in many ways and that it’s reasonable to begin asking residents to actually bear the cost of their driving habits. They compare the average monthly parking rates in the area to market rates in other cities. And they suggest that this could be implemented city-wide with the funds being used for various developments in other areas.

I’m actually sympathetic to the idea of charging residents for parking permits and, in some ways, I agree with the UrbanCincy.com editorial. But I think there are a few errors here.

We know that the $300 suggested permit fee is hundreds of dollars above the yearly fees in other cities. Some might suggest that the lower fees of other cities are too low and that they don’t even come close to matching the current subsidies. But I argue that, even if that is the case, it’s still unreasonable. It’s unreasonable because it’s asking residents of our city, which is only now catching up to comparably-sized cities to pay exponentially more for the benefits found in cities that are steps ahead of us. It’s essentially asking us to pay 22nd Century prices for 20th Century amenities.

You might say, like UrbanCincy.com, that the $25 a month that it would cost is still significantly lower than the average monthly parking rate (on lots and in garages) in the neighborhood, which is about $89. Well, yes, you’re right. But that $40-110 a month pays for security and availability. My $300 would not guarantee me a spot anywhere near my home. It would simply guarantee a spot somewhere on a “resident-only parking” street in the neighborhood which, with increased meter hours on every other street, might not mean much at all. Heck, we can’t even find the means to enforce street parking restrictions and vehicle-related crimes as they stand now. Do you really think the city is going to work hard to protect my $300 parking space?

Now, if we’re actually suggesting that every resident in every neighborhood with publicly-funded transit (including road improvements) is going to be asked to pay the same fees, I would get behind that. But good luck getting city-wide resident support for a $300 yearly fee to park on city streets. A more reasonable fee that is comparable to other forward-thinking cities seems like a better idea.

Second, the Mayor was quick to suggest that low-income residents of OTR would not have to pay these fees. So, a couple living in a $300,000 condo (that did not already have a safe, convenient parking garage that they are willing to pay for) would pay the $300 fee and then any random resident who can prove they get mail at an OTR address but don’t make enough money to pay the $300 can park for free? Let’s assume that by “low-income,” we mean the standard measurements used for subsidized housing in OTR, which is essentially, those making less than $35,000 a year. (I talked about this more in a recent post about “affordable housing.”) But what about those making between $35,000-120,000 a year? You know, the working- and middle-class residents? There is a reason many of us don’t pay for monthly parking spaces: we can’t afford them.

I’m not one to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, so I’m not willing to write off the whole idea. I do think the City should institute an official residential parking permit program. But I think the rate must be reasonable, attainable for middle-class residents, and must be instituted in all areas of the city where the City is paying for transportation improvements.

Lastly, let me speak from a mother’s perspective.

As much as I’m sympathetic to the young urbanist agenda for car-free, rail-strong cities, it’s important to remind everyone that a strong urban core must make room for families, not just empty-nesters, yuppies, and the childless creative class. Joel Kotkin who is always good at upsetting people with his views on urbanism, said it perfectly in a City Journal article a few years ago:

“In California, particularly, state and local officials push policies that favor the development of apartments over single-family houses and town houses. But by trying to cram people into higher-density space, planners inadvertently help push up prices for the existing stock of family-friendly homes. Such policies have already been practiced for decades in the United Kingdom, making even provincial cities increasingly unaffordable, as British social commentator James Heartfield notes. London itself is among the least affordable cities in the world. Even middle-class residents have been known to live in garages, converted bathrooms, and garden sheds.

“…Ultimately, everything boils down to what purpose a city should serve. History has shown that rapid declines in childbearing—whether in ancient Rome, seventeenth-century Venice, or modern-day Tokyo—correlate with an erosion of cultural and economic vitality. The post-family city appeals only to a certain segment of the population, one that, however affluent, cannot ensure a prosperous future on its own. If cities want to nurture the next generation of urbanites and keep more of their younger adults, they will have to find a way to welcome back families, which have sustained cities for millennia and given the urban experience much of its humanity.” – “The Childless City”

But, why does this matter? What is the correlation between parking and families?
Well, let me speak from personal experience: the logistics of raising a family in the city can be really hard. Particularly when you have to consider transporting multiple bodies and nightmares like unloading a trunk full of groceries with three kids in the car and no available parking spaces.

