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.

 

 

 

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Gentrification And The Rest of Us

Such a loaded word, isn’t it?
Depending on what circles you run in, gentrification can either elicit thoughts of boutique clothiers and unintelligibly-named restaurants or Manifest Destiny and displaced natives.

In my neighborhood, the debate is hot.
Is gentrification the savior of urban neighborhoods or the worst white-on-black crime since Jim Crow?

Concerning the issue in general, I’m pretty sure I’ve come to a few conclusions about it. Among them:

– I believe that, as a whole, economic diversity in a neighborhood is a positive thing that benefits all residents. Development should be encouraged because development diversifies the economic base of a neighborhood and increases economic mobility in residents. (For an interesting study on the difference between economic mobility in a low-income neighborhood compared to an economically diverse neighborhood, read this: City Observatory- A New Look at A Neighborhood Change.)

– I believe that in the City of Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine is an extremely important neighborhood for the vitality and viability of the urban core and the city as a whole. So even though I generally prefer grassroots development, I am willing to entertain the idea that, for such a strategic and iconic neighborhood, it may have been appropriate to “force the hand” of development via City investments and incentives. (To what extent is another question entirely. I addressed it, briefly, in a letter to City Council two years ago.)

– My memories may only be 12 or so years old, but the difference on a mass scale between the OTR neighborhood pre-2004 (when the City and 3CDC started major investments) and today is stark. It is, in many pockets of the neighborhood (though not all), like night and day. Many long-term OTR residents talk about the “good old days” of the neighborhood as if they were completely blind to its blight and decay. I have no doubt in my mind that many of the residents of OTR pre-2004 loved their neighborhood, supported each other, and felt “at home” here. I know some of these long-term residents. I am glad they are here and I hope they stay forever. They are good neighbors but that doesn’t mean it was “a good neighborhood.” There are lovable parts and people in any community, even in places with high vacancy, high crime, and poverty-level income. I believe their strong community bond and sense of co-ownership of OTR existed because of and in response to the immense need for stabilization in a volatile environment, not because they lived together in a model Sesame Street community. Basically, they needed each other.

No one owns a neighborhood and every neighborhood changes over time. This is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s simply the way things are. Unless you’ve got the resources to buy up the whole neighborhood, you are always just a small part of a much bigger picture and will always be vulnerable to having your neighborhood change before your very eyes. White yuppies weren’t the first people in OTR and neither were low-income and working-class African Americans. It is unfortunate and sometimes painful to be the one whose neighborhood no longer resembles the neighborhood you loved, but you are not the first and you won’t be the last.

 

But what does this all mean?
I am confident with my ideological positions about gentrification, but they don’t tell the whole story because the story of a neighborhood is as much (or more) about the people as it is about the quality of the public parks or the crime rate or the bar : resident ratio.

Honest conversations about gentrification flip past ideology pretty quick because the primary opposition to gentrification is rarely ideological–it’s personal. It’s experiential. It’s the feeling a resident gets when he surveys his neighbors or walks to the store in the morning. It’s the contrast between the memories of “home” ten years ago and the reality of home today.

And this is where the gentrification debate gets difficult because, even with a strong ideological commitment to the kind of development it brings, it’s hard to deny the experience of living in a gentrifying neighborhood is… troublesome.

At least it is if you have your ear to the ground.

There are a lot of legitimate frustrations with the way my neighborhood’s major developments have transpired over the past 10 years. Or, I should say, how the residents without power or control in the neighborhood have experienced these changes.

For example:

– Developments have been almost completely driven by outside investment and influence with a lot of placating and patronizing neighborhood input sessions that don’t seem to make a difference.

– The cultural representation of these new developments is distinctly Anglo-centric and high-cost. For such an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood, this is a problem.

– The vast majority of new developments have been entertainment-focused rather than community need-driven. (Boldly illustrated by a new boutique hamburger joint whose slogan is “What the neighborhood needed.” Fantastic burgers; terribly insulting slogan.)

