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As West End transformation begins, some public housing residents fear they will be pushed out

Housing authority promises tenants will remain
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Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 23:25:13-05

CINCINNATI — There’s no doubt change is coming to the West End.

The question is, who will be part of it?

As FC Cincinnati works to complete its new $250 million stadium designed to draw thousands of major league soccer fans to the neighborhood, the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority is beginning a two-year planning process to reimagine its West End public housing communities.

CMHA won a $410,000 federal grant in December to create a blueprint for the future of Stanley Rowe Towers, Stanley Rowe Rowhouses and its Liberty Street Apartments. The properties include 554 units in total and currently house 932 men, women and children.

RELATED: New grant could mean big changes for West End public housing

The housing authority says its current West End residents will be a vital part of the planning, and CMHA has vowed that nobody will be displaced as a result of recommendations that come out of the process.

“That is one thing that’s guaranteed,” said Lesley Wardlow, CMHA’s senior communications coordinator. “Everyone who’s there will have a place to return to there or have a new place at the site.”

Some residents remain wary, however, said Vida Manuel. She has lived in Stanley Rowe Tower B for more than eight years and serves as treasurer of the building’s resident council.

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Vida Manuel

“When there’s change, something’s going to happen,” Manuel said. “I’m apprehensive.”

The neighborhood’s history makes that apprehension easy to understand.

CMHA’s own application for the federal grant describes how the West End – “a thriving epicenter of African American culture, wealth and business for over three decades” – was “ravaged” by Urban Renewal programs of the 1950s that uprooted thousands of families with the demolition of a 400-acre section of the neighborhood.

“The West End neighborhood population,” the grant application states, “battles poverty and blight, while gentrification is creeping west from Cincinnati’s CBD, Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton, as well as north from the FC Cincinnati soccer stadium.”

Supporters of the planning process argue that history makes it critically important for affordable housing to be at the heart of any blueprint for the neighborhood’s future. They argue CMHA is the best hope for West End residents to remain a part of the neighborhood as market forces begin to drive redevelopment there.

Addressing ‘fair to poor’ conditions

“One of the things that happens in gentrifying neighborhoods is, it’s all about market dynamics. We’re watching housing values increase in some eye-popping ways all over the place,” said Liz Blume, director of Xavier University’s Community Building Institute, which is helping CMHA craft the plan. “When you aren’t intentional about the affordable side of the equation, that’s when things get out of whack because the affordable side of the equation does not happen automatically.”

There’s no question that Stanley Rowe Towers and Rowhouses and Liberty Street Apartments need help.

An assessment conducted by Maryland-based Bureau Veritas estimated that the combined properties – which include 17 buildings that cover 12.57 acres -- need a total of more than $69 million in critical and noncritical repairs and renovations. Among the problems:

  • Common area stairs are deteriorated.
  • Outdated electrical panels fail frequently.
  • Termite damage exists in the wood structure of the townhomes.
  • Stanley Rowe Towers A and B have no central air, and the window units that many residents use to cool their apartments “create emergency egress concerns” and are a “life-safety hazard.”
  • The towers also have asbestos in the pipe wrap, which can be exposed and become hazardous during repairs.
  • An old fire pump, narrow hallways and elevators make "fire an extreme risk at Stanley Rowe."
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This photo and description are part of an assessment of Stanley Rowe Towers by Bureau Veritas.

The report recommended that the towers get central air conditioning, new wiring and lighting and full replacement of supply and waste lines in the plumbing system. It rated the overall condition of the properties “fair to poor.”

In past years, there has been talk of tearing down the towers and replacing them with low-rise buildings that experts now prefer for public housing.

Wardlow noted that Cincinnati and New York City are some of the last places in the country that have public housing high-rise buildings like Stanley Rowe. But she stressed that residents would drive the discussion about whether the towers should be torn down or renovated.

“Right now, we don’t know,” Wardlow said. “That’s what the planning process is going to be. The planning process will be, OK, throw all your ideas out there. What do you want to do? Do you want to keep the towers up the way they are? OK, then what do we need to do to fix that. Do you want to tear them down and get a new look?”

‘Seems like the back end never comes’

Manuel said she agrees the towers have more than their fair share of problems. Her apartment has been fine. But she knows neighbors who have problems with their plumbing and floors, she said, and the tower’s elevator seems to break down constantly.