My children and I have definitely adapted to a semi-pedestrian lifestyle, can go days without hopping in a car, and are accustomed to walking a few blocks from car to front door. And my kids know no different. So, many of my childless friends think I should just get rid of the car and save myself the $300 and the bother of finding a convenient place to park.

It’s that simple, right?
Oh gosh, I wish it was.

Maybe for a family with 2 or fewer children; maybe with no family to visit in the suburbs and across the country; maybe without my husband’s side-work that requires complete mobility; maybe in a city that isn’t surrounded by hills that only an olympic cyclist could pedal with kids in tow; maybe in a city where ZipCar had vehicles that would actually fit a family (or even mentioned kids or carseats on their website!!); maybe in a city where any of my closest friends were actually willing/able to live in the urban core where we could walk to see them rather than drive.

But I digress.

Look, I’m not complaining. I knew what I was getting into when I decided to stick it out here, kids and all. So, let me clarify: I don’t think that true, urban living is ever truly “convenient” in the modern sense. And I believe, completely, that anyone can adapt to a pedestrian lifestyle which becomes more convenient in many other ways. But I think making car ownership an impossibility for so many of us, based on its cost alone, means cutting off a demographic that is too valuable to the city to lose.

There are some magical places in the world where a large family can live in the urban core without a vehicle–and without a $250,000 income. (Seriously, you’ve heard of this woman, right?) But we don’t live in one of those places. We live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is still struggling to rally residents around the thought of a simple commuter lightrail line. Heck! It’s taken years to coerce one of the country’s largest grocers to open a legitimate urban-platform store in its home city!

Our urban ininfrastructure is far, far behind, my friends.
We may get there some day and I hope I’m here when we do. But we are not there yet.
And if we think that charging a few thousand residents $300 a year to park on city streets is going to usher our city into the next era of urban renaissance, we are wrong.

I think our attention needs to focus more holistically on creating a livable city for everyone–all incomes, all demographics–where people don’t just come for $10 hotdogs, but can actually live and shop and raise kids and open businesses in the same place where the Symphony rehearses and the Reds play.

This is the kind of city I want to build.
Not one for the elite; one for my children.
And a $300 parking permit might not seem like a huge deal in the entirety of the transit issue, but it’s just one more example of how the urban middle-class of our city may be destined for extinction.

And, if there is no place for the urban middle-class in Cincinnati, then maybe I’m in the wrong city.

 

 

What’s Missing From the “Affordable Housing” Conversation?

This past week, in Cincinnati, Facebook and Twitter were on fire with comments and conversation about a Cincinnati Enquirer article that revealed the Over-the-Rhine Community Council (OTRCC) is trying to put an end to 3CDC‘s monopoly on the development of City-owned vacant properties in OTR. I’ve been planning on writing about similar issues (specifically, my evolving thoughts on the implications of gentrification), but I’m putting that aside for a while longer to write a bit about the issues addressed in the article.

I’m going to try to be brief because, gosh, there is a whole lot to say and I’m not qualified to speak about most of it. I’m just going to speak as an “insider,” as someone who started working in OTR right about the time when 3CDC began their development and someone who has lived here for the past 6 years. And, also, as someone who has secured affordable housing in an increasingly-difficult urban real estate market. I’m the first to admit that there are many other residents who are more qualified than I am to speak about OTR’s housing situation and the specifics of housing subsidies. But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

(A few nights ago, I wrote a longer, more comprehensive post about this issue, but decided to condense it before I posted it today. I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped to be. Sorry!)

Here we go.

There are three really important questions missing from the conversation about housing in downtown Cincinnati. Let me draw out the conversation here and you can let me know if you see the void, too.

The conversation at-hand (and in the article) is about the region of Over-the-Rhine north of Liberty Street and whether or not 3CDC should have first dibs on the development of various properties that the city owns. One of the primary concerns is “affordable housing.” But let’s forgo the specifics for a moment and speak more broadly about the issue of urban housing, affordability, and what is currently at stake.

