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Western & Southern poised to invest millions to tackle Cincinnati's affordable housing shortage

CEO: 'We want to have the best city possible'
Western & Southern Financial Group completed Brackett Village in Over-the-Rhine in 1993.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-04 19:55:48-04

CINCINNATI — One of Greater Cincinnati’s largest corporations is poised to invest millions of dollars to create more affordable housing in the region.

Western & Southern Financial Group plans to deploy its Eagle Realty Group to develop and manage more high-quality housing like Brackett Village, an affordable apartment community in Over-the-Rhine that the company completed in 1993.

“We’ve put a soft circle around $100 million,” Western & Southern CEO John Barrett told WCPO 9 in an exclusive interview. “So it’s not a commitment. But it’s certainly an aspiration.”

Barrett said it’s too early to say how long it will take to spend that money -- or how many units it could help build. But he stressed the company is determined to help.

“A lot of these things take time,” he said. “We’ve invested far more than that across the country. But in the last few months, we’ve decided, let’s do it here and make this city even better.”

Western & Southern Financial Group CEO John Barrett is smiling in this photo. He has short white hair and is wearing a pale blue patterned tie, a white shirt and a navy pinstripe suit jacket.
Western & Southern Financial Group CEO John Barrett

Voters in May rejected a charter amendment that would have required Cincinnati’s city government to set aside $50 million each year to build and preserve affordable housing in the city. Housing is considered affordable if it costs no more than 30% of a family’s monthly income.

City officials and local unions opposed the charter amendment, arguing it could require the city to reduce services and cut jobs to come up with the money. But labor leaders and affordable housing advocates have joined forces since the vote and say they’re determined to craft a winning proposal.

RELATED: Could another affordable housing vote be in the works?

Cincinnati’s business leaders also recognize the importance of having more affordable housing, said Jeanne Golliher, CEO of Cincinnati Development Fund, which has helped finance the creation of more than 3,600 affordable housing units since its inception in 1988.

“This is a priority for the Cincinnati Business Committee,” Golliher said, referring to the group comprised of the city’s most influential corporate leaders. “They really understand that the rising prices are not just impacting the very low income but even working poor people.”

‘That’s what we need more of’

Cincinnati City Councilman Steve Goodin said he believes the greatest need is for housing that is affordable for people with a couple of kids who work as police officers, teachers or nurses and can no longer afford rents in many of the city’s neighborhoods.

“The workforce housing,” he said, “for folks who are making $50,000 or $60,000 a year and want to live in the city.”

Barrett said his company hasn’t decided yet whether it will develop housing for very low-income people or people who earn more. Some of the investment could come in the form of a revolving loan fund, he said, or could help finance some of Cincinnati Development Fund’s projects to help “get them over the finish line.”

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s kind of like in people’s heads. But we need people living in houses with good roofs over their heads,” Barrett said. “We’re not ruling anything out. But there are rules, and there are taxes, and there are regulations. We’ll live within all of them.”

The company’s affordable housing development in Over-the-Rhine will serve as a model for much of Western & Southern’s work, he said.

Steve Goodin has short-cropped gray and white hair and a mostly white beard that is trimmed close. He is wearing a royal blue tie, a white shirt and navy suit jacket.
Steve Goodin

“Lots of things have to be worked out to make it all work, but we’re looking to do more projects like Brackett Village where we can renovate or build new, but manage it,” Barrett said. “The key is keeping the units managed clean, painted, everything working, nothing broken. And have it a place where people not only just come to live but stay.”

Duplicating that development’s success would be a win for the region, Golliher said.

“Brackett Village has been a very well-run project,” she said. “I’ve watched it from the day it was opened back in the early 90s. Projects like that – where they keep them maintained, where they do such a good job – that’s what we need more of.”

Goodin agreed and said that’s why it’s so important for businesses like Western & Southern to be part of the solution to the affordable housing problem.

“In the best of all worlds, you shouldn’t be able to tell an affordable unit from a market rate unit,” he said. “That’s sort of the standard. When we do this as a purely public exercise, it doesn’t work that way.”

‘I’ll shut up and listen’

Having more high-quality affordable housing would benefit the community in other ways, too, Barrett said.

“We want to make the city so attractive that companies in places like Chicago and New York and Philadelphia say, ‘We ought to be in Cincinnati because it is just so affordable, so livable, so commutable, such good value, and the best people in the world,’” he said.

“We want to have the best city possible to live in,” Barrett added. “If the word gets out, we will attract more businesses, and that helps our tax base, which gives us the ability to fund more and better, bigger and much better stuff.”

Barrett noted that Cincinnati has lost multiple Fortune 500 companies in recent years and said having more affordable housing would help reverse that trend.

It also would make communities stronger, because housing is such an important part of a community’s fabric, said Jeniece Jones, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal and a vice president of Cincinnati’s Affordable Housing Advocates group.

Jeniece Jones is smiling in this photo. Her wavy, black hair reaches almost to her shoulder, and she is wearing a dusty rose-colored blouse.
Jeniece Jones

“Weakened communities are what allows for bad actors. Bad things happen,” she said. “Strong communities tend to be more resilient and cohesive. The more I do this work, you know, yes, I think housing is a fundamental right from the long-standing progressive history of civil rights, of course. But I can’t not see the importance of national security in that question.”

Jones said she wasn’t aware of Western & Southern’s interest in making a major investment in affordable housing locally. But she said she would welcome it.

“I see, you know, an opportunity for a very, very broad coalition of folks to come together around this issue,” she said. “I’ll shut up and listen. Talk to me about whatever it’s going to take because that’s how important this is.”

‘Hope that others would follow’

Goodin said he’s confident political leaders will welcome Western & Southern’s investment, too, adding that he thinks the private sector can develop and maintain affordable housing much better than government can.

“We don’t even do a very good job half the time of paving the roads, so getting us into the landlord business feels like a bad idea,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing that they’re doing, and we should all welcome it with open arms.”

Golliher said she hopes Western & Southern’s commitment will encourage other corporations in the region to invest in affordable housing, too.

“Western & Southern is such a corporate leader in Cincinnati,” she said. “Once they make such a bold statement, I would certainly hope that others would follow.”

Jeanne Golliher is smiling in this photo. She has blue eyes, long, wavy brown hair and is wearing a mauve blouse and black jacket.
Jeanne Golliher

She said there also are ways business leaders can support the effort that don’t require their money, such as pushing for the federal government to expand availability of 9% low-income housing tax credits that make it easier to finance the development of affordable housing for very low-income people. The measure is called the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act.

The passage of an Ohio state low-income tax credit also would be helpful, she said, although she said that there doesn’t appear to be much movement on that in Columbus.

And a federal proposal called the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act would pave the way for more affordable home ownership, Golliher said. That measure calls for the creation of a new federal tax credit to support the development and renovation of family housing in distressed urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods.

“Passage of those three initiatives would go a long way to helping us be able to do more affordable housing,” she said.

“A hundred million dollars is a bunch of money,” Golliher added. “But at the same time, it isn’t enough to solve the whole problem if you understand there are at least 40,000 households that are paying more than 30% of their income towards rent.”

The Western and Southern Life Insurance Company building Downtown. The building has a pale, grey facade and tall columns.
The Western and Southern Life Insurance Company building Downtown.

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 problems 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.