CINCINNATI — Tia Brown isn’t against TQL Stadium, the Major League Soccer venue that just opened in the West End. As the community engagement director of Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, the community development corporation of the West End, she hopes FC Cincinnati's permanent home will invite other amenities that the neighborhood needs, such as a laundromat or a market.
But she's also worried about how the stadium is boosting the price of properties in the area.
Brown said housing sales in the West End went up by about $95,000 between 2017 and 2020. That means that the average house now sells for more than $100,000 and that it's not uncommon for her to see houses on Sibcy Cline and MLS for almost $700,000.
The skyrocketing prices are a major issue. A 2019 study conducted by Seven Hills and The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority found that 44% of households in the West End were at risk of displacement. Brown said renters make up 80% of the neighborhood while the remaining 20% are homeowners. She also pointed out the large population of senior homeowners on fixed incomes and others with low wages.
When taxes go up, locals feel the pressure.
“It's just like someone facing eviction,” Brown said. “It’s a form of trauma, and people are trying to go about their daily lives, but at the back of their head they may be worrying about their housing.”
The 2019 study was a result of a partnership formed between Seven Hills and The Port. The groups’ goal was to educate themselves and other stakeholders about options to support homeownership and real estate investment in the West End. In addition to finding rates of displacement risk in the West End, the study made a number of recommendations.
It suggested that low-income residents be directed to resources that would shield them from displacement, that existing housing be preserved and that job creation be boosted in the community. Other calls to action included helping retain and attract businesses while celebrating historical and cultural assets. However, Brown said there has not been enough capital to follow through on recommendations made in the study.
“Even if the displacement hasn't happened super broad just yet, the threat is still there because the neighborhood is still developing,” Brown said.
But Brown believes that with enough effort and support, long-term West End residents' situations can change for the better. She said Seven Hills has been working on getting affordable workforce housing in the area as an alternative.
This housing would cost less than $200,000 for homeowners and offer rental rates lower than $1,200. The organization notes it is important to consider working-class people who have the money to own houses but are living in an area where houses are out of their pre-approval range. Brown also wants renters who can afford a mortgage to have the opportunity to stay in the neighborhood.
Seven Hills’ strategy as a community development corporation is to acquire properties in the area so they can control rates and maintain balance in the neighborhood. The strategy is part of the organization’s work with The Port to develop the area equitably. Seven Hills also aspires to have a fund to help seniors offset increasing tax costs.
However, it has been a difficult, slow process, and the organization needs help. Brown has called on major developers, the city, the housing trust fund and wealthy local residents to provide more support.
Seven Hills wants to maintain the rich history of the neighborhood but needs the city on board to allocate money and investors. Brown said there could be stronger communication when developers come into the West End. She also said there needs to be a stronger understanding that developments in housing affect other elements like local businesses, as well as more creativity and inclusion in revitalization projects.
“It's important to remember that there's all kinds of different people that have all kinds of different incomes,” Brown said. “(T)here has to be action at a city level to say, 'Hey, we're not just going to turn a blind eye and just let development happen as usual.'
“The point is to pause, to be able to have partnerships in place and funding there to make sure as a neighborhood develops, it can develop balanced. So everybody's best interest can be at the table and considered.”
FC Cincinnati bought a number of properties in areas including Wade Street, Central Avenue and John Street. At least 17 residents were displaced. Just Cooking, a soul food restaurant, was also pushed out of its rental space, and the old building where Revelation Missionary Baptist Church once stood was razed.
Monica Williams, who owns Just Cooking, had already experienced displacement with her family once before when public housing was torn down in the area. At the time that she was forced to move her restaurant, she waged an effort with the NAACP and community activists to push the city and FC Cincinnati to help her find a new location that she could afford.
Today, Just Cooking is located at 1144 California Avenue in Bond Hill. Despite being worried about whether the new location would work, she has been enjoying her new space.
“I love it," Williams said. "It's a beautiful community, and it's an inspiration to me to see so many people of my ethnic background be homeowners and business owners. I love my new community. It’s very diverse. I really like it out here.”
Williams finds the new spot practical because it is connected to the area’s major expressways. She encourages people who may be struggling to stay in the West End to consider coming to Bond Hill.
But Robert Killins, like Brown, is fighting to keep longtime residents in the West End.
“When you're leaving because you have an opportunity, [because] you want to, that's okay," Killins said. "But when you're leaving because you simply have been priced out and you cannot find a place to stay, then that's not acceptable."
Killins is the president of the West End Community Council. He said he knows that displacement is coming and has observed a handful of buildings that were taken down for parking near the stadium. Killins also noted the buildings that have been sold where people are paying more to live.
Although access to affordable housing and stability have been longstanding challenges for the West End, Killins said they have been made worse in recent years by a number of issues.
The housing crisis in 2008 led to construction being stalled, as well as a wave of foreclosures. That led to a disruption of production. Killins also pointed to a trend of people opting to rent rather than buy houses after watching other homeowners suffer to keep up with their expenses. That void put even more pressure on prices.
Killins said wages have not kept up with inflation; he said that while housing prices have gone up 46% from 2000 to 2014, wages only increased by 19%. People who were financially stable in decades past are now struggling to keep up with the changes.
Despite these issues, Killins is determined to look at the situation in the West End as an opportunity, rather than from a deficit. He said it is important to have an inclusive mindset to mitigate the problem, and points to how affordable housing can bring stability for the local schools and the wider community. Killins said the West End Community Council is listening to residents and refreshing the neighborhood revitalization plan in response.
“We won't be able to stop all displacement because we operate in a market economy," Killins said. "So we understand that, but we can be thoughtful.”
Through investing in housing, the community council hopes to bring more jobs, security and taxes to the West End. Such moves might finally bring a much-needed economic boon to the area.
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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