What does the term “affordable housing” actually mean? Well, according to the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), it means housing costs that do not exceed 30% of a household’s income. But although the term “affordable housing” is a very broad term that applies to people at all income levels, those who concern themselves with fighting for affordable housing are usually speaking on behalf of those who are most vulnerable to rising prices. Because, really, when your income rises above a certain amount–$150k a year, for example–you could essentially choose to live most anywhere you want and find something that would be considered “affordable.” Usually, the term “affordable housing” is used in conversations about housing that is subsidized with public money to make up the difference between market rate prices and what residents can actually afford. (A local organization, the Affordable Housing Advocates, has some great fact sheets posted on their website that help explain the nuts & bolts of how this works out.)

Let me (try to) explain how this works in numbers, using the example of eligibility on the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) website.

As best I understand it, nationwide, there are a few levels of qualifying income for HUD subsidized housing and they vary from 30-80% of the median family income (MFI) for their particular area. But, in Cincinnati, the vast majority of people qualifying for the available subsidized housing are between the 30-50% of MFI level. The MFI in Cincinnati is about $71k a year and the average family size in the US is currently hovering around 2.55 people. So, using CMHA’s guildelines, a qualifying Cincinnati household could make between $17k-35k a year*. A single earner making $17k a year would make just over $8 an hour, a little over minimum wage. According to the data found here, the average full-time worker at this income level has less than a high school education. Now, for $35k a year, a full-time worker would be paid about $16.5 an hour.

So, there is your average HUD-qualifying family.

* I should have clarified that, according to the CHMA guidelines, the baseline for qualification is based on a four-person family. You can see the CHMA site to see how the income amount is pro-rated based on family size. Technically, my income amounts for a 3-person family are off by a few thousand dollars a year, but not enough to invalidate my estimates.

When we hear conversations about cities and developers guaranteeing “affordable housing,” we are usually talking about housing that this kind of family (as well as those who fall economically below this scenario) can afford at 30% of their gross income. So, to get specific according to government standards of affordability, affordable housing for this family may fall anywhere between $425/month and $875/month. If the market rate of rental units in any given area rises above these amounts, the government can step in and subsidize the cost for the family by either providing discounted housing or by paying a Section 8 landlord the difference in the amounts. Cities can also force developers into contractual obligations to provide this subsidized housing.

Now, let’s explore the rest of the people in our city and what would be considered “affordable” for them.

If we divide the US population into fifths, the lowest-income 2/5 of the population fall into the HUD-qualifying category ($0-35k/year). The next 2/5 fall into the “about average” median income category (which is 60-150% of MFI or about $36-100k/year). Remember, the MFI in Cincinnati is $71k a year. So, in numbers, affordable housing for the average family in Cincinnati would be $1,775/month.

What can the top 20% of earners afford to pay for housing? Well, the top fifth of Cincinnati households earn about $101k a year or more. Using the lowest earners in this bracket as our example, this high-income family could afford at least $2500/month in housing costs.

How does this all translate into the cost of home ownership? At the highest end of the lowest 2/5 income bracket here, affordability translates–roughly–into payments on a <$100k mortgage (including taxes and other costs). In the middle 2/5 bracket, we’re talking about payments on a $100k-300k+ mortgage. And, in the top fifth percentile, the price can increase astronomically.

What does this all mean and why does it matter?
Let’s bring it back to Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine specifically.

And I’ll try to wrap this up as quickly as I can.

What is currently available in market rate housing in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati?

For Rent (just a snapshot, obviously): http://www.trulia.com/for_rent/5427_nh/map_v

For Sale (again, a snapshot): http://www.trulia.com/for_sale/5427_nh/map_v

Unless you’re checking those links in the year 2020 and the market has either crashed or soared, you might be saying to yourself, “Hm. Over-the-Rhine still seems pretty affordable to me.”

Until you look at this: 3CDC’s available housing stock.
A quick search for available units under $300k yields only two condos with two-bedrooms, both around $250k. The rest of the options are studios and one-bedroom condos. Their site does not list apartment rental pricing (perhaps because the market moves so quickly or because so few units are actually available right now). And there are currently no single-family homes available. (Though their website lists them as priced from $290k.)

