CINCINNATI — A coalition pushing for more affordable housing in Cincinnati has grown in strength and numbers, and its leaders say a funding proposal is on the horizon.
“We’re stronger today than we were before the ballot box,” said Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. “We’re confident that we’re going to get this accomplished -- that we will get housing funded every year in this city by right.”
Voters in May rejected a charter amendment that would have required Cincinnati’s city government to set aside $50 million each year to build and preserve affordable housing in the city.
City officials and local unions opposed the measure, arguing it could require the city to reduce services and cut jobs to come up with the money. But labor leaders and affordable housing advocates have joined forces since the vote and say they’re determined to craft a winning proposal.
“It’s been called a family reunion, if you will,” said Brian Griffin, director of communications and technology for the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council. “We are all back on the same side of the table. We’re all pulling on the same end of the rope again, and we have a very common interest. And we are very, very dedicated to the idea that this is an issue that needs to be brought to a front burner, and it needs to be addressed in the city of Cincinnati.”
The Rev. Damon Lynch III said he’s calling on faith leaders to join the effort, too.
“During the time of the fight for Issue 3, the faith community was visibly absent,” said Lynch, the pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn who has been meeting with the affordable housing coalition. “My charge and my challenge is for the faith community to get actively involved. These are members of our congregations, members of our families who need housing.”
Elected officials and business leaders from across the political spectrum are working to address the need for more affordable housing, said Cincinnati City Councilman Steve Goodin, a Republican. But Goodin argued city government and city taxpayers should not be asked to tackle the issue alone.
“The folks who need this housing don’t really recognize the boundaries of the city and the county,” he said. “We’ve got to have a regional approach. There’s great housing stock in the county.”
Housing is considered affordable if it costs no more than 30% of a family’s monthly income. A recent report showed how high people’s wages must be to afford a typical apartment.
‘This is a good fight’
In Ohio, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $865 a month. For people to afford that rent and accompanying utilities without paying more than 30% of their monthly income, they must earn at least $14.84 an hour, according to Out of Reach 2021, a report issued July 14 by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio.
Fair market rental rates are higher in Cincinnati, at $916 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to the report, so tenants here must earn at least $17.62 an hour to reasonably afford that rent.
“As long as there’s low wages, there’s going to be a need for low-income housing,” Lynch said. “And the handwriting on the wall is that we’re actually losing affordable housing, wages are not increasing, and people are losing their homes.”
Fonsea Bonner and Barbara Prince are both residents of Gateway Plaza Apartments, a subsidized apartment tower in downtown Cincinnati, and both worked as volunteers trying to get out the vote for the affordable housing charter amendment known as Issue 3.
They said that people who live in income-based housing are feeling stuck because their options are shrinking as the city’s redevelopment continues.
“If at any time I feel as if I want to move, where am I going to go?” Bonner said. “I’m not able to afford market rent. So what am I supposed to do if there’s no affordable housing here?”
“That’s the thing about it,” Prince added. “You can’t hardly find it because it’s not out here anymore. They’re making condos and everything else. So it’s hard for anybody, you know, to really go somewhere and live.”
Low-income people are being displaced in Cincinnati every day, Lynch said, making it difficult for them to build strong, healthy communities.
“As a Christian faith community, this is one of the fights that we should be involved in,” he said. “Vernon Johns, the great pastor before Dr. King, said this. He said his father taught him, ‘Son, when you see a good fight, jump in it.’ And this is a good fight.”
The language in Issue 3 suggested multiple revenue sources the city could use to fund Cincinnati’s affordable housing trust fund, but critics said several were unworkable. The coalition working to create a new proposal is looking at the suggestions in the Issue 3 charter amendment, Spring said, and other proposals surrounding the trust fund including Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach’s proposed ordinance to increase the city’s income tax by 0.1% to generate millions of dollars each year for affordable housing.
Goodin said he likely will oppose Seelbach’s proposal because he thinks it will end in another big fight that doesn’t lead to a solution. Plus, Goodin said, the city just lowered its earnings tax as a way to convince voters to pass Issue 7 for better public transit.
“I don’t want it to be a bait and switch for the voters,” he said. “I think the voters will have a very negative reaction to that. And I don’t think the business community will have a very positive reaction either.”
It’s possible, Goodin said, to create a sizable affordable housing trust fund with public and private cooperation that won’t increase taxes at all.
The city of Cincinnati already dedicates lots of tax dollars to tax abatements and incentives for higher priced homes and development, said State Rep. Tom Brinkman, a Mount Lookout Republican. If city leaders wanted, they could redirect that money to affordable housing without raising taxes at all, he said.
“Right now, I believe there’s plenty of funds out there,” Brinkman said. “Just redirect it, and right size it.”
However it is accomplished, the goal is to generate a large enough trust fund to create new affordable housing, help preserve the affordable housing the city already has and help people achieve the goal of affordable home ownership, Spring said.
‘We won’t stop’
“What we’re seeing is a renewed interest in, how do we provide or help to create an environment for safe and affordable quality housing for as many Cincinnati residents as possible?” said Jeniece Jones, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Cincinnati’s fair housing organization.
Cincinnati’s affordable housing trust fund could include down payment assistance for low-income home buyers, she said, in addition to low-interest loans and assistance for low- or moderate-income homeowners whose are struggling to afford their taxes as their neighborhoods redevelop around them.
“That’s where the rubber really meets the road,” Jones said. “That’s a way for us to move forward in a meaningful way to get homeownership as one of the many things that an affordable housing trust fund can and should be able to do.”
The coalition expects to craft a proposal in the coming months to put before Cincinnati City Council, Spring said, or to put before voters again.
“We are confident that the way we get this done is by having the power be in people’s hands,” Spring said. “Certainly, if city council – this city council or a future city council – wants to step up and move forward, we can work together.”
Griffin said there’s a compelling case for the business community to back the construction and preservation of more affordable housing, too.
“This is something that, again, everybody at every layer of the community – from the business community to the labor community to everybody else – really needs to bring front and center and resolve as soon as possible,” he said. “There is a sense of urgency. And while we want to get it right, we also want to get it as soon as possible.”
It’s not a question of whether Cincinnati’s affordable housing trust fund will be funded, Spring said, but when.
“We will accomplish this,” he said. “The development and preservation of housing will be funded in this city. We know it will because we won’t stop until it is. So we’ll just keep pushing until we accomplish our goal.”
More information about the push for more affordable housing in Cincinnati – including how to get involved in the effort – is available through the Cincinnati Action for Housing Now website or the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition website.
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 for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.