Changemakers: Who can afford to live in Over-the-Rhine?

Editor's note about Changemakers: This is part of a continuing series of stories and columns about people and places fostering change in our community. Read last week's column here.

CINCINNATI –  Few neighborhoods in the country have rivaled the rebirth that has occurred in Over-the-Rhine in the last decade as dozens of decaying buildings have been transformed into new apartments, condos and townhomes.

A new study commissioned by the Over-the-Rhine Community Council details just how much the neighborhood’s housing market has changed and who can afford the rising mix of rents and home prices.

“This is about much more than the bricks-and-mortar development that’s occurring,” said Joan Kaup, a community council member and neighborhood resident for nearly 20 years. “It’s about people and intentions, and I think we can be a role model for the rest of the county on how you revive a neighborhood.”

WCPO was given an exclusive early look at the report, which was conducted by Xavier University’s Community Building Institute and released late Monday.

Among other findings, the report shows that more than 2,300 units of low-income housing have been lost in the neighborhood since 2002. Still, more than 70 percent of Over-the-Rhine’s housing supply caters to households that earn less than the region’s median income of $71,200.

The data will be key to informing development decisions going forward to ensure that Over-the-Rhine remains an “inclusive” neighborhood, said Kaup, who led a fundraising effort last year to collect nearly $30,000 needed cover the study’s costs.

In the coming days and months, neighborhood leaders will present the study to residents, developers and other stakeholders in order to collect feedback, said Ryan Messer, president of the Over-the-Rhine Community Council.

“This shows that we are still very diverse, but the big question is, What are the next 10 to 20 years going to look like now that we have this data?” said Messer, who moved to the Over-the-Rhine six years ago. “If we wake up 20 years from now, and this is a predominately Caucasian, upper-middle class neighborhood we will have failed miserably. ”

Low-Income Housing Shift "Still in Play"
  
For its study, the Community Building Institute focused solely on surveying Over-the-Rhine’s housing market. The goal, researchers said, was to produce an objective housing inventory that cataloged how much and where owner-occupied, renter occupied or vacant housing units exist in the neighborhood.

Among the key findings:

  • The number of housing units remained relatively flat – dropping to 5,229 in 2015 from 5,261 in 2002.
  • Occupied units account for 77 percent of all available housing in the neighborhood, climbing to 4,040 in 2015 from 3,594 in 2002.
  • Vacant units have fallen from 1,667 in 2002 to 1,189 in 2015, accounting for 23 percent of all units.
  • About 82 percent of all occupied units are rented, while 77 percent of the occupied units are part of a multi-family building.
  • Roughly 39 percent of the occupied units are either subsidized by the government or have rents that are restricted by income.
  • More than 2,300 units of housing for the poorest residents (those who make less than 30 percent of the area’s median income) have been lost in the neighborhood since 2002. That’s a drop of 73 percent, with 869 units available in Over-the-Rhine to residents who earn the least in the city.

Source: Community Building Institute

 

Affordable housing advocates say that the drop-off in low-income rentals in Over-the-Rhine began around 2001. That’s when a bankruptcy filed by Hart Realty triggered the loss of more than 900 low-income units across the neighborhood.

“The ripple effect of that loss is still in play,” said Mary Burke Rivers, executive director of nonprofit developer Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, which owns and manages hundreds of low-income units in the neighborhood.

"Diversity of Housing Options" Growing

As part of its analysis, the Community Building Institute was also asked to gauge the affordability of the neighborhood’s housing based on parameters established in the 2002 Over-the-Rhine Comprehensive Plan.

Among other goals, the comprehensive plan calls for creating “an equitable housing stock for a population of diverse incomes.”

Federal policy says that housing costs are considered affordable – at any income level -- when they are at or below 30 percent of an individual or family’s gross income.

The 2015 inventory found that of the 4,040 occupied housing units:

  • 6 percent (253 units) are affordable for a household of four making more than 100 percent of Hamilton County’s median area income (AMI) of $71,200.
  • 26 percent (1,054 units) are affordable for households making 61 percent to 100 percent of AMI.
  • 46 percent (1,864 units) are affordable for households making 31 percent to 60 percent of AMI.
  • 22 percent (869 units) are affordable for households making 0 to 30 percent of AMI.

 

Source: Community Building Institute

 

While the findings underscore the significant falloff of low-income housing  in the neighborhood, the data also points to growing “diversity of housing options” across all income levels, said Liz Blume, director of the Community Building Institute.

“There has been this thought  that ‘Well, there’s nothing affordable left in Over-the-Rhine,' and this proves that is certainly not the case,” said Blume, who was also among the lead authors of the neighborhood’s comprehensive plan in 2002 when she served as Cincinnati’s planning director. “But what this does show is that we have to continue to be intentional about making sure this neighborhood is a good experience for everyone.”

How the Study Came to Be

Starting early in 2015, Kaup set out to raise $30,000 from private donors to cover the study's cost. By May, she had met the goal -- receiving contributions from a number of donors including the the Greater Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Cincinnati Development Fund, Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., PNC Bank and a handful of other neighborhood developers.

For the study, researchers at Community Building Institute spent the next six months scouring a range of publicly available data on low-income housing in the neighborhood and soliciting information from the neighborhood’s property owner, nonprofit developers and private developers.

Researchers also surveyed the neighborhood, conducting field verifications of data being reported to them and cataloging the supply of occupied and vacant buildings.

Kaup said the neighborhood’s largest property owners – which include Model Group, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, Eagle Realty, 3CDC and Urban Sites – were “very willing” to share their data for the study.

“It tells us they’re investing more than dollars,” Kaup said. “I think they’re investing their heart and good will. The work here is not done, and this will really help us figure out what should be our next steps.”

“Tremendous Opportunity” Ahead

The report’s findings will be a valuable tool for addressing “a lot of assumptions,” that have been made “about housing and who lives in Over-the-Rhine,” Messer said.

More specifically, leaders expect to use the data as a benchmark to measure housing affordability in the neighborhood going forward. How frequently the data will be tracked hasn’t been determined. Kaup says she expects those details will come as the residents discuss the data and work to update the neighborhood’s comprehensive plan.

As redevelopment continues, the data will also be critical as leaders work to influence what might happen next for the more than 1,100 vacant units of housing, Messer said.

“Now, we have the hard job of asking ‘What should we do next?” Messer said. “I think there is tremendous opportunity as we look at where we need to balance to ensure that we maintain a diverse, inclusive Over-the-Rhine.”

For now, a summary of the report can be found at the community council’s website.

Officials from Xavier presented the report to neighborhoods residents during Monday night's community council meeting at the Over-the-Rhine Community Center. Residents were asked to bring their questions and feedback on the report to the council's next meeting in February. 

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