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What's the problem with affordable housing in Greater Cincinnati, and how can the region solve it?

'Affordable housing is front and center'
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-29 10:33:51-04

CINCINNATI — Alexis Harris knows what it’s like to rent a place that’s just beyond affordable.

She lives in East Walnut Hills with her teenager and 10-year-old and spends about 35% of her income on their housing.

“In the past sometimes it’s been a little bit more,” said Harris, a single mom who works as a case manager for a local nonprofit organization. “It can be extremely stressful because a lot of times, you have to make those tough decisions. You know how they talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

It’s all about stretching paychecks to cover the basics -- rent, food, child care and gas for the car.

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Alexis Harris

“A lot of times fun activities don’t make the cut,” she said. “When you’re paying that much and more of your income, a lot of times there’s not a lot of room for saving so you kind of end up falling deeper and deeper into debt, taking out, you know, loans that are not in your favor.”

Harris is one of thousands of people across the region paying more for their housing than is reasonably affordable. Housing is considered affordable if it costs no more than 30% of a family’s monthly income. For people paying far more than that, the consequences can be dire.

“If you have a financial crisis, or you have to get a car repair or there’s something emergency that comes up, if you’re paying more than 30% of your monthly income and you are, you know, making less than $50,000 a year, that’s something that really in real dollars can be catastrophic,” said Kristen Baker, executive director of LISC of Greater Cincinnati, which has studied the problem.

“That is the most important part of this conversation,” she said. “To understand what you’re talking about is how much money somebody’s making and how much of that should they be paying for their housing.”

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LISC Cincinnati Executive Director Kristen Baker

LISC’s Housing Our Future report, released last May, estimated that nearly one-third of Hamilton County residents spend more than 30% of their income on housing. LISC worked with consultants from the University of Pennsylvania, the Community Building Institute at Xavier University and Cincinnati-based Cohear to complete the report.

The problem is getting increased attention now because of Issue 3, a measure on the May 4 ballot that asks voters whether the city of Cincinnati’s charter should be amended to require the city to spend $50 million per year on affordable housing.

Those pushing for passage of Issue 3 argue the city must take bold action to address the growing need. Those opposed say it would require drastic cuts in other city services to meet the obligation.

Whether Issue 3 passes or fails, the debate has succeeded in shining a spotlight on the shortage of quality, affordable housing, said Patricia Garry, who serves on the board of Affordable Housing Advocates, one of the groups behind Issue 3. She was president of the organization’s board when discussions began years ago regarding an affordable housing trust fund in the city.

“The main thing that’s happened is affordable housing is front and center,” Garry said. “We are going to make a change in this town, either with this thing or without this thing. People now understand that we have to house our families and our kids.”

Waiting game

While the precise scope of the need has become a matter of debate, there’s no doubt thousands of people are seeking more affordable housing in Greater Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, or CMHA, owns and operates more than 5,000 units of government-subsidized housing in Cincinnati and Hamilton County. Families who live in those properties pay 30% of their income as rent; people who don’t have income pay a minimum of $50 per month. More than 15,000 people are on the waiting list for those properties, said Lesley Wardlow, CMHA’s senior communications coordinator.

The agency also operates the federal housing choice voucher program, commonly known as Section 8, where families get vouchers to help pay their rent. CMHA can provide subsidy to as many as 11,600 families in the private rental market through that program, Wardlow said, but its waiting list is closed.

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Stanley Rowe Towers, Stanley Rowe Rowhouses and Liberty Street Apartments in the West End are among the properties owned and operated by Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority.

CMHA only accepts pre-applications when the housing choice voucher waiting list is open, which last happened in September 2019. At that time, the agency got more than 13,000 applications for 6,500 spots. CMHA used a lottery system to choose which names would be added to the list.

Renters must meet specific low-income requirements to qualify for either program.

“It does send somewhat of a message,” Wardlow said of the waiting lists. “It’s not necessarily that they don’t have housing. They might be in a place where they just can’t afford it.”

CMHA isn’t the only housing provider in town seeing that kind of interest.

Episcopal Retirement Services also has more demand than it can accommodate for space in its 30 affordable senior living communities, said Jimmy Wilson, the organization’s vice president for affordable living.

“Our average occupancy rate is between 97% and 98%,” Wilson said, adding that its communities have “quite healthy” waiting lists.

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Dr. Jimmy Wilson

“We have applicants who apply in their advanced years – 70, 80 years of age,” he said. “To tell a family or resident that, you know, we don’t have room for you, or at least the room that we’re going to have isn’t available for up to two years, it’s not a very pleasant conversation. And it speaks very much to the need for housing that’s affordable for elders -- and also just for the larger population.”

That need goes far beyond seniors or people whose incomes are low enough to qualify for government help.

“There are a number of really nice places in and around Walnut Hills that are way, way, way, way too expensive for the average person like myself – single mom with two kids with my income,” Alexis Harris said. “It’s disheartening because, No. 1, you wonder: Who are these people who can afford $2,000 and $3,000 two- and three-bedroom apartments? And, two, you wonder why there’s not a bigger push to make more properties mixed-use income, so that everybody can have a piece of the pie.”

