Editor's note about Changemakers: This is the first in continuing series of stories and columns about people and places fostering change in our communities.
LOWER PRICE HILL – If you do your laundry in your bathtub, Kimberly Washburn says it’s best to stick with the basics.
“Socks and underwear dry the fastest,” said the 22-year-old working mother and student.
Don’t even bother with jeans or heavy shirts – they’ll take forever to hang-dry, and then you just end up “smelling like mildew,” Washburn said.
Wait, why are we doing laundry in the bathtub?
Well, this a dirty truth to life in Lower Price Hill, where 90 percent of residents rent their home and few have access to an onsite laundry facility.
Nearly a decade ago, the neighborhood laundromat closed, which means the closest laundry facility is a 14-minute bus ride away.
Once you factor in a $3.50 bus ride each way and $3 per load of laundry, it’s estimated residents in Lower Price Hill spend nearly $28.50 for each trip to the laundromat. That’s more than $100 a month, and roughly $1,368 a year, for residents who on average earn just $9,600 annually, according to Community Matters, a neighborhood nonprofit that began studying the dilemma after hearing recurring stories like Washburn’s.
“This really puts a squeeze on their budget, and the more we investigated, the more we learned about how great the need is,” said Mary Knauff, co-founder and vice president of at Community Matters.
As the nonprofit began listening to residents’ laundry woes, many like Washburn turned to their bathtubs when they were short on money or time, said Knauff. Others shared that it’s often “cheaper to buy donated clothes at a thrift shop and throw them out once they’re soiled than it is to go to the laundromat,” she said.
The nonprofit searched for fixes, but it was quickly clear that a private laundromat operator wouldn't be lured to neighborhood – “at least not in the short run,” Knauff said.
“So we had to ask ourselves the harder question:' Is this something we could do?'” she said.
Turns out, it is.
Work is under way now on a formerly vacant building just off of St. Michaels Street, where as early as next month Community Matters hopes to open the doors to the Washing Well.
Funded in large part by a $100,000 grant from Impact 100, the facility will operate as a nonprofit laundromat and cooperative. Residents can earn credits to offset their laundry costs by donating time at the laundromat, or by volunteering and participating in other programs offered by Community Matters its sister nonprofit Education Matters.
“Ultimately, this is about much more than meeting laundry needs in the community,” Knauff said.
Laundry Dilemma Bigger Than Lower Price Hill
While the Impact 100 grant will cover the Washing Well’s expenses for the first three years, the nonprofit is already looking ahead.
In recent months, Community Matters launched a crowd funding campaign, hoping to raise $20,000 to help offset the costs of laundry for families in the neighborhood. A $25 donation will cover a family of four’s laundry needs for a week. For $250, that same family could be provided laundry supplies for a year. A $5,000 donation will pay for a new washing machine.
“In our first year, we really hope we can raise awareness and have a broader discussion about laundry in our community,” said Knauff. “Having access to clean laundry is something many of us take for granted, but this issue isn’t unique to Lower Price Hill.”
Communities Across the City Face Similar Challenges
In Avondale, another Cincinnati neighborhood where average incomes are far below the poverty rate, community leaders have worked for years to bring more affordable laundry choices to the neighborhood, said Kathy Schwab, executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
“Most people living in affordable housing don’t have an easy means to get their clothes washed simply because there are no machines in their buildings,” she said.
Across the city as many 316,000 adults and 167,000 children who live in poverty struggle to afford laundry services, according to Current of Ohio. In August, the nonprofit covered the costs of 400 loads of laundry for 40 Cincinnati families as part of it’s statewide Laundry Project.
“The goal is to turn the laundromats into ‘Community Centers of Hope’ and show families they are loved,” said Current of Ohio’s Director, Corey Easterday.
Back in Lower Price Hill, Knauff says eventually the laundry facility will provide neighborhood jobs. Longer-term plans include offering a laundry pick-up service that would offer discounted to rates to local senior communities.
“We think that could help give us a steady stream of income to support the basic services over time,” she said.
Beyond Laundry, More Investment Ahead
Community Matters investment in Lower Price Hill extends well beyond the Washing Well.
Along with its sister nonprofit, Education Matters, the groups are nearly complete, with a $10 million renovation of their campus and offices at the St. Michael the Archangel Church at 2104 St. Michael St. with the help LISC, the nonprofit qualified for a federal tax credit program that covered much of the project.
Looking ahead, the group has purchased 17 other neighborhood buildings Knauff said are poised for renovation into affordable apartments in the future.
“We have this beautiful housing stock here that’s crumbling around the residents and something needs to be done,” Knauff said. “Over time, we think these projects could have a huge impact and really change some things here.”