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City Council pauses $77M Liberty and Elm development amid questions on affordable housing

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Posted at 12:38 PM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 12:38:06-05

CINCINNATI — A battle over affordable housing put an Over-the-Rhine development on hold Thursday.

The project at Liberty and Elm streets has been in the works for years, but it went back before Cincinnati City Council this week after developers requested approval to expand it, adding an adjacent, vacant lot to its footprint. Lawmakers voted to suspend final approval of the project for two weeks to allow for more time to work with the developer and ensure affordably priced units are included in the plan.

Earlier this week, OTR community leaders held a news conference during which they expressed disapproval of the $77 million project due to its lack of affordable housing units, but some on City Council did not agree it was worth holding up the process.

"It's absolutely madness," said Councilman Steve Goodin. "Three hundred taxpayers moving into an area which, again, I stress is currently a vacant lot and has been for 15 years. So if we can't see what kind of investment this is, we may as well just quit."

Goodin said it was wrong to single out this specific development project as a way to fight for more affordable housing unites in the city.

"We cannot solve the affordable housing issue development by development. We need to be looking at this in a much bigger scale. We need to be looking at affordable housing-based developments," he said.

Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnnati Homeless Coalition, said the city needs a clear policy on what role affordable housing plays in development deals.

"We do desperately need cut and dry policy that says if you are getting this investment from the city you are getting this subsidy from the city then you have to do this percentage of affordable housing, no 'if,' 'and,' or "buts,'" he said.

Spring and other neighborhood leaders have suggested 30% of the development's units should be priced affordably, a mark real estate developer Stephen Dronen said isn't possible for Liberty and Elm.

"There's absolutely no chance we could complete something at those ratios," he said.

Dronen, who works with OTR-based KEAN Ventures, said his firm has worked to reach a compromise with the neighbors who have been critical of the project.

"We're working on a plan that would secure low income tax credits that would introduce about 20 new affordable units at that 50-60 percent area median income," he said.

City Council scheduled itself to revisit the development in February.