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COLUMN: Why 2019 could be the year Cincinnati tackles its housing problems

Posted: 5:01 AM, Feb 13, 2019
Updated: 2019-02-13 07:27:39-05
Newport Scholar House

CINCINNATI — The math seems simple enough.

Hamilton County needs roughly 40,000 more units of affordable housing than it currently has, and U.S. Census Bureau figures estimate the county has 48,000 vacant housing units.

Kathy Schwab and her team spent much of last year trying to solve one problem with the other, asking: “How do we match those vacant properties to the gap that we have in affordable housing?”

Schwab, the executive director of LISC Greater Cincinnati, doesn’t have an answer yet. Instead, she has the start of a whole new effort to craft a citywide housing strategy for Cincinnati. She is part of a group of local organizations, officials and experts working together to address a range of community problems holding back thousands of local families.

“We felt that we needed a unified vision community-wide, where everyone could find their own organizations and what they could do toward it,” Schwab told nonprofit executives gathered Tuesday for the annual meeting of the Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County . “We’re hoping to get as much broad community engagement as possible.”

This is important stuff.

People who pay more for their housing than they can afford are more likely to face evictions. The rule of thumb is that housing costs are “affordable” if they consume no more than 30 percent of a family’s household income.

People who get evicted have a more difficult time finding a decent, safe place to live that they can afford. That can lead to more evictions and, eventually, to homelessness.

Schwab said she’s excited about the participation in the discussion so far.

The group’s first meeting was Feb. 8, and those in attendance spent four hours discussing what their mission and vision should be, she said.

Several members of Cincinnati City Council had representatives there, as did the city administration. Gregory Johnson, the CEO of Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority was there, too.

‘Resources will follow’

Johnson told WCPO why he felt it was important to be involved in a written statement.

“The need for affordable housing in our community is greater than ever, no one understands that more than Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority,” he wrote. “Being part of the leadership as the community comes together to work on solutions that increase affordable housing is a wonderful opportunity for CMHA, our residents and the overall community.

"We will continue to strengthen current partnerships and develop new partnerships as we find solutions to increase affordable housing.”

Housing policy has been getting more attention from city officials of late.

Earlier this month, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and Councilman David Mann proposed allocating $700,000 from the city’s Norfolk Southern Railroad into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund that Cincinnati City Council created in December.

The Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and Affordable Housing Advocates released a statement calling the proposal “an important step forward.”

Now Cincinnati needs a shared vision, said Harold Brown, the vice president of community strategies at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

“In many cases, we’re not necessarily working in great alignment,” Brown said. “We need to issue a community challenge where we can all see where we can plug in and work together.”

Communities around the country that have done that have been able to attract millions of dollars in funding to address their needs, Schwab said.

Gregory Johnson at a CMHA property.

Detroit recently rolled out a $125 million fund to address housing needs, she said, and Charlotte announced $150 million in funding last August that aims to encourage the development of more mixed-income housing. (The Detroit Affordable Housing Leverage Fund is actually an even larger $250 million project, according to its website and local news outlets.)

“If there is a housing strategy that everyone can buy into, the resources will follow,” Schwab said.

The discussion also must go beyond money, said Jeniece Jones, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, the fair housing agency in Greater Cincinnati.

“Part of this affordable housing question, part of this affordable housing success, is to make sure everyone has access to communities of choice where they are welcome and stable and integrated,” she said during a panel discussion at the Human Services Chamber meeting.

Answering the original math question will be anything but simple, but Schwab said she hopes her new group can complete its work before the end of 2019.

“I just feel like if we have more of a blueprint, it will happen."

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 her and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.