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As poverty grows in Greater Cincinnati's suburbs, one community considers ways to help

'We know these people'
Posted: 5:00 AM, Nov 05, 2020
Updated: 2020-11-05 21:22:45-05
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SILVERTON, Ohio — Myaa Bryant earns $15.33 an hour as a medical assistant at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and was able to pick up as many shifts as she wanted before COVID-19.

But she has been working about 20 hours a week since the pandemic hit, and Bryant began to worry she might not be able to afford her rent.

“I’m typically not a person who’s behind on the bills. That’s typically not how I am,” said Bryant, who lives in Wyoming with her 8-year-old daughter. “I’m like, what am I going to do?”

She called the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency. The nonprofit worked with Bryant’s rental office and covered her full $900 October rent payment, taking the worry of eviction off her shoulders and giving her time to save for November.

“That was like a blessing,” Bryant said, adding that she had to overcome her pride before seeking assistance. “Sometimes it’s like we have to humble ourselves to be able to ask for help.”

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Myaa Bryant and her daughter.

A growing number of families in Greater Cincinnati’s suburbs find themselves in need of help, said Mark Lawson, the Community Action Agency’s president and CEO.

“We’re seeing a whole bunch of folks that are behind on their rent and mortgages,” he said. “We have more than 4,000 folks in our pipeline to get help.”

Not all those people are from the suburbs, but Lawson said his agency and other nonprofits were seeing the need for assistance in the suburbs grow long before the COVID-19 economic crisis.

“Poverty in the suburbs is growing at a faster rate than in the urban core since the 1990s or at least the early 2000s, starting back with the Clinton administration,” he said. “There was the demolition of public housing with the idea of deconcentrating poverty, which just moved it geographically outwards. And then we had the Great Recession, which had a whole lot of newly poor middle-class folks in the suburbs finding their way through social services agencies. Now as the urban core gentrifies and rents go up, people are moving out again.”

Suburbs in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas saw the number of residents living below the poverty line grow by 57% between 2000 and 2015, according to research that Elizabeth Kneebone conducted for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Suburbs accounted for nearly half of the nation’s total increase in the poor population during that time, she found.

Greater Cincinnati suburbs mirror that trend, according to an analysis of census data that Kneebone completed for WCPO.

Between 2000 and 2019, the population of people living below the federal poverty line decreased by 3% within the city of Cincinnati, according to Kneebone, the research director for the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California at Berkeley.

But the population of people living below the federal poverty line increased in the rest of Hamilton County by 74% during that same timeframe, her analysis showed. The 2020 federal poverty level amounts to an income of $26,200 per year for a family of four.

“Poverty grew at a faster pace in the suburbs during the 2000s and in the wake of the Great Recession,” Kneebone said in an email to WCPO. “And when the number of people living in poverty began to decline in the post-Great Recession recovery, the decline in the suburbs started later and happened at a slower pace than in the city.”

The Silverton strategy

By 2017, poverty in Hamilton County communities just outside Cincinnati – the so-called “first-ring suburbs” – ranged from 1% in Madeira to 45.7% in Lincoln Heights, according to a report co-authored by Tom Carroll, Silverton’s village manager, and Elaina Johns-Wolfe, a former Ph.D. student at the University of Cincinnati who now teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Eviction filing rates varied dramatically among the communities, too, their report found. The rates between 2014 and 2017 ranged from 0.49 filings per 100 renter-occupied units in Terrace Park to 23.91 filings per 100 renter-occupied units in North Bend.

Silverton had 13.3% of its families living in poverty and an eviction filing rate of 7.61 per 100 rental units. That was near the middle of the pack among Hamilton County’s first-ring suburbs – but too high as far as Carroll was concerned.

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Tom Carroll

“Our budget really is a mirror of the private, economic activity,” he said. “If our community is getting less and less able to meet its own needs, then our municipality and the rest of the community will also fall behind. And that’s the classic situation that’s happening in first-suburbs around the United States.”

Carroll has proposed two programs to help Silverton residents in need stay in their homes.

One is an eviction prevention program, which Carroll said he thinks could reduce the number of evictions in Silverton by 10% per year or more, depending on how much funding is available. Most evictions in Silverton are for non-payment of rent totaling $1,500 or less, Carroll said.

He suggested creating a pool of $20,000 to $30,000 for eviction prevention using federal grant dollars and funds from Silverton’s annual electric aggregation program. The village also is looking into a rental registration program, and fees from that could provide funding, too, he said. Silverton would need to find a partner to help distribute the grants to families who are otherwise financially stable but need a one-time helping hand to avoid eviction and the downward spiral that typically follows, Carroll said.

