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Could this Bond Hill duplex offer lessons to solve the region's affordable housing shortage?

'We are literally trying to change lives'
A two-story duplex is under construction in Cincinnati's Bond Hill neighborhood. In this photo, volunteers work on the structure while lumber sits piled up in front of it.
Posted at 6:00 AM, May 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-20 18:10:19-04

CINCINNATI — Vera Suggs looks at her duplex under construction in Bond Hill and sees more than the comfortable, affordable place where she and her husband can spend their golden years.

Her future home also serves as an example for Suggs’ family.

“I have two adult children. I raised five nephews and a niece. I have 10 grandchildren,” she said. “I’m giving them a perfect example of what hard work looks like and what owning a home looks like. And it’s very rewarding, not just for me but for my whole family.”

Vera Suggs, wearing a white hardhat and blue t-shirt, smiles and gestures back to her home that is under construction in Bond Hill.
Vera Suggs, wearing a white hardhat and blue t-shirt, smiles and gestures back to her home that is under construction in Bond Hill.

The Bond Hill duplex could offer rewards for the region, too, as a lesson in how to tackle Greater Cincinnati’s affordable housing shortage in two important ways.

The project is creating homeownership opportunities for people whose wages make it hard for them to find decent housing they can afford – and it’s encouraging young people to pursue construction careers with higher wages that make it easier to afford a decent place to live.

“It’s the perfect match,” said Jordan Vogel, executive director of Allied Construction Industries, or ACI, a trade association for the commercial construction industry. The group partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati to build the duplex and a single-family home next door. “We are literally trying to change lives.”

“The best way to solve poverty is to give people an opportunity to enjoy economic inclusion,” Vogel said. “To be part of this kind of wonderful Renaissance that we’re all experiencing. You, too, can be part of it. You don’t have to be on the sidelines, and construction is a great entry point.”

Jordan Vogel, the executive director of Allied Construction Industries, smiles in this photo with his arms crossed against his chest.
Jordan Vogel, the executive director of Allied Construction Industries, smiles in this photo with his arms crossed against his chest.

And partnerships like the one with ACI could be an important way for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati to grow and build more affordable homes, said Ed Lee, the organization’s CEO.

“We stopped taking homeowner applications for a period of time because of the pandemic,” said Lee, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati. “May 1, we opened that back up. And the first 10 days of May, we had 47 applications turned in. Very clearly -- very clearly -- there is a demand for affordable homeownership and workforce homeownership in our community. And we’ve just got to figure out how to do more.”

‘We just can’t build enough’

The duplex in Bond Hill has been years in the making.

In 2016, ACI teamed up with Cincinnati Public Schools and won a grant from Impact 100 for $101,500 over three years to help connect math in the classroom to real life. Math educators at Woodward Career Technical High School worked with construction professionals to create an applied-math learning approach to ensure students have the math skills they need to be ready for work, Vogel said.

The next step was to find a way to help students use those math skills in real life. ACI used some of the grant money to buy land in Bond Hill from The Port, he said, and approached Habitat for Humanity about being the contractor for the project and allowing students from Woodward Career Technical High School to help build it. ACI gave Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati $20,000 as seed money to help with the construction.

“There are all sorts of safety concerns with kids,” Vogel said. “Habitat had a lot of this worked out already because they’ve got the volunteer piece locked down. So they became almost the obvious partner.”

Allied Construction Industries and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati teamed up to build the single-family home with tan siding, on the left, and the duplex under construction on the right.
Allied Construction Industries and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati teamed up to build the single-family home with tan siding, on the left, and the duplex under construction on the right.

Habitat for Humanity suggested changes to the scope of the project, Lee said, pushing for the construction of a single-family home and a duplex on the property instead of one single-family home.

The first house was completed in December, and the duplex is scheduled to be finished this summer.

“We continue to have discussions with ACI about how to attract more folks into the trades, and some of the current discussions we’re having is: Can we partner together on creating some apprenticeship program?” Lee said. “That benefits Habitat but also invite folks into the trades from the community in which we serve.”

Encouraging more people to consider careers in construction is a core mission of ACI, but it’s also important to the entire region, Lee said, because it’s getting more and more difficult to find construction crews to help build homes locally.

Ed Lee, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati, smiles with an American flag in the background.
Ed Lee, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati, smiles with an American flag in the background.

“In our community, it’s quickly going to move from just that affordable housing issue into a housing issue,” he said. “We just can’t build enough because we don’t have folks in the trades.”

Suggs and her neighbor, Shelisa Gilmore, are learning some construction skills now as they work to help build the duplex as part of Habitat for Humanity’s requirements.

‘It allows us to be able to breathe’

Gilmore and her three children will live in unit A on the corner while Suggs and her husband will live in unit B.

“I want my kids to feel like…they can dream big,” said Gilmore, who works as a housekeeper for the University of Cincinnati Medical Center and currently lives in subsidized housing. “It doesn’t stop at an apartment. If you want to get a house, go on and get a house. I just want them to feel like they could always have a forever home.”

Every Saturday that Gilmore works on the duplex, she said, her kids greet her with questions when she gets home.

Shelisa Gilmore is smiling and wearing a white hardhat and blue t-shirt for this picture outside her Bond Hill duplex that is under construction.
Shelisa Gilmore is smiling and wearing a white hardhat and blue t-shirt for this picture outside her Bond Hill duplex that is under construction.

“’Mom, what’d you do today?’ I’m like, we did this and this, Gilmore said. “They’re just excited, ready to just get a fresh new start.”

Suggs said she and her husband are excited, too. Suggs has worked 32 years for the Hamilton County Recorder’s Office and currently pays more than $1,000 per month to rent a two-bedroom townhouse in Forest Park. She expects her mortgage on the duplex will be more like $550 per month, she said.

“To be able to partner up with Habitat and the affordability that they allow us,” Suggs said. “It’s a lifesaver. It allows us to be able to breathe.”

Like all Habitat homeowners, Suggs and Gilmore also have been attending classes to prepare them for homeownership.

“It gives you lifelong lessons on how to really maintain a home, how to really budget, how to save,” Suggs said. “It’s going to make a huge difference for me.”

Gilmore said she expects her mortgage will end up costing more than the $344 she pays for rent each month now. But she said the extra cost is worth it.

“I’m just so ready,” she said. “Now we have something that we can call ours.”

Shelisa Gilmore, left, and Vera Suggs, right, pose with masks pulled above their nose and mouth in this photo as they stand next to each other inside the Bond Hill duplex they are helping to build.
Shelisa Gilmore, left, and Vera Suggs, right, pose with masks pulled above their nose and mouth in this photo as they stand next to each other inside the Bond Hill duplex they are helping to build.

More information about Allied Construction Industries is available online.

More information about Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati is available online, too.

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 issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and for WCPO 9. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.