How Greater Cincinnati Foundation aims to fight poverty with affordable housing

'We see an opportunity'

CINCINNATI -- Terana Boyd and her three kids live in a townhouse where the basement floods every time it rains.

But she can't really move. Her options are a place with comparable rent in a worse neighborhood or a higher-priced rental that could doom her financially.

"That's why I'm staying safe in a place that I know is not the best," she said.

These buildings in the 1500 block of Race Street in Over-the-Rhine were among nearly 30 properties the city of Cincinnati has targeted for redevelopment to help create more affordable housing. (Photo by Lisa Bernard-Kuhn | WCPO)

Boyd is far from alone. A recent study by the Community Building Institute at Xavier University estimated that for every 100 of the lowest income households in Hamilton County, there are only 28 units of housing that are affordable and available. To have enough for everyone, the county would need 40,000 more units of affordable housing for families with an annual household income of $14,678 or less.

That need is why the Greater Cincinnati Foundation has decided to focus millions of dollars in the coming years on investments to help create more affordable housing in the region.

"We see an opportunity not only to have an impact just in terms of producing the housing and helping support it but also having housing be a major contributor to efforts locally to help more people climb out of poverty," said Robert Killins, the foundation's program director for vibrant places. "By having housing not be the kind of financial burden that keeps them from making any kind of other progress in their lives."

It's part of a strategy known as "impact investing."

Stabilizing neighborhoods, offering hope

Through impact investing, the foundation has dedicated a $10 million pool of money to invest in initiatives and developments designed to make the community a better place to live.

It's a different approach than giving away money in the form of grants. The foundation makes investments with an agreement that the money will be repaid over time. As the money gets repaid, the foundation can invest it again and again.

It's a valuable option for developers of affordable housing. It allows them to get needed money for the early stages of projects. That money for planning and site development can be difficult to get from traditional banks.

"If I went to a bank and said I've got this dilapidated, terrible building that's been condemned by the city, and I want to pay a couple hundred thousand dollars for it, I'm guessing that would be difficult for them to underwrite it," said Ken Smith, executive director of Price Hill Will, a community development group.

Having money loaned on the front end can make those projects possible and help community development organizations stabilize the neighborhoods where they work, Smith said.

"I am hopeful over the next couple of years that we could invest a few million dollars in early stage impact investments that would help with the hard-to-get-capital that's the front-end money," Killins said.

Robert Killins

Killins said he doesn't know how many affordable housing units that kind of investment could help create.

He has reason to believe it could be hundreds or maybe even thousands.

Greater Cincinnati Foundation invested $1 million with LISC of Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky over the course of about seven years. LISC used that money to help support the creation of about 500 units of affordable housing, he said.

That doesn't mean the foundation can expect to replicate those results exactly, Killins said, but he added, "We think that our donors could really have a tremendous impact."

Getting serious about poverty

That's partly because Killins hopes that after the foundation's donors and others understand the need for affordable housing -- and how that need impacts the region's poverty problem as a whole -- more people and institutions will want to be part of the solution.

"If we're serious about getting people out of poverty, we're not going to get them out with just more minimum wage jobs and more $9 or $10 an hour jobs or just more social programs," he said. "We have to have a vehicle that helps them from spending a disproportionate amount of what they earn for housing -- especially substandard housing."

LISC is hoping to secure more foundation funding for its development work in the region with a specific focus on affordable housing in Hamilton County, said Noam Gross-Prinz, a program officer there.

LISC funded the affordable housing study completed by the Community Building Institute so the organization is acutely aware of the need.

Although he couldn’t pinpoint an exact number of affordable housing units a foundation investment could help create, Gross-Prinz said it's fair to say it would be "hundreds."

The new units can't be finished fast enough for families across the region that are struggling with their housing costs.

Affordable housing for senior citizens at 1500 Elm St. in Over-the-Rhine.

Boyd was on a waiting list for two years to get the government voucher that subsidizes her housing costs. She pays 30 percent of $900 monthly rent for her three-bedroom townhouse. She could get a voucher for a four-bedroom place with a rent as high as $1,200, she said. Even working two jobs, she wouldn't be able to afford the extra $90 a month it would cost her, Boyd said.

Eventually Boyd wants to earn enough that she no longer qualifies for the government assistance that she gets now and can afford a good place to live without any help.

"I definitely want to be that self-sufficient where I can stand on my own," she said. "It's hard and scary at the same time."

Especially when there's such a shortage of decent, affordable housing available for families that need it throughout Hamilton County.

More information about the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and its impact investing is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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