– There is an awfully small group of people holding ownership of a significant portion of the collateral in the neighborhood. These few gatekeepers are, literally, standing between individual residents and smaller, privately-owned development companies designing their own neighborhood. Those who have secured affordable development property (or business leases) have likely brokered a relationship with these gatekeepers. If you’re not in the in-group, you’re out of luck. (As evidenced by the number of business owners opening multiple businesses within blocks of each other while other potentially viable entrepreneurs stand by.)

-Developments have happened so quickly that the infrastructure of the neighborhood simply cannot meet the demands of the influx of visitors to the neighborhood. Case in point: parking. It’s just a joke at this point

-Property values rise. Quickly. Which is great if you have the resources to buy and sell at a whim or if you were just biding your time until you could sell your house at a gain and leave the neighborhood. But for many of us, it means being priced out of our own neighborhood and knowing that, even if we decided to sell for the gain, we’d never be able to come back. The neighborhood has outgrown us. All real estate is now either inflated market value homes or subsidized low-income housing and there is no room for those of us in the middle. (See this and this for more of my very unprofessional opinion.)

 

Basically, when the majority of neighborhood development is done by outsiders (or those who feel like or seem like outsiders) and is done so quickly that there is little room for diversity, community input, and organic growth, the experience of gentrification becomes troublesome. Residents feel like visitors in their own neighborhood.

It doesn’t matter if you are black or white or if you’ve been here ten years or thirty. It’s hard to live in a neighborhood that no longer resembles the one you fell in love with. Or the one that raised you. Losing control sucks, no matter who you are.

My goal is not to minimize the experience of people who may have actually been victimized in some way by gentrification, because I know they exist, but to say that “I get it” and “I hear you.”

And to say that it should be okay to talk about gentrification ideologically, in a way that legitimizes the value of development and economic diversity, but to still honor the personal nature of neighborhood living and the experience of the people living there.

I don’t want to fight gentrification because, in a neighborhood like ours, it was probably necessary. But I want to to fight for a more equitable, viable neighborhood that resembles more the people who live and breathe it each day and less the ones who come for the impossible-to-pronounce charcuterie and aolis.

What would OTR look like if it had been allowed a slower, more organic growth?
Would you still visit?

 

(Just for kicks some day, do a slow walk up and down Vine St., between 12th St. and 14th., then compare it to Main St., between 12th St. and Liberty St., and see the many differences between a quick-growth and slow-growth business district. Which do you prefer? Where would you rather live? Why?)

 

(Mostly) Unrelated Thoughts

I haven’t said much recently. But our first “real snow” fell yesterday in Cincinnati and I figured I’d use the quiet and calm of the snowy days to finally put a few thoughts together.

The past few months have been rough. I don’t want to go into the specifics here because it’s already been processed and the funk is (hopefully) moving on its way soon enough. But the difficult days have led to a lot of reflecting and self-assessment and big questions about identity and calling.

For as long as I’ve been self-aware enough to realize it, my biggest identity “trap” has always been the question of achievement. This appears in the form of questioning my contribution to the world, how my achievements measure up to those of my peers, and what my career/art/lifestyle resume would say. The big questions come back to me every few months, it seems, and I’ve (mostly) learned to talk them down. I’ve learned the error in valuing myself based on these things alone. And I’ve learned to recognize the way it negatively affects my relationship with the people around me.

But I still want to know that I am “making a difference.” That my contribution matters.

My oldest child turned six last month. I am crazy about my son and I am really enjoying these years of devotion to him and his sisters. But when those questions of personal achievement creep up on me, it’s hard to quantify the value of these years.

My kids are healthy, happy, and thriving.
But are a few decent kids really enough of a contribution?
Will I let it be enough?

I’ve also been thinking a lot about public expression, about social media, about the things we say and do and show online and why we do it. Why do we take so many photographs of ourselves? Of our children? Of the hip clothes we wore today or our newest home gadget or the awesome meal we just made? Why do I feel the need to make an “official statement” about every news story and viral conversation? Does the world really need to know what I think about women wearing yoga pants? (The answer: no.)

