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Could COVID-19 relief funding help address Cincinnati's affordable housing crisis?

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Posted at 1:13 PM, Mar 12, 2021

CINCINNATI — A member of City Council wants to use a portion of upcoming COVID-19 relief money to pay for affordable housing throughout the city.

In a motion filed Friday, Councilwoman Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney proposed using $50 million of the funds Congress has indicated will come to Cincinnati as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act to bolster the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Fellow Council member David Mann applauded the idea but said $50 million is steep as the city also meets the growing needs of police, fire and public works.

"Obviously we want to take care first of basics, of longstanding needs, so that bears into it," he said.

Mann said he worries about hard-to-meet obligations down the road.

"If we spend $50 million out of the money from the feds, and the charter amendment passes, we would be required to spend another 50, and that is really a problem in terms of the rest of our budget," he said.

According to Congressional documents, Cincinnati stands to receive more than $290 million from the relief bill signed Thursday by President Joe Biden.

"Money can be spent quickly,” Kearney said. “We want to make sure we do it responsibly."

Even after Biden signed the bill, however, it remained unclear precisely how those funds could be used. Kearney's motion would direct the city administration to study the law and determine if that money could be used toward affordable housing programs.

In a news release Friday, Kearney's office indicated the city is short some 28,000 affordable housing units. The shortage prompted City Council in 2018 to establish a $700,000 Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

"Folks are struggling because they're spending a lot more of their income on housing,” she said. “Some can't afford housing at all. Our homeless population has been increasing, especially during the pandemic."

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Jan-Michele Kearney sits during a special session of Cincinnati City Council, Jan. 8, 2021, when city leaders passed a resolution condemning the Jan. 6 protest that turned violent and deadly on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The release described the fund as "insufficient to meet the demand for affordable housing in the city of Cincinnati."

Kearney said she’s confident about what the $50 million could do for the city and the people struggling to call it home.

"I think it will be very popular,” she said, referring to her proposed motion. “I've talked to a few city council people and, let me say, everybody on council is working toward increasing affordable housing."

The issue of affordable housing has dominated discussions at City Hall so far this year. Last month, advocates submitted a petition, signed by thousands of city voters, calling for an amendment to the City Charter requiring that the city budget allocate $50 million into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund each year. Any amendments to the City Charter must be approved directly by city voters.

City Council was still deliberating this week on specific ballot language to put the proposal before voters in November.

Kearney's release indicated her motion is "separate and unrelated to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund Charter Amendment."

The motion was slated to go before the council the week of March 15.