Still, she can’t help but worry about the senior citizens in Stanley Rowe Towers, some of whom have lived there for 20 years.

“I need to know that our seniors, the people who are disabled, who need services,” Manuel said. “If there is going to be a renovation, they should take priority. Because it’s hard. Since they’re down here, they’ve already got services. You’ve got the bus line. You know a lot of them don’t have transportation. Some of them don’t even have family members left, you know. They’re on their own.”

CMHA’s application for the Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant it received from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development states every “lease-compliant” tenant that currently lives in the Stanley Rowe Towers and Rowhouses and the Liberty Street Apartments will have “the right to return to a replacement apartment where they will continue to pay 30% of their income toward rent.”

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An assessment conducted for Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority said window air-conditioning units are a serious problem at Stanley Rowe Towers.

The wording refers to tenants who are not in the midst of an eviction, said Lisa Isham, CMHA’s Housing Choice Voucher program director, in an email to WCPO.

But Manuel said she’s concerned that language means some struggling residents who have ongoing problems with CMHA could be left behind.

“It’s very easy to say one thing, and when you get to the nuts and bolts and you start working on it, things have to change. It doesn’t necessarily need a vote,” she said. “’It’s going to be this way because, you know, we’ve got monetary constraints. We’ve got a deadline. Things have to happen or else we’ll lose the funding from the government. Oh well.’ It’s almost like, suck it up, you know, we’ve got deadlines. We’ve got to do this, and oh well. We’ll work something out on the back end. And seems like the back end never comes.”

Making sure the community’s voices are heard

Alexis Kidd Zaffer said Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses will be involved in the process to make sure West End residents are involved in the planning and feel connected to the work.

“Our role is basically community,” said Zaffer, Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses executive director. “Making sure the voices of the neighbors are heard in the process, making sure we do as much full engagement as possible.”

That won’t be simple in the age of COVID-19, Zaffer said, but she’s confident Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses and the Community Building Institute can find ways to ensure residents can stay informed, participate and have their say in the neighborhood’s future.

“The plan doesn’t work, we can’t go to the next stage, unless residents are engaged and buy into it,” Zaffer said, adding that CMHA CEO Gregory Johnson has made it clear how important tenants’ participation is. “Greg wants to see his residents engaged and make sure they’re heard in this process.”

But Zaffer said she understands why some members of the community are worried.

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Alexis Kidd Zaffer

“There have been plenty of times in our neighborhood where residents’ voice have been, you know, shouted over by, whether it be developers, by the city itself,” she said, “This is an opportunity now for residents to be at the forefront and make those decisions for themselves.”

It’s disappointing, she said, that it seems to have taken a looming influx of white residents and investment to bring this transformational opportunity to the historically Black neighborhood.

“It is frustrating,” she said. “Why can’t we figure out a plan that works for people that are there? The community has been crying out for investment for a long time.”

Reinvestment to match what was taken away

Now that the opportunity is coming to transform the West End, Wardlow said CMHA wants to ensure that the people who live in Stanley Rowe Towers, Rowhouses and Liberty Street Apartments reap the benefits, too.

“The real winners are the residents, because they get to stay in the West End,” she said. “This planning gives us an opportunity that’s going to help us transform our communities for our families as well as help change the atmosphere and the neighborhood.”

The goal is to help the West End regain its stature as a thriving, cultural hub filled with businesses, jobs, recreation and resources for the people who live there, Zaffer said.

“It has to be a reinvestment back into the West End to match what was taken away over so many years,” she said. “This is a community of families, and we want to remain a community of families.”

That doesn’t mean the community can avoid all the high-end development headed its way.

“We’re not going to stop anything from happening. We can kind of slow it down and make sure it fits the needs of the neighborhood,” Zaffer said. “What we don’t want is developments that are coming down here and then say, ‘Well, we don’t like our surroundings. We want to see people gone and change.’ You came to this community, this historic community. And we want to make sure those aspects stay in our neighborhood.”

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Construction underway in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood on Feb. 8, 2021.

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.

WCPO 9's ongoing series, Move Up Cincinnati, tracks regional growth and how our community is working to uplift those left behind. To contact the Move Up Cincinnati team, email us at moveupcincinnati@wcpo.com.

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