This has all underscored, to me, how desperately disconnected we all are. The world of online validation does not make me feel better about myself, how well I executed our last meal, and how well I dress my children. It just makes me feel lonely. Because, you see, I don’t want to show you a picture of last night’s meal or a picture of my kids. I want you to share that meal with me at our table. To talk with me, in real time, about the news and the world and what I think about women wearing yoga pants. And I want you to know my kids. I want you to hear my son’s jokes and my daughters’ songs.

I want to learn how to experience life with other people–not just show them my life online. But I’ve noticed that digital prowess does not translate into social capital. And it doesn’t breed true community. I am not a better wife, mother, or friend thanks to my online persona. In fact, I am sometimes worse because of it. I actually find it harder to connect in real life.

Six years ago, I was staring a new baby in the eyes, amazed by how much I could love someone I didn’t even know. I’m learning that it doesn’t matter if the world of Instagram thinks I love him. It doesn’t matter how many pictures I take of him or memories I keep tucked in a box under the stairs. Time is short and things move fast. He needs to know that I love him now.

It’s the same with all relationships–my husband, my family, my friends, my neighborhood, and my city.

(Somewhat) related: I have a few friends who are trying to navigate the world of dating in their 30’s. And dating today is, apparently, quite a bit different from dating even twenty years ago. Men don’t call. Everyone texts. Relationships begin online and don’t transition well into real life and real conversations.

My heart breaks for my friends who are single and want a partner, but can’t seem to connect with anyone. And, yet, here I am. Married to a wonderful man. And I choose to disengage for the sake of self-preservation and emotional independence. It seems silly, doesn’t it? Silly and sad.

We are so blessed and we don’t even know it.

Have you been to Over-the-Rhine lately?
This neighborhood is alive, so alive that I sometimes feel like a kid watching the merry-go-round at the playground, not sure I move quickly enough to jump on.

I wonder if this neighborhood is leaving me behind. I wonder if there is a role for me to play, if there is anything left for me to contribute. For ten years I’ve loved and worked in this neighborhood. And for seven years I’ve lived here. And if I feel this way after living here only 7 years, how do longer-term residents feel about all the changes?

Do all relationships get the seven-year-itch?
Even our relationships to a place?
How can you love a city through its changes?

The past year has forced my husband and I to reflect a lot on our calling, specifically to this place. Did I ever tell you that we moved here to plant a church? Ask me sometime and I’ll tell you the whole story. (In person.)

So now we ask: is our call to a specific mission, or to a place, or to a people? Again, how can you love a city through its changes? Through the seasons? Through its growth and the ebb and flow of development and the insecurities born from watching the thing that you love walk on without you?

This city doesn’t need me. And that’s a good thing. Because, like I said above, I need to get over myself and my compulsive need to make a contribution. I need to love this city for what it is, not for what I want to make it. This has been an important lesson to learn.

In case it’s not clear, the past year has been full of questions for me.

How can I be a better wife? A better mother? A better friend, daughter, and sister? A better neighbor?

What if I never write another blog? Or another song? Or another smartass Facebook update? Will I feel like a lesser version of myself? Why?

Can I learn to appreciate the small influence I have, where I am, with the people that need me most?

Can I embrace the relationships I’ve been given, rather than the ones I wish I had?

Can I exercise my voice in small circles, with people who are actually listening and learning and teaching me, as well?

Can I balance my responsibility to the most important people in my life with my desire for a contribution to the world outside my door?

I know these things might seem (mostly) unrelated, but they add up to something significant. Namely: where do we go from here? How much of this story is still left to be played-out?

This year marks my tenth anniversary in Cincinnati. I’m hoping that it brings a renewed love for this place, stronger bonds with the people I love, and a little clarity about how I can contribute to making it all better.

Making all of it better, including myself.

Where We Play: Eden Park

photo from historylines.net

photo from historylines.net

Eden Park– Walnut Hills

* This a guest post by Steve Carr, a husband, father, and pastor in Walnut Hills. Visit him online here.

Overview: Eden Park, located in Walnut Hills and bordering Mt Adams, is one of Cincinnati’s most popular parks. Yet those who visit often miss out on the wide range of opportunities hidden throughout the park. It occupies a strip of land between two hills overlooking the Ohio River Valley and boasts ample open spaces, trails, and numerous water features.

