CINCINNATI — Hawaii native Alyssa Bell has come a long way.
When we last spoke to her in November 2019, Bell was aspiring to be accepted into the Cincinnati Scholar House program, a transitional living development in Walnut Hills for low-income single mothers in school. At the time, the Scholar House was then still under construction.
Over a year later, the Scholar House has had its grand opening, and Bell is one of the dozens of women living in the brand new building. She is raising a toddler and infant twins, the latter two she delivered through a home birth in her Scholar House unit last August. At the same time, Bell is navigating what is slated to be a transformative chapter of her career.
“I'm definitely fortunate to participate in this program,” Bell said. “And it definitely leads me on a pathway to success with my education.”
Her studies at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College have pivoted from science to accounting and business. Bell said being in the Scholar House program has been a great advantage because having comfortable affordable housing with on-site childcare makes it easier for her to focus on her studies. She credits the success of the program so far to the Scholar House staff’s dedication.
“It's going to lead a lot of families and single parent families to success with their education and with life. And a lot of us wouldn't have the same opportunities if [the staff] weren't so invested in their passion,” she said.
The Scholar House opened on East McMillan Street in June 2020. The opening was the culmination of work that Cincinnati Union Bethel, the Model Group, and Christ Church Cathedral have been partnering on since 2014. The building is co-owned and managed by Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), a nonprofit that develops, owns and operates thousands of affordable units across 11 states and the District of Columbia.
“It was a little hard for us to open during COVID,” said Rainie Moody, the Cincinnati Scholar House’s managing director. "But we did it. We did it with the community support.”
Their vision was to disrupt cycles of poverty by creating an opportunity for underprivileged women with children to obtain safe, affordable housing while pursuing an education.
The Scholar House in Cincinnati was inspired by a number of other Scholar Houses already open in cities like Louisville, Lexington and Covington. A board member of the Kentucky Housing Corporation conceived the idea over a decade ago. At one point, the Model Group worked with the Brighton Center and the Housing Authority of Newport to open the Newport Scholar House location.
The development’s 44 units were occupied by the end of August. Thirty-two apartments contain two bedrooms while the remaining twelve contain three bedrooms. Residents can also take advantage of the computer lab and fitness room in the building. On the ground floor there is also an early care and education center for children as young as six weeks old and 3,000 square feet of unoccupied retail space. The developers and owners of the property are still looking for the right retailer that will be a suitable fit for the ultimate mission of the building and the needs of the larger Walnut Hills community.
David Thompson, the Model Group’s vice president of affordable housing, said the project’s organizers had spent years looking for sites suitable for the Cincinnati location. He noted that creating a strong foundation for the project meant more than finding solid ground. It also meant forging a commitment with like-minded entities, as well as narrowing down a spot that was close to public transit and educational opportunities to foster the right environment for residents.
“It's not just about the bricks and sticks. It's about all of the case management, and mentorship, and you know, high quality child care," Thompson said. "That really makes, I think, the secret sauce of this.”
The total cost of construction for the Scholar House was $12.6 million, according to Thompson. The developers received $10 million in tax credits from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, $638,000 from the city, $440,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati and conventional debt. Moody said Cincinnati Union Bethel led a capital campaign to furnish and equip their offices on-site and the Child Development Center. Christ Church Cathedral also donated $2.5 million to the building’s maintenance and operations over the next decade.
“We at the cathedral are committed to the program because we feel that its structure supports success, and that’s what we feel very strongly about,” said Dianne Ebbs, a longtime member of Christ Church who sat on its committee mandated to support Scholar House's development.
Like Bell, Genesis McPherson lives in the building with her two young children. McPherson is getting her associate’s degree in nursing at ATA College.
“Scholar House has really been a supportive system for me right now with me being in school full time. I don't have to worry about going anywhere else for daycare for my children," McPherson said. "They come right downstairs and go to preschool.”
McPherson is grateful for Scholar House because having a safe home there has made it easier for her to focus on her education. She said mothers like her in the building would otherwise be overwhelmed or left without options if they tried to go back to school while paying full market rent, as well as for daycare and other essentials.
In order to be eligible for the program, single mothers must be enrolled in school full or part-time. They also must have primary or full custody of their children and qualify for the subsidy voucher that is attached to the housing project. Moody said most of the women in the program are African Americans between the ages of 19 to 50. Due to the subsidy, tenants pay no more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities.
Residents attend schools like Cincinnati State, the University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, Chatfield Community College and Gateway Community College. In addition to their formal schooling, they also enjoy workshops on things like parenting, budgeting, and health and nutrition. Additional forms of support include tutoring, mentoring and a work-study program.
Cincinnati Scholar House has built relationships with other neighboring small businesses to execute and enhance their offerings. First Financial Bank has partnered with the program to provide financial literacy classes while La Soupe will begin teaching the women through a virtual cooking class this month. Esoteric Brewing Company is also sharing job opportunities to boost residents’ chances of getting hired. Children living in the development are only steps away from the local branch of the Cincinnati Library; it is expected that library staff will work closely with the Scholar House’s Child Development Center, as well.
Despite all of the activity in the building, Scholar House staff are making a concerted effort to keep residents safe from COVID. Face-to-face meetings and interviews have been cut down substantially from what was originally planned. Virtually all community meetings and workshops are held through Zoom.
Even with the social isolation required by the pandemic, Bell said she and the residents have been bonding in the space. She was encouraged by the support Scholar House gave her through not only the program, but also in her decision to have a home birth at the facility. In Bell’s eyes, Cincinnati Scholar House is a building filled with women empowering one another.
“I think it's really good to be surrounded with other women, especially other women who are going through motherhood at the same time," Bell said. “It's just an immediate support group here, where you live.”
Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.
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