The tumult over English Woods, a housing project for low-income families, comes down to this: Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) wants residents to have better homes, but residents want the ones they have.
The conflict over the proposed demolition of English Woods is more complex than that, of course — especially given the third party, namely the opposition to having all those poor people scattering into West side neighborhoods and setting up house.
Built in 1942 as one of the first housing projects in the city, English Woods is a neighborhood unto itself, one of the 52 that compose the city of Cincinnati.
CMHA recently released a redevelopment program calling for demolition of 700 units in English Woods; about 460 of them are occupied.
Razing the apartments is a necessary step in improving housing for the residents, according to Donald Troendle, director of CMHA.
"Our core mission is low-income housing," he says. "Our people are citizens of Cincinnati, and they have the same right as other people. Shame on us if all we can offer is a 60-year-old unit with lead based paint on the walls, and a huge crime rate."
Demolition might seem a strange way to improve subsidized housing, but CMHA has done it before.
Two housing projects in the West End — Lincoln Court and Laurel Homes — have been razed. The idea was to replace outdated, unsafe, unmarketable apartments with a "mixed-income" neighborhood.
CMHA guaranteed that Lincoln Court residents who wanted to stay could do so, according to Troendle.
"Public housing residents that wanted to stay are guaranteed a place in the new building," he says. "Three years from now that neighborhood will be the best place to live. It's a program about choice. (They could) stay here if they wanted, move to another unit or take a voucher."
But most English Woods residents won't have that choice. CMHA plans only 30 subsidized apartments, but 400 houses, at the site. Residents can move into another neighborhood complex, an individual unit or take a voucher and try to find affordable housing on the private rental market.
CMHA owns housing in neighborhoods about a mile down the hill from English Woods. The agency is remodeling and modernizing those units. For those who leave English Woods, CMHA will pay for moving vans and in some cases even help pack belongings.
"This isn't some inept agency that is just going to maintain the status quo," Troendle says. "We aren't sitting around waiting. We are going to make a rational decision to create choices for our clients and the families that depend on us."
The prospect of English Woods residents using vouchers to rent houses or apartments in Price Hill, Westwood, Western Hills or other predominantly white, largely middle class neighborhoods has residents and council members concerned.
But Troendle says the issue has been exaggerated.
"Only 26 families took vouchers and moved to Westwood (from Lincoln Court)," Troendle says. "Relocation issues get emotional, but we give the people the pick of the litter."
'Let us have our homes'
Many residents are not too happy about the plan either. They don't deny that the roofs sometimes leak and the 1960s style kitchens are small and outdated, but it's still home. What is missing in discussions of how to improve public housing is the sense of home, the sense of neighborhood, that residents don't want to lose, according to Marcia Battle, vice president of the English Woods Civic Association and Residents Community Council.
"I see us as being able to use this as a stepping stone," she says. "They just think it is easier to tear it down and move people on, instead of taking the opportunity to educate them."
The community council uses the small library at English Woods to educate residents, operating computer labs for children and adults and community activities.
"If they haven't educated me, no matter where I go, I'm going to have the same problems," says Battle. "Regardless of how I got where I am, I'm trying to do better."
Battle actually lives in the English Woods Addition, and thus will not be forced to move, but says she's speaking for those who are "too scared" to speak for themselves.
"Let us have our homes, have the opportunity to even have a home," says Battle. "It's like a lifeline. If people don't have a reachable goal, they just live — they just exist."
A single mother raising four teen-agers, Battle grew up near Colerain Township. She never expected to live in English Woods. But when she moved in, she saw it as a place where she could "come in and move up."
Her first few months in the neighborhood were a culture shock, she says.
"It's like going to Africa and trying to fit in," Battle says. "I know I'm among my people, but everybody lives differently. It's a different way of living. When you take people from here and put them out there, you really need to make sure that they know what they are doing."
Battle admits English Woods was a last resort. If she had had a choice, she would have gone somewhere else. But with her children living with her mother while she was living with her mother-in-law, the only way to get the family back together was to move to English Woods.
The refurbished homes CMHA is offering nearby include larger, modernized kitchens, central air conditioning and bigger rooms. Battle, however, wants something else: repairs where she lives now.
"I just need a roof over my children's heads, I don't need a big large room," she says. "Fix what is broken. If you just put the bear basics in, it won't cost that much. I don't need central air."
The Residents Committee can try to purchase the property from CMHA; it has 60 days to make an offer. Battle sees this as an even better opportunity for the community to unite. The people who live in the houses can work on the houses, bringing jobs and stability to the neighborhood.
"There will always be other people who will need to come through here to use it as a stepping-stone," she says.
Cincinnati City Council has unanimously voted to oppose CMHA's grant application for federal funding to demolish English Woods. U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Cincinnati) has asked Mel Martinez, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to oppose the request from CMHA.
But if HUD denies the grant, CMHA has its own resources and demolition will proceed, according to Troendle.
City council has a hearing on the issue at 7 p.m. Jan. 9. The English Woods Residents Community Council plans to address the meeting. ©