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.

 

 

 

Is the Urban Middle Class Destined for Extinction?

Blogger Aaron M. Renn (aka: The Urbanophile) posted a link on Twitter to an interesting New York Times article that questions the affordability of Manhattan real estate for middle-income residents. The article discusses how market rates have shifted in the past 40 years, the difference between market rate and rent-regulated housing, and the near complete void of anything market rate that is affordable to the average family.

You can read the complete article here.

As a property-owner in an area of Cincinnati that is experiencing a renaissance, this issue hits really close to home. My husband and I are firmly planted in the middle-class. And we benefited from an opportunists’ real estate market a few years ago. But, were we to try to find a similar home now, it would be very difficult, maybe impossible. Heck, even a significant raise in taxes might make our home unaffordable.

Urban revitalization is a risky endeavor. But when we talk about the dangers of gentrification, we usually talk about how it will effect the poor, the homeless, those who depend on Section 8 and other “affordable housing” situations. We rarely talk about the way it will effect the rest of us–the working class and the middle class, those who benefit greatly from the amenities and accessibility of the urban environment. When the difference between the costs of subsidized housing and market-rate housing continues to increase, will there be anything left for the rest of us?

In a city like New York City, the middle class was being phased out decades ago. Am I crazy to think that Cincinnati could be inching toward the same problem, even if if happens on a much smaller scale? Similar to the outlying boroughs of NYC, there will still be neighborhoods of Cincinnati in which average families can purchase homes and rent affordable apartments. But, what about those of us who actually want to live downtown?

Some other things to consider:

-Let’s be honest: Having a family changes everything.

“One way to stay in Manhattan as a member of the middle class is to be in a relationship. Couples can split the cost of a one-bedroom apartment, along with utilities and takeout meals. But adding small roommates, especially the kind that do not contribute to rent, creates perhaps the single greatest obstacle to staying in the city.”- O’Leary, The New York Times

Since I believe that strong families are so important for the health of a community, I believe it’s absolutely necessary that there be a place for families to live in vibrant, thriving cities.

-Employers can help. It’s not unheard of for large employers–universities, hospitals, corporations, etc.–to purchase property and rent to employees at subsidized rates to aid in hiring, relocation, and job stability. What if event smaller businesses did this? What if there was a resurgence of business owners living within walking distance of their businesses and providing reduced-rate housing for their employees?

-There has to be a way to get in on the ground-level of development. One way that middle-income families make it work in Manhattan is that they have been around long enough that they secured their real estate before prices soared. They have, essentially, been grandfathered-in to the Manhattan lifestyle. Cincinnati’s downtown is still relatively affordable, but it may not always be. If you’re anything like me, you could not afford the new built-to-suit single-family homes in Over-the-Rhine. But many of us could possibly afford one of the remaining vacant properties that are ready for renovation. Securing these properties can be tricky and finding loans for their rehabilitation even trickier. So, it reasons to say that cities who wish to preserve a thriving middle class must encourage entrepreneurship and provide the means for early investment by those who have staying-power in their community.

I’m curious to know whether all cities experience this phenomena of a disappearing middle class and how they cope. I’d also love to know more about the rent-regulated properties in NYC. Who regulates them and what does it take to get ahold of a property? I’m also curious how Section 8 housing plays into the issue and when the number of government housing subsidies actually works against the working class to limit their housing opportunities.

Anyone want to chime in?