West End nonprofit trying to build $2 million fund to battle stadium displacement

Can Home Improvement Fund prevent gentrification?
Posted at 4:59 AM, Jul 15, 2019

A West End nonprofit is trying to raise $2 million to preserve affordable housing options in the blocks around FC Cincinnati's new stadium, building on the $100,000 contribution that the soccer team pledged last year toward immediate housing needs of low-income residents.

Tia Brown, community engagement director, Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses

“We need to take that money to do some brick and mortar development,” said Tia Brown, community engagement director for Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses. “We’re willing to do what we can to raise funds to get this going. Like let’s fix up a house. Let’s fix up an apartment unit.”

Seven Hills is a social service agency that partnered with the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority in 2018 to develop a housing strategy for the West End. The Port is nearing completion of a housing study that was funded by the team. The contract with Seven Hills and the housing study were required by a Community Benefits Agreement signed by FC Cincinnati, the Port and the West End Community Council.

Port CEO Laura Brunner said the housing study is “a couple of weeks” from being released. In an interview on WCPO’s This Week in Cincinnati program, Brunner said the study has demonstrated a clear need for market-rate apartments and home-ownership in the West End. But it’s less clear how much new subsidized housing will be needed.

“If there’s new construction on the market-rate side there’s a good chance that the people that are currently living in affordable housing would be able to stay,” Brunner said. “But in the private sector, if there’s a lot of sale of the current places where affordable housing is and rents are raised, then we’re going to have to replace that someplace else … It’s something that’s going to have to be monitored closely.”

Brown said Seven Hills is hoping to protect those affordable housing options with a Housing Improvement Fund that could be used in a variety of ways.

“Not only do we want to use that fund for things like helping low-income home owners we want to do something around taxes,” Brown said. “Because we know taxes are going to go up for a lot of people and that puts them at a risk for displacement. And we also want to say to someone who maybe is going to buy an apartment building to fix it up. Hey, here’s 25,000 toward your development. You don’t have to pay it back. Just agree to keep your rents affordable for ten years.”

Created by last October's contract between the Port and Seven Hills, the housing fund is intended to support "the preservation and creation of a range of affordable housing opportunities for West End residents." The contract says the team's $100,000 contribution will be disbursed through the fund, while the parties seek additional donations. The Port is the housing fund's fiscal agent. Seven Hills is "the clearinghouse for requests and approvals of work to be performed using the funds."

Brown said Seven Hills has received 16 applications for upgrades to existing West End properties. One deal is close to being finalized with a $10,000 grant from the fund that will leverage $15,000 in additional improvements managed by the nonprofit People Working Cooperatively. Four other home-improvement projects are in the pipeline, Brown said.

The Port and Seven Hills are also working on the redevelopment six row houses on Baymiller Street that the Port’s land bank acquired in 2018. The project was highlighted in a press release about the Port's contract with Seven Hills in October. Two of the properties will be rehabbed by Habitat for Humanity for low- to moderate-income residents.

Finally, Brown said Seven Hills is looking for ways to help Wade Street tenants who are being displaced by FC Cincinnati's purchase of subsidized apartment buildings north of its stadium site. The team hasn't said how it plans to use the property, which is one of several sites it acquired between Central Parkway, West Liberty, John Street and the former Stargel Stadium property. When the news broke that a 99-year-old bed-bound woman was among the tenants being displaced from the Wade Street properties, activists lobbied city council to slow down the stadium project by opposing the team's zoning requests. That led to a May settlement that gives tenants until January, 2020 to leave the properties.

Brown isn't sure how Seven Hills might be involved, but it's talking to the tenants and the city to see if it can find suitable housing in the West End for Wade Street residents who want to stay in the neighborhood.

“We’re at the table,” Brown said. “We’re hoping that the Port will continue to trust us as a partner to be able to work with them to continue to develop equitably in the neighborhood.”

To further fuel its efforts, Seven Hills is asking current and former West End residents for help. The group is planning a “Home Sweet Home” fundraiser on Labor Day weekend that will include a celebrity softball game, homecoming dance and 5K run through the neighborhood. Brown is hoping to raise $200,000 with the event, which builds on two West End re-unions already planned for that weekend.

Brown said she asked FC Cincinnati to contribute a sponsorship for the event or players for the celebrity softball game. She’s also hoping the team’s business partners or the Port’s well-connected board members will contribute to the cause. And she's hoping to rekindle the affections that many African-American families have for the West End, which held 70 percent of Cincinnati’s black population in the 1930s.

“If you’re from the West End come home,” Brown said. “You know, come on back home and party with us this weekend and the funds will go towards you know preserving affordable homes. And if you’re not, but you have a heart for this issue, come and be involved.”