So, now, back to the article.
Why is the Over-the-Rhine community up in arms about 3CDC developing more of this housing north of Liberty?
That’s actually a legitimate question seeing as 3CDC has done a fantastic job at increasing the economic viability of a few other areas of OTR. They are fiscally responsible, efficient, and historically-sensitive. And the overall safety, beauty, and quality of life in the neighborhood has undeniably improved. Anyone who claims otherwise is either delusional, has never been here, or was never here before 2005. But the OTRCC (You can read their letter to City Council here.) and other groups concerned with the housing situation in OTR see a problem and I think they’re on to something.

There are many properties sitting vacant and neglected in OTR, especially in the area north of Liberty St. And my understanding is that City Council is considering giving 3CDC a blanket permission to develop many of them however they see fit. But, 3CDC is not developing OTR for the actual, average resident of OTR (which has been, for the past few decades, a low income demographic). And they are not creating affordable housing for the other residents of Cincinnati who would like to move to OTR. They are developing OTR for the people who will buy those beautiful $300,000 condos you see on their website. The top fifth of the population. The $100k+ earners. The doctors, lawyers, and executives. The ones with .5 children or no children at all. Or the ones who have already raised their kids or retired early with their pockets full and sold the big family house in the suburbs and moved here for a new season of their lives.

You know the adage “if you build it, they will come?” Well, they built it. And, boy, they are coming in droves.

So, can you blame the rest of the community for wanting a piece of the action? Some of my neighbors have lived here since long before 3CDC incorporated. And they want access to the properties that the City of Cincinnati is poised, ready to hand-over to 3CDC for another manifest destiny-type of neighborhood overhaul. And they want the new developments and homes and shops and restaurants to look more like them.

So, it sounds like I agree with OTRCC, right?
Well, I do.
Sort of.

I think that 3CDC should start bowing-out of the development and let a more diverse group of individuals and businesses take ownership of some other regions of the neighborhood. And I think the City needs to find a way to release some of their holdings to responsible parties that don’t have multimillion dollar budgets. But when I hear the rally cry of OTRCC and I hear them say “we want more affordable housing,” I know that it’s far too difficult for a government to guarantee actual, market-rate affordability and that their only solution will be “subsidized housing.” And then I see the proposed “solution” to the problem, which is that the City will make 3CDC sign a contact that guarantees a certain percentage of the new housing is affordable for low-income residents, and I go—

“Wait, wait. Aren’t we missing something here!?”

 

So, tell me, what’s missing from the conversation about affordable housing?

I think there are three important questions we are not asking.

First-
What are the implications of an urban core with no affordable housing for the average median family? You know, the middle 2/5 of Cincinnati households with full-time wage earners who keep the economy afloat by bearing the brunt of the physical work, skilled labor, trades, and small, community-oriented businesses? Where is the average family going to go when 50% of the housing in OTR is subsidized for those below $35k and the rest is at a market price that is rising so rapidly that it will be unattainable in only a few years? And what about a family with more than 1 child? What will be available for them when anything not subsidized is either a one-bedroom, $150k condo or a $350k+ single-family home (like the ones 3CDC has already sold!)?

A common misconception is that middle-class families don’t want to live in the urban core. But this is simply not the case. Remember: if you build it, they will come. And if you don’t think that the most (economically) sustainable way to build an urban core is to build it for the hard-working middle-class, you are crazy. In January of last year, I wrote a bit about the possibility that urban revitalization in Cincinnati would force out the urban middle class. This issue is even more pressing now that vacant or undeveloped properties are at a premium (and held hostage by the City and by developers) and finished, rehabbed properties are unaffordable for the average median family.

There will always be subsidized housing in cities (even if not with public money) because good people will always speak for the ones who can’t speak for themselves. But there will not always be actual, affordable, pay-out-of-your-pocket housing for the rest of us. It’s those of us in the middle who will have to leave.

 

Second-
Does subsidized housing alleviate the burden of poverty for working families, or does it simply perpetuate it?
Think of it this way: if you were currently living in Section 8 housing in an area like OTR, increasing your income by $20,000 a year could easily disqualify you for subsidized housing (along with other available goverment aid). This would push you into that middle-income no-man’s land of affordable housing and make it nearly impossible to afford your current neighborhood.

