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.

 

 

 

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.*

Where We Play: Mount Echo Forest

Mt Echo Park– Price Hill

Overview: Mount Echo is one of Cincinnati’s lesser-known parks and is located just west of downtown, in Price Hill. Back when I worked in East Price Hill, I often stopped at this park for some solitude. But, to be honest, I don’t think I ever got very far out of my car. The view of downtown isn’t always the best from the westside–due to the industrial areas in Queensgate and Camp Washington. But, even if it’s not the BEST view of the city, this parks hosts a spectacular view of the Ohio river and Kentucky, as well. It seems like this park is easily accessible to a few subdivisions in East Price Hill and there were a few basketball and tennis courts and a baseball field that I can imagine are frequently used. We walked most of the park, but didn’t venture onto any of the wooded trails. Maybe next time!

General Cleanliness: Most of the park was clean and well maintained, but the main playground area was a total disaster. (I’m thinking–hoping–we just happened to be there the morning after a messy fast food picnic, before Parks staff could get to it.)

Parking: A few parking lots.

Bathroom Facilities: Yes, though we didn’t check to see if they were unlocked.

Picnic Area: A few picnic areas, including a really nice covered shelter, plus a few benches and lots of open grass.

Playground: One older plastic playground and a smaller area on the other end of the park with swings.

Other Amenities: The Pavilion is really neat, as is the shelter. There are ball fields and playgrounds, as well as hiking trails. The open greenspace and overlook views are the strength of the park.

 

*This is the second 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.*

 

Related Posts:

Go Play Outside!
Go Play Outside: Alone?
Go Play Outside: In The Cold
Urban Families: How To Get Them & How To Keep Them
Where We Play: Lytle Park

 

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.

 

Where We Play: Lytle Park


Lytle Park Central Business District (CBD)

Overview: Lytle Park is located in a historic district of downtown, just over a mile walk from our home. It’s next to the Taft Museum and just a few blocks from the Purple People Bridge (which leads to Newport, KY) and Sawyer Point. The park is neat, well-maintained, and has a fantastic view of the skyline. It feels like a truly “urban oasis.” The playground itself is a bit small and outdated and doesn’t keep my kids occupied for very long, but there is a large open field to run in and a few trees to climb. The park is used (mostly, it seems) by downtown workers on their lunch break and older, CBD residents walking their dogs. In the half-dozen times we’ve been to Lytle Park, we’ve never seen another child. The hallmark of this park is the historic bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln and the large, landscaped field. Even though it’s a small park, this would be a great side-trip for families exploring downtown or visiting the Taft Museum.

General Cleanliness: Very neat and tidy.

Parking: Street parking, metered.

Bathroom Facilities: Yes, though we didn’t check to see if they were unlocked.

Picnic Area: No tables that I remember, but many benches and lots of open grass.

Playground: Small, with no swings.

Other Amenities: The seasonal flowers are great. There is a large amphitheater-type paved area that we’ve never seen used. We also spotted a bocce pit and there is a small firefighters’ memorial in addition to the awesome Lincoln statue. There is a water fountain, too.

 

*This is the first 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.*

Hey, Cincinnati Families!

I’m looking for a few Cincinnati families to contribute to a blog series this summer called “Where We Play.”

20140505-115912.jpg

You’d be responsible for reviewing a Cincinnati-area park or playground and allowing me to post your review on the blog. I’ll give you a list of questions to answer. You’d also take a few photos to post with the review.

It would be credited to you as a “guest blogger” and I’ll gladly link to your blog, if you’d like.

Preference will be given to bloggers and playspaces near the city center, especially lesser-known and off-the-beaten-path spots. (Including Northern Kentucky.)

Email me if you’re interested and let me know where YOU play!

Urban Families: How to Get Them & How to Keep Them

I’d be a millionaire if I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “Oh, I would love to raise my kids in the city, but…”

(Okay, maybe I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I would have a decent wad of cash.)

There are two sides to the “urban family” paradigm. There are the things we choose to live here for. These are the inherently valuable aspects of urban life, the positive things about the city. And there are the things we choose to live here in spite of. These are the battles we fight internally, as a family, and externally as we go about our lives.

I’ve argued over and over again for families to consider urbanism as a valid and valuable lifestyle decision for themselves and their children. And I know many people who have seriously considered it and, maybe in another life, would have actually done it. But the truth is that, in the past 50 years, our cities have simply not been designed with families in mind while the suburbs, on the other hand, have. And although I’d argue that the design of the suburbs is flawed in many ways, it is at least a response to what families wanted at the time. It delivered on its promises of safety, privacy, and comfort, and families flocked to get a piece of it.

So long as the people designing our cities are designing them for everyone but families, our cities will have a hard time attracting them and keeping them here. At another time, I’d love to draw out my manifesto a bit more and explain why, exactly, our cities need families (and why families need cities). For now, I’d just like to offer some suggestions for how urban planners can design cities that will appeal to families in the first place.