A system of paths connect the divisions of the park. Starting at the south end of the park (at Mt Adams Drive) is the Playhouse in the Park. Behind the theater is a “mini-park” area with a CRC pool. Descending the hill, you encounter the Art Museum and (down the hill) the Seasongood Pavilion. Behind the pavilion is a path to Mirror Lake, a popular walking destination. From here you could descend down the hill toward basketball courts and the remnants of the old reservoir wall (bigger kids love climbing up the incline of the wall since they’re practically steps). Usually, people opt to ascend the hill toward Krohn Conservatory. While the conservatory now charges an admission fee, it’s still an incredibly popular Cincinnati destination.

At the northern end of the park, up the hill from the conservatory, is the Twin Lakes—a place where children can feed the ducks and play on the playground. Yet this isn’t the end of the park, as you can ascend even farther up the hill toward the Eden Park Water Tower and scenic Author’s/President’s Grove. From there, you can cross the Arch Bridge to the Overlook, one of the park’s many scenic vistas.

General Cleanliness: Despite the high-traffic throughout the park, it is often very clean. The Twin Lakes area is a popular Sunday picnic location so it’s most chaotic then.

Parking: Parking is available throughout the park. If you decide to explore areas up the hill and don’t want to walk, you can move your car. If you decide to visit the Art Museum, you can save money by parking on Mt Adams Drive and taking the short walk to the museum.

Bathroom Facilities: Yes, in two locations: next to the parking at Mirror Lake and by the Twin Lakes at the top of the hill.

Picnic Areas: There are designated areas throughout the park. Still, the Twin Lakes tables are the most popular destination.

Playground: There are two playgrounds in the park. The most popular one is located at the Twin Lakes and was recently renovated. The lesser known playground is by the pool by Playhouse in the Park and is a great place to let smaller children explore a play set without getting trampled by older children.

Other Amenities: The Gazebo by Mirror Lake is very popular. There’s now a paved walking path leading from there up to the Magnolia Grove which is another hidden gem. You could visit this park over and over again and have a new experience on every trip.

 

Look for a separate review of Eden Park’s Hinkle Garden in a future post!

*This is the fifth in the “Where We Play” series. If you’d like to contribute a park review as a guest blogger, send me a note at ejmcewan@gmail.com.*

Where We Play: Burnet Woods

 

Burnet Woods– Clifton

Overview: My introduction to Burnet Woods was through leading field trips as an educator with a local nonprofit. During the field trips, we stopped for lunch and a program at the Burnet Woods’ Trailside Nature Center, which is positively one of the hidden gems of our city. The park itself is 90 acres and includes multiple amentities, including the nature center which is (as far as I can tell, and am sorry to report) rarely open to the public. It’s the perfect stop for a quick hike near to downtown and is easily accesible by foot or by car from the Uptown neighborhoods of Corryville, CUF, Avondale, and Clifton.  We’re there a few times a year and the last time we went–as evidenced by the photos–was prime season for wildflowers and mulberries!

General Cleanliness: A few littered spots in the high foot-traffic areas. The trails are not super well-maintained, but it only adds to the “wild” feel, which I actually prefer. Some areas could use updating. (There has been a lot of talk about proposed improvements to the park.)

Bathroom Facilities: Yes, though I’m not certain of the open hours. According to the park map, there are three separate facilities.

Picnic Area: Multiple picnic areas, including covered shelters and a gazebo.

Parking: Street parking is available along the edges of the park and on a few access roads. There is no central parking lot.

Playground: There are two playground areas that I know of: one, near the nature center, with an older set of swings and a fantastic concrete slide; one near the Clifton Ave. access point with a more modern play structure. (Our usual hiking route takes us from one to the other and back again.)

Other Amenities: Our favorite parts of the park are definitely the concrete slide and the hiking trails. The nature center, as I mentioned, is worth the trip if you can figure out when it’s actually open. There is also a Stonehenge-style sculpture that we’ve never seen in person, though it’s visible from the road. And the pond is a very popular place for visitors.