Carroll’s second proposal would create a housing stabilization program to help low- and moderate-income homeowners make desperately needed repairs on their houses that they cannot afford to complete on their own.

“That helps the family, it helps avoid that house from deteriorating and it helps the neighbors from having a neighbor who’s not keeping it up,” Carroll said. “Most of these are going to be willing, stable homeowners who just don’t have the money. So we’re going to figure out how to help them. And long term, that’s going to just improve the value overall of all of the housing stock.”

Carroll has suggested transferring money from Silverton’s general fund to seed the housing stabilization program, which eventually would become a revolving loan fund as homes get sold and the village gets repaid. The money spent on maintenance could range from $1,000 to $10,000 per home, he said.

Silverton’s council hasn’t voted on either proposal yet, but two longtime council members said they’re supportive.

“I think if we can help as a community, that’s what we should do,” said Shirley Hackett-Austin, who has been on the council since 2006. “It’s an uplift for everybody in the community to keep our property up to code.”

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Shirley Hackett-Austin

Mark Quarry, who was first elected to Silverton’s council in 1999, agreed the home stabilization program would help maintain Silverton’s housing stock and property values overall. Quarry said he supports the idea of the eviction prevention program, too, if it doesn’t take away from other basic services.

“Just because these people are renters, it doesn’t make them any less of a citizen than a resident who’s purchased property,” Quarry said. “They’re all equal. They all have the same level of importance, and we owe the same dedication to somebody who rents as somebody who buys property.”

‘We know these people’

Karen Woods and her husband have lived in their house in Silverton for 31 years but have struggled to maintain it the way they would like to, she said. Woods was panicked initially when they received a letter from Silverton’s code enforcement officer saying they had to make repairs to the house or face hundreds of dollars in fines.

“I started freaking out,” said Woods, who is partially blind in both eyes. “We didn’t have the money to do what we needed to do.”

Silverton’s code enforcement officer gave the couple an extension, and Woods, a missionary who runs her own ministry, called upon her network of supporters for help. Friends and neighbors rallied to help the couple demolish a detached garage behind their house and repaint their home – all at a price they could afford.

“They came to the rescue,” Woods said of her friends, adding that she was excited to hear Silverton has a program in the works to help homeowners like her.

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Karen Woods

“When I think about other people that may not have the connections like I do, what I’m excited about is we have our community,” she said, “and community leaders that really do care.”

If Silverton moves forward with Carroll’s ideas, the approach could become a model for other communities in the region, said Sister Sally Duffy, chair of the Child Poverty Collaborative that’s working to reduce poverty in Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

“I think he’s really on to something,” Duffy said. “It’s how can we learn from each other. And ultimately the goal isn’t just to move people out of poverty. The goal is how then do we create equity and wealth and rather than talking about generational poverty, we’re talking about generational wealth and equity.”

The needs span the region.

· Of the thousands of people Community Action Agency is helping currently, about 25% of the families getting home energy assistance are from suburban Hamilton County, as are 25% of the families getting rental assistance. Roughly 30% of the families the agency helps through Project Lift, a program of the Child Poverty Collaborative, are from the suburbs, Lawson said.

· Project Lift had helped 833 total households through the end of September, and 32% were from outside the city of Cincinnati. Project Lift works with nonprofits and faith-based organizations to reach families in need and has partners throughout Hamilton County, said Chandra Matthews-Smith, United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s chief community engagement officer.

· And St. Vincent de Paul – Cincinnati serves thousands of people in the suburbs through its more than 50 church-based conferences that provide food, rent and utility assistance and clothing and furniture vouchers, said Skip Tate, the nonprofit’s director of community relations.

“When the pandemic hit and people who may have been surviving but living paycheck to paycheck lost their jobs, the requests we got for assistance from our conferences skyrocketed,” Tate said in an email. “Even suburban areas that you might think of being somewhat affluent have people living on the edge.”

For suburban communities like Silverton, those neighbors in need are often people who have lived there for years, Hackett-Austin said, adding that’s all the more reason to help.

“We know these people,” she said. “Really, they’re us.”

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Karen Woods and her husband have lived in their Silverton home for 31 years.

If you live in Greater Cincinnati and need help, United Way of Greater Cincinnati can help connect you to services. Dial 211 or 513-721-7900. TTY: 513-762-7250. Or email uw211@uwgc.org. The service covers Hamilton, Clermont and Brown counties in Ohio and Boone, Campbell, Kenton and Grant counties in Kentucky.

WCPO 9 multimedia producer Brian Niesz contributed to this story.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on problems we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and WCPO, online and on air. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.