1. Make it safe. I don’t believe urban areas are actually any more “dangerous” than other areas, but the dangers are different. The population density and economic diversity of cities creates a level of insecurity that will probably always be present. But there are subtle ways to increase the comfort and safety of urban environments, which will make parents more comfortable having their children around. For example, get police officers back on sidewalks instead of in cars. Keep streetlights in working order, especially in alleys. Enforce vehicle/pedestrian laws that make walking safer. Enforce loitering and public drunkenness laws. Ticket speeding cars. Invest in “main street” districts that encourage foot traffic, which increases safety. Make bike lanes. Get guns off of the streets. I could go on and on…

2. Provide diverse housing options. As a city becomes more economically viable (or successful, even!), working- and middle-class families are quickly priced out of the housing market. There will always be low-income, subsidized housing options. And their will always be high-income options. But a family living near the median income of any metropolitan area will have a hard time finding a comfortably-sized living space that they can afford in the urban core. A city that wants to attract the sustaining power of the middle-class simply must find a way to make it possible for them to live there. I wrote about this a while ago, and I’ve thought about it a lot since then as my husband and I consider how long we will stay in our home and where we’ll go from here. In my mind, the perfect housing market is one in which a couple could move around the same neighborhood from their first apartment to their first home and eventually to their retirement condo, if they wanted to. But if this is ever going to happen, if young couples will consider investing in a neighborhood for the long run, there have to be a multitude of options for the present and the future. And there has to be space for creative situations like living/working properties and multi-family co-op housing.

3. Don’t neglect public (indoor and outdoor) space. This should be obvious, right? One of the biggest things a family gives up when moving to the city is literal space–both outdoor space and square footage. So families will be drawn to communities that have a variety of public spaces that offset that loss. And I’m not only referring to public areas like parks, playgrounds, and squares. I would also include amenities like libraries, zoos, and museums. Invest in making these places where people actually want to spend time on a daily basis. Make them clean. Make them beautiful. Keep them safe. And, please, make them free! (At least sometimes.)

4. Provide diverse food sources. “Where do you do your grocery shopping?” is among the top five questions other moms ask me when I tell them where we live. In Over-the-Rhine, this is a simple question to answer. Between the OTR Kroger, Findlay Market, GreenBean Delivery, a csa co-op, and the few big grocery stores within a 5-minute drive, food is the least of my worries here. But some other urban dwellers are much less fortunate, especially those without a car. (Have you heard of “food deserts?” This article from 2011 will–and should–break your heart.) Make it easy to find affordable and healthy food and parents will be able to cross off one of the things on the top of their “anti-urban” checklist. (Victory Garden, anyone?)

5. Support transit options. One of the hallmarks of young urbanists is their love for public transit and for car-lite cities. As these young folks get a bit older and start having children, they will be looking for other ways to get around. And they will want to live in places where loading and unloading a couple kids into a car five times a day is not necessary. I am very thankful to have a reliable vehicle. But I am thankful that, living in the city, I can go days without using it. And I am even more thankful that, if we continue to live here, my kids might be able to live, work, play, and attend school as teenagers without ever needing a drivers’ license (or needing to use it). Pedestrian- and bike-friendly, car-lite, rail-based commuter cities are a future that I’m willing to invest in. And I want to live in a city that invests in that future, as well. It will take some time for families (especially with multiple children) to get used to a pedestrian lifestyle. But, once they’re acclimated to it, I would bet that most will never want to go back.

6. *Invest in education. Another question on the top of the list of Questions Often Asked of Urban Families is, “But, where do your kids go to school?” People ask this because the quality of the public schools is probably one of the top 2-3 things that keep families out of cities in the first place. Most middle-class families cannot afford private schools, so public schools are their only option and sending their kids to a struggling school means a whole lot more work for the parents and risking all sorts of academic and cultural stresses for the child. A sure-fire way to attract educated, middle-class families to the city? Create a kick-ass neighborhood school. It will bring them in in droves.

7. Invite families to the table. Do you want to know how to attract families to your city? Ask them. Believe me when I say that many parents would actually love to move to more urban areas if they felt those areas were a legitimate option. But, for the past fifty years, it has not been (at least for those in the working- and middle-class) and, so, families were written out of the urban planning equation. Invite families back to the table and let them be a part of building a more liveable city.

I understand that this is really a matter of “the chicken or the egg” as far as urban planning goes. Will families move to the city because the city is designed with them in mind, or will the city design with them in mind because they move to the city?

There will always be pioneering-types who are willing to move their families to the city, regardless of its design. In our neighborhood, I could name a half dozen families who were here long before me, raising children in a neighborhood that is far safer and more comfortable now than it was when their children were young. In this aspect, I am in no way a pioneer of family-friendly urbanism. But, now that I’m here, I want to help steer the design of my city toward one that is more welcoming of my peers and more liveable for them once they’re here.

If you build it, they will come. Right?

I sure think so.

* On a personal level, I did not want to include “Invest in education” on my list. I have all sorts of wacky ideas about education, one of them being that a child’s academic success is almost completely dependent upon their family dynamic and parental involvement in their education. Basically, I believe that a parent who is committed to providing a good education for their child will do so, regardless of the schooling options available. This is especially true in a city like Cincinnati where children can opt out of attending their neighborhood school. I decided to include it on the list anyway because: 1) I am sympathetic to parents who are committed to public schooling (and neighborhood schools) and understand why the quality of the neighborhood school will make or break a decision to live in that neighborhood; 2) that urban schools are often the most under-served and academically weak; 3) regardless of what middle-class families may move based on the success of a neighborhood school, the lower income urban kids who have no other option than their neighborhood school deserve a chance at a better education. This, we all know, is the first step toward a better future for them post-graduation and is worth the investment, all middle-class yuppie families aside.