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One house at a time: Camp Washington banks on new redevelopment strategy, with Port Authority help

Bingo proceeds no longer enough for revitalization
Posted at 12:00 PM, Aug 20, 2016

CINCINNATI -- From the view in Camp Washington, the revitalization of neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine and East Walnut Hills happened practically overnight.

Camp Washington -- called simply “Camp” by its residents -- isn’t poised to be the next OTR. According to a recent housing study by Urban Fast Forward, nearly 90 percent of Camp’s housing stock was built before 1940, and just more than a quarter of its houses sit vacant. More than half are renter-occupied.

But Camp isn’t trying to become the next OTR. With a young population, an influx of artists priced out of other neighborhoods, and a new, powerful ally, Camp Washington may be on the verge of something exciting.

“It seems like we’ve always been a maker community, and we’re seeing that continue. We’ve got over 20 artists down here now,” said Joe Gorman, community organizer with the Camp Washington Community Board (CWCB). “We want to keep that going. We want people to move here and work here.”

The old model

The neighborhood’s revitalization efforts can be traced back to the early 1990s, when the Camp Washington Community Board purchased a bingo hall on Central Parkway from the Fraternal Order of Police’s Cincinnati lodge.

Since the mid '90s, the CWCB has spent about $8 million to revitalize its neighborhood’s housing stock, about half of which was paid for by bingo proceeds. Grants from the city, the neighborhood business association, and the PNC Bank Foundation covered the balance. 

The CWCB has managed to restore 52 of the neighborhood’s 704 houses, along with about 15 rental units. Buyers for the properties were identified through word-of-mouth, and input from the buyers often dictated the direction of the finishing touches to buildings, Gorman said.

Under this model, the CWCB invested up to $150,000 per home, and then sold rehabilitated houses for typically between $85,000 and $95,000.

But it’s been an uphill climb. Long-term vacancies arising from the Great Recession hit Camp particularly hard, compounding existing problems the neighborhood had with absentee landlords and shoddily flipped houses. And since the opening of the Downtown casino and nearby racinos in Anderson Township and Monroe, the bingo hall is pulling in about half of the $250,000 per year it used to generate for the board.

“Our old model is not going to work anymore,” said CWCB community organizer Joe Gorman.

The Great Recession won’t be remembered fondly by anyone. But Camp has found a silver lining.

A new partnership

The burst of the housing bubble spurred the Ohio Statehouse into action, prompting the passage of a law that authorized the creation of independent county land banks in 2009. The legislation gave land banks broad powers to acquire and return vacant, abandoned and foreclosed properties, with the goal of either putting them to the public’s use or getting them back on the tax rolls.

The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority incorporated the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corporation, better known as the Hamilton County Landbank, in 2012. The Landbank’s first victory came in 2013, and it came in the heart of Camp.

Vacant since 2008, a house located at 3063 Sidney Ave. was acquired by the Landbank and transferred to the CWCB in 2013. Gorman and company oversaw the restoration of the 1890s-era house with input from the young, first-time homebuyers that would later purchase it.

The Landbank can acquire property through a variety of means, including forfeiture, donation, several varieties of foreclosure, or purchase. It can also work with municipalities to address nuisance properties, either through repair or demolition. According to Port Authority spokesperson Gail Paul, the Landbank has acquired 11 properties in Camp and disposed of two.

This year, the Landbank entered into master property holding agreements with the CWCB for three properties considered to be redevelopment priorities. In these arrangements, the Landbank has agreed to hold the titles of the three properties for up to 24 months while the CWCB prepares to redevelop them.

“The community board benefits from the Landbank’s low holding costs,” Paul said.

The partnership between the CWCB and the Landbank has become a model for the Landbank’s dealings with other Hamilton County communities, she said.

Moving ahead

The Port Authority is building on its past success in other ways in Camp. It acquired and demolished a residential property on Henshaw Avenue with Neighborhood Initiative Program funds.

“The now-vacant lot will be sold to an adjacent owner occupant under our Lot to Yard program,” Paul said. “We continue to look at other NIP-eligible properties in Camp Washington.”

Additionally, the Port Authority-managed Homesteading and Urban Redevelopment Corporation acquired another property on Henshaw and sold it to the CWCB.

Camp’s arrangement with the Port Authority isn’t stopping it from looking for other partnerships, Gorman said. The CWCB seeks developers interested in rehabilitating buildings it acquires through the Port Authority and Landbank, as well as through property nuisance abatement lawsuits.

To this point, momentum in Camp has been glacial. But Gorman can feel the momentum starting to build. The neighborhood has youth — the median age in Camp is 34 — and the prices are attractive to millennials looking to settle down.

“We feel that having a good, clean house is a great way to grow a family, to grow a neighborhood, to grow a city,” he said.