Cincinnatians will vote in May on a charter amendment to create a multimillion-dollar affordable housing trust fund, but local affordable housing advocates aren’t happy with the language destined for their ballots. Some, including Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati head Margaret Fox, believe the wording is prejudicial and misleading.
"We're fighting for affordable housing,” she said. "And in order to communicate that truthfully to the voters, we're now having to fight for fair ballot language. … City Council's interpretation of our petition language isn't accurate."
Fox feels so strongly that she complained to the Ohio Supreme Court about it, requesting a ruling that new language is necessary to give voters a correct impression of the charter amendment’s purpose.
What does low-cost housing actually mean, legally? Low-cost to whom?
By the standards of the proposed amendment, “low-cost housing” is housing that consumes no more than 30% of annual income for a household making 60% of Hamilton County’s median income or less.
To give an example: Hamilton County’s median income is about $57,212, according to the United States Census Bureau. Sixty percent of that number is $34,327. All housing created by the proposed trust fund must be affordable to a household making $34,327 a year, which means it should cost no more than $858 in rent each month.
The trust fund petition would require half of that housing to be even cheaper — $429 a month, roughly, to fit within the budgets of Cincinnati households that make 30% of the county's median income, or $17,163, each year.
The proposed amendment authored by Fox and other local activists would create a city fund meant specifically for constructing, renovating and maintaining low-cost housing. It would also create a board to oversee the fund and require that the city requisition $50 million each year to maintain it.
The version of the amendment approved by City Council and the Hamilton County Board of Elections — the one currently on course for local ballots on May 4, 2021 — adds significantly more detail, including portions claiming that the fund “could require the city to reduce city services” and “the mandatory $50 million annual appropriation shall take priority over other funding needs.”
"We think that that accurately reflects what the charter amendment does, or would do if it passes,” said Cincinnati deputy city solicitor Emily Woerner. “That language allows the voters to know what they're voting on."
Fox and fellow petitioner Josh Spring, who runs the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, said they believe these additions are misleading and influenced by political opinions held by those at City Hall.
“There is nothing in the charter amendment that requires cuts to anything,” Spring said.
But City Council member David Mann and mayoral candidate Cecil Thomas, both Democrats, have each openly worried about the financial repercussions of the amendment’s $50 million ask.
"The way it is written...the proposed charter amendment is not a viable path to providing a sustainable solution,” Thomas wrote in a statement on Feb. 25. “Although well-intended, an unfunded mandate of $50 million is not the solution. It would bankrupt our city."
"Of course we are all for affordable housing,” Mann said in an interview. “That's not the question; the question’s, ‘How can it be paid for? And can it be paid for without taking away from other things?’"
The Hamilton County Board of Elections described Fox and Spring’s complaint as “frivolous” in a Monday filing, and the city of Cincinnati argued it “has a right under its charter to provide appropriate ballot language.”
Fox said appropriate ballot language is fine. What the city provided isn’t it.
"If it reflected actually what the amendment was about, that would be fine. But it doesn’t,” she said. “It doesn't reflect it at all."