Finding ‘the path forward’

Tackling the problem in a meaningful way is important for the vitality of the entire region, said Robert Killins, director of special initiatives at The Greater Cincinnati Foundation. The foundation has partnered with LISC to study the affordable housing shortage.

When families pay too much for their housing, they can wind up living in poor conditions and often move frequently, he said. The poor conditions can lead to lifelong health problems for children – such as asthma and lead poisoning -- and frequent moves lead to disruptions in schooling.

“We’ve always had an ethic in America that work should pay, that we want people to work and earn their way,” he said. “But when you work, and you work hard, and you work two jobs and overtime, and you still can’t make a go at it, you know, that means something fundamentally has to change.”

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Macison Villa in Madisonville is an affordable living community for seniors operated by Episcopal Retirement Services.

The question is: What form will that change take?

The affordable housing trust fund described in the Issue 3 charter amendment is one approach.

RELATED: Issue 3: Backers laud affordable housing proposal as critics worry of budget impact

Cincinnati City Manager Paula Boggs Muething said creating a loan pool administered by a nonprofit lender is a better alternative. Cincinnati City Council approved that strategy earlier this month.

RELATED: Cincinnati commits $35.5 million to affordable housing

“That’s the path forward -- the most reasonable path forward that does not require cutting basic services,” she said. “It’s a way for us to provide support while leveraging other federal and state programs like low-income housing tax credits and other types of Ohio Housing Financing Agency lending products.”

LISC’s Housing Our Future study offered dozens of recommendations, including: the creation of more tenant advocacy organizations; increasing wages; reducing evictions and boosting home ownership.

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Paula Boggs Muething

“This is not a one-size-fits-all issue,” said Killins of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. ‘Some of the things that are needed in Cincinnati may be a little different from what’s needed in maybe Cheviot or Springdale or some other place in the county and the region."

A small but promising program on Cincinnati’s West Side is tackling the shortage by turning low-income renters into homeowners.

The nonprofit community development corporation Price Hill Will created its Homesteading program to help low-income families in the Price Hill neighborhoods build wealth while reducing blight created by aging, vacant houses, said Rachel Hastings, Price Hill Will’s executive director.

“For most Americans, and particularly white Americans, the opportunity to buy a house and build equity is, you know, the single biggest investment you ever make,” she said. “It’s the way that families build wealth and equity and sort of pass that onto their children. Well, we just have, unfortunately, a lot of folks in our neighborhood that have been left out of that opportunity.”

‘Something for the future’

Over the past four and a half years, the program has worked with a network of other local nonprofits to help a dozen families purchase homes. The families must be below 65% of area median income, Hastings said. That amounted to an annual income of less than $37,200 in 2019.

Families receive a financial review, take budgeting classes and get help working through any credit problems in their past, Hastings said. They also learn about the responsibilities of homeownership.

Price Hill Will then talks with the families about the type of house that would best meet their needs and where they would prefer to live, Hastings said. Once an agreement is reached, the organization and the homebuyer agree to a land contract, and the families save up $1,500 for a deposit.

Families make monthly payments that equal no more than 25% of their incomes and pledge to improve their properties.

After five years, if the families live up to the terms of their agreements, they own their homes outright, Hastings said. Two of the program’s families have paid off their contracts early, she said.

Ausel Perez said the program is a dream come true for him and his family.

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Ausel Perez, right, and his wife, Linda, outside their East Price Hill home.

Perez and his wife, Linda, who are originally from Guatemala, work as independent contractors for cleaning services. The couple and their four children moved into their East Price Hill house in January 2017. Perez spoke to WCPO 9 with the help of Laura Castillo, a Spanish-speaking intern for Price Hill Will.

“He says it’s an absolutely beautiful house, they are very fortunate that it has four bedrooms. So luckily each of the two girls gets their own room, and the boys get to share rooms,” Castillo said, interpreting for Perez. “It’s very spacious.”

Perez and his wife created a soundproofed studio where they could play musical instruments with their children – a big change from the series of rental properties where the family had lived.

“For them, the big impact has been to really take that money that would have gone to paying rent to a landlord to something for the future of their kids,” Castillo said, translating for Perez. “It’s something that has made a big, big impact in their life. And he feels very blessed to have had this chance for him and his family.”

It’s an especially important opportunity for Hispanic families, he said.

“For the Hispanic community, especially those who find themselves in the city scared or afraid, especially because of your potential legal status,” Castillo said, translating for Perez. “You can reach out. There are good people who will help you along this way. There’s great opportunities here.”

The homesteading program is one of them, but it isn’t cheap.

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The Perez family outside their East Price Hill home.

It requires thousands of dollars of grant funding for each house, Hastings said. But the cost per house is typically less than building an affordable housing unit from the ground up, she said, and the improved properties help boost values throughout the neighborhoods. Hastings hopes other communities will take notice, she said, and try to replicate it.

LISC’s Baker said it will take many strategies – and even more funding -- to make progress.

“None of the solutions for housing are an immediate fix or a cheap fix, and that’s a very difficult conversation to have,” Baker said. “Because all of these require capacity, they require investment from developers, from nonprofit groups, from the city, from neighborhood partners, right. This isn’t a $10,000 solution.”

WCPO 9 News reporter Mariel Carbone 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 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.