 

*This is the fourth in the “Where We Play” series. If you’d like to contribute a park review as a guest blogger, send me a note at ejmcewan@gmail.com.*

Where We Play: Queensgate Playground

Queensgate Playground – West End, on Court St

 

* This is a guest post by Emily Benhase.

Overview: This is our neighborhood playground, less than a block from our house, so we frequent it often when the weather is nice. The city recently finished putting in two new (and very nice) play structures, as well as a set of swings. Plus there is enough open green space that I feel comfortable letting my children run free without having to worry about traffic. There are almost always other neighborhood children there, so it’s a great place to interact with the community and meet new people. It’s also close to the Lincoln CRC Pool as well as the Museum Center and would make a great place to have a picnic before or after a visit to either of those places.

General Cleanliness: overall fairly neat, especially the newer section. There is sometimes a little trash on the ground.

Bathroom Facilities: no bathrooms on site, although there is one portable restroom.

Picnic Area: There is one picnic table near the older playground and one near the new playground, as well as a lot of grass (some under trees for shade) for picnics

Parking: street parking, free

Playground: There is a small, older play structure on one end of the park. The other end has a new, fairly large playground, with swings. There is also a smaller structure for younger children, as well as baby swings. In between the playgrounds is a baseball diamond and an open, grassy field, perfect for kicking around a soccer ball or tossing a football.

Other Amenities: Located near the new play structure is a charcoal grill, which I’ve often seen groups using on the weekends. And it seems to be a popular spot for cookouts and birthday parties this time of year. There is also a line of trees that look perfect for climbing!

 

Thanks, Emily!

*This is the third in the “Where We Play” series. If you’d like to contribute a park review as a guest blogger, send me a note at ejmcewan@gmail.com.*

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.

 

Why I’m Thankful for Winter

What is it about winter that makes me feel so reminiscent?

Everything slows down. The nights are longer. And there seems to be more – s p a c e – for quiet and contemplation. Now, with three kids, space is generally pretty limited. (As is the quiet.) But the past few weeks have found me trapped inside my mind more than usual, thinking about the past.

On February 21, 2004, I stepped foot in Cincinnati for the first time. It’s an easy date to remember because it was the day after my brother’s wedding. And I’m glad I can remember it gives me a timestamp for that monumental day.

You see, at the time, February 21 didn’t seem so monumental. It was cold and I was visiting a good friend who was to become my boyfriend and I thought Cincinnati was pretty cool. But nothing about that weekend could have prepared me for all that would happen in the next few weeks, the next few months, and the next ten years.

It was winter. And, in winter, everything feels slow and quiet. So slow and quiet that you’d never know what’s actually happening under the surface.

The truth is that winter is alive, even if it looks like it’s sleeping.

Winter is like the calm before the storm
or the silent, early stage of labor
or the kettle of steaming water just before the whistle.

We cycle through the seasons every year but, for some of us, “winter” (in the proverbial sense) can last much longer. When I first arrived in Cincinnati, I was deeply imbedded in one of those winter-y seasons of my life. At the time, the cold, dark, and quiet of February 21st were apropos. And that cold, dark quiet stuck around for quite some time.

But, speaking literally, I’ve always loved winter.
I love winter because, even though the ground is frozen solid, there is magic underneath it all. It’s the kind of magic you can’t see, hear, or smell because it’s hidden until the ground thaws.

Why am I thankful for winter?
I’m thankful for winter because winter ends. And, when it ends, I’m reminded that every winter ends.

There is a storm brewing,
that baby is about to be born,
and you will hear the steam whistle.

We know this because storms and babies and hot cups of tea have all happened before and we can trust that they will happen again.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back on my first few years in Cincinnati. At the time, I could have never known how monumental those years would be and what I would find at the other end. But, looking back, there were markers along the way that I simply didn’t have eyes to see.

If reminiscing involves looking back for the subtle hints we missed the first time around, then faith involves looking forward to what we have every reason to believe lies ahead.

After the ground thaws.
When the lightning crashes.
When our baby lets out that first cry.
When we finally warm our hands on that piping hot cup of tea.

Winter is a lot like the still railroad track the moment before it starts to rattle.
Maybe faith is something like holding your ear to the rail.

Are you listening?