Basically, subsidized low-income housing is a trap. And it’s easy to understand why so many people get stuck there. Why would anyone finish high school, attend college, apply for a higher-paying job, or encourage a spouse to find employment when it could mean being stuck in the middle-class where no one is looking out for you and you don’t always have the means to look out for yourself? Losing a housing subsidy may force a family to relocate completely out of their neighborhood, away from friends, family, and a wealth of job and educational opportunities.

Please tell me we can come up with a better option than subsidies.

 

Third-
Why aren’t we diverting more support to increasing home ownership among the working poor and low income families, rather than providing supplemental rent support? After all, the benefits of home ownership on families, children, and communities have been touted since The American Dream was first envisioned. I understand that short-term and emergency housing is necessary for some. But, surely there are many among the “working poor” would would rather find a way into home ownership than continue renting. If you ask me (and I plan on writing about this eventually), a goalpost of “gentrification” should be the economic mobility of all residents. In other words, how can we create an urban core where families stuck in cycles of poverty aren’t just placated there, but are actually moved upward and into self-sufficiency, while still being able to live anywhere they want for as long as they want?

 

 

There are still hundreds of properties left in OTR (as well as in Pendleton, the West End, and Mt Auburn) that would be fantastic opportunities for middle-income residents to develop businesses and create family homes in the urban basin of Cincinnati. And there are many good people with great ideas who would gladly take on the task. But there seems be a deep chasm between the desire of those who would and the resources of those who can. And, realistically, why would developers like 3CDC sell a property (that they bought for next to nothing) to a middle-income earner at $20k (for them to develop or renovate) when they could just as easily develop it themselves and sell it for $600k to a wealthy retiree?

I would love to see a stronger urban middle-class in Cincinnati. I think it’s absolutely necessary for the positive movement in Cincinnati to continue. (Read this 2009 piece by Joel Kotkin for a nationwide perspective.)

That’s why I don’t want “more affordable housing.” Instead, I want more opportunities for the working- and middle-class to develop a homegrown, economically viable community of their own in the urban core. And I believe that, when that happens, the fluid movement of all residents between income levels and social strata will be possible. And this is what is truly missing from the conversation about housing in downtown Cincinnati.

Thanks to folks like 3CDC, OTR is now viable enough to be the perfect ground for an experiment in what would happen if the people who “would if they could” finally get to.

The City of Cincinnati and 3CDC are holding the cards for the next phase of development here. I’m excited/scared/curious to see what the next ten years will bring here in Over-the-Rhine. And I’m hoping folks like me find a way to stick around and see it all happen.

 

Read this: News from Elsewhere

A few excellent articles worth sharing:

 

1. Here’s How Much Money You Must Earn To Buy A Home In 25 Big US Cities via Business Insider

Although this doesn’t seem to take into account the enormous amounts of debt and extravagant living expenses of most Americans, it does point to the fact that homeownership is relatively affordable for most of us. In Cincinnati, where the average home is just over $100k, “the American dream” is well within reach.

2. Pigs and Chickens Save Struggling Kansa School via World

I might not be a fan of standardized schooling, in general, but I could get behind an agricultural-based school. I wonder what this would do in an urban setting in the Midwest?

3. Chicago Aims to Beat Detroit on Horse-Drawn Carriage Ban via NextCity

Our city has a few horse-drawn carriages in the Central Business District and, as a downtown resident, I’ve heard varied opinions about them. This article offers an interesting discussion about the issue and how it’s playing out in two other cities.

4. The Yuppie Price Index for Services via Locality

Cincinnati was not included in this list (I wonder why?), but it’s interesting nonetheless. What exactly does it cost to be a yuppie in this city?

5. The Case for Big Cities, in 1 Map via the Washington Post

In 31 states, one or two metro areas account for the vast majority of economic output in the state.  Those numbers make clear that while you may like to hate on big cities, you — and we — need them.

It’s hard to ignore such striking facts. I would love to see one done on a local level. There’s got to be some Cincinnati-based data analyst willing to put together a similar study (and infographic!) for our region…

 

 

Enjoy!