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Debate builds over 'Affordable Housing Trust Fund' amendment to Cincinnati City Charter

Cincinnati City Hall
Posted at 5:10 PM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-26 18:43:28-05

CINCINNATI — Discussion is churning at City Hall around a proposed charter amendment that would establish a "trust fund" that supporters say would help mitigate the city's affordable housing shortage. But others worry it could come with unintended consequences.

City Councilman David Mann chairs City Council's Budget and Finance Committee and is running for mayor. He worries the charter amendment as proposed -- which would require lawmakers to allocate $50 million annually for affordable housing -- doesn't specify how the city budget will pay for the fund.

David Mann speaks with WCPO at his Downtown law office, Feb. 25, 2020.
David Mann speaks with WCPO at his Downtown law office, Feb. 25, 2020.

"Of course we are all for affordable housing. 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?

"Frankly, I've never seen anything like this, and I'm very troubled about what an impact it could have on our ability to meet our basic requirements as a city."

The proposed amendment would add a new article to the City Charter. A petition meant to demonstrate support for the amendment contains the text:

Cincinnati Affordable Housing Charter Amendment by WCPO Web Team on Scribd

The new article lists multiple potential funding sources for the affordable housing budget, including the city's $400 million general fund, which raised flags for Mann.

"It says spending $50 million a year on affordable housing. The only way we can do that is take that money out of our budget, which is about $400 million a year," Mann said. "So that’s one-eighth of the money that has to be averted. And how do we do that without impacting police services, ambulance services, firefighters, snow removal?"

Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, supports the amendment and said Mann's concerns are unfounded.

"There is nothing in this charter amendment that requires cuts to anything. It's just not there," he said. "People should read it. It doesn't say that."

The proposed charter language also identifies the prospective lease of the Cincinnati Southern Railway -- that deal has not been made yet -- a fee on residential developments that include four or more units and on all commercial or non-residential developments, or a personal income tax on stock options in publicly traded companies.

The proposed amendment would also prohibit using a general income tax levy to finance the fund unless such an increase was approved by voters at the ballot for that express purpose.

Josh Spring, shown here during a Feb. 25, 2021 interview with WCPO, runs the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.

For Spring, Cincinnati and Hamilton County's shortage of affordable housing mandates a solution like the charter amendment, especially as more and more neighborhoods see an influx in investment and development and subsequent increases in property values and rental costs.

"The question is, in your neighborhood where you live, has life gotten better for you and your neighbors? Are all your neighbors even still there? Have they been able to afford to be there? I think for a whole lot of Cincinnatians, life is harder."

A 2017 study found Hamilton County was short its affordable housing need by more than 40,000 units.

WCPO reached out to the other five mayoral candidates for their positions on the proposed amendment.

State Sen. Cecil Thomas said in a written statement, "As mayor, I will make expanding the supply of affordable housing a top priority," but said a charter amendment "should be a last resort."

"The way it is written...the proposed charter amendment is not a viable path to providing a sustainable solution. Although well-intended, an unfunded mandate of $50 million is not the solution. It would bankrupt our city."

Raffel Prophett, who spoke to WCPO by phone Thursday afternoon, said it's too early for him to state an opinion while he gathers more information on the issue.

"Without talking to [those proposing the charter amendment], I'm just not going to make a snap decision about it," he said. "That's certainly in the citizens' right to put forth an amendment like that.

"The best thing I can do is gather information."

While he did not offer an opinion one way or another on the amendment itself, Herman Najoli criticized Mann, saying the councilman sent him and other mayoral candidates an email asking for their support for a combined statement about the proposed amendment.

In a written statement, Najoli said, "I have not been part of any study with Mr. Mann or with any other candidate for Mayor...Mr. Mann should prioritize educating the public on the issue instead of resorting to the awful practice of shooting off private emails to select persons for the sake of garnering support."

Gavi Begtrup said the charter amendment "is not perfect."

"The bottom line is that, despite the platitudes, City Hall hasn't adequately funded the affordable housing trust fund, so we have families living in fear of losing their homes," Begtrup said in a statement Friday afternoon. "When 9,500 Cincinnatians mobilize to improve our city, we should listen, we should come together, and we should figure out a real solution, not just say 'no' and kick the can."

WCPO will add other candidates' comments on the charter amendment as they become available.