Cincinnati's Long-Underfunded Public Housing is Getting Private Investment. Is That a Good Thing?

The Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority says it needs help meeting a $250 million maintenance backlog. But critics of a HUD program called RAD say it amounts to privatization of public housing, and some residents are wary of the change.

click to enlarge The Pinecrest in West Price Hill - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
The Pinecrest in West Price Hill

For years, funding for America’s public housing — apartments available to some who don’t make enough money to afford market-rate dwellings — has been dwindling. 

That lack of money has had a big impact on the quality and quantity of public housing available via housing authorities like the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, which faces $250 million in deferred maintenance.

Now, HUD is trying to fill some funding gaps with private investment via a controversial program called Rental Assistance Demonstration, which is opening public housing in Cincinnati and other cities up to private investors so that housing authorities like CMHA can use those investments to make repairs and build new housing.

Options under RAD run from basic remodeling of buildings retained by CMHA to complete demolition and construction of new housing run as affordable housing by private developers.

CMHA, for its part, has promised that no residents will be left without a home by the efforts. But some residents are wary that RAD will mean demolition of their buildings and that the replacements won’t have enough units for everyone. 

“Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority is actively working to further preserve its current housing assets, while at the same time, helping with their long-term sustainability,” CMHA spokesperson Lesley Wardlow said in an email responding to questions about the program. “To address the local capital improvements needed, CMHA explored options over the last several years and is now taking action. This effort includes public/private partnerships as well as utilizing some new HUD tools to provide affordable housing for Hamilton County families, seniors and veterans.”

Roughly 650 units of housing owned by CMHA are in some stage of the RAD process currently. Eventually, the housing authority would like to include all of its 5,000 units in the program.

In the recreation center attached to The Pinecrest, a 190-unit housing complex in West Price Hill, Ella Adams and JoAnn Richardson hang back after a residents council meeting to talk about RAD. 

CMHA has already received approval from HUD to include The Pinecrest in the RAD program, though it has not yet submitted plans for what it will do with the building. 

Adams, who recently visited Washington, D.C. to testify about RAD, has lived in Pinecrest for 10 years. She says she’d like to stay there.

“Even though they say we don’t have to move, we don’t know if that’s really true or not,” she says. “There’s a possibility that some people could lose their apartments, or at least that’s our fear. We have doubts — there are other times they’ve told people they wouldn’t have to move, and they end up having to leave.” 

Sitting next to her at a table with a deep green felt mat for playing card games, Richardson agrees. Two decades ago, she lived in Laurel Homes.

That housing project and neighboring Lincoln Court, both constructed in the 1930s, had 2,000 units of public housing at their peak. They were down to roughly 1,100 units of old, deteriorated housing when they were demolished during the Hope VI program in the early 2000s.

Eventually, 686 new units of mixed-income housing were created to replace the housing projects at the site, now called City West. Some residents who were promised housing in the neighborhood were never able to come back, groups like the Cincinnati NAACP say. 

Some CMHA residents like Richardson and Adams fear that could happen again.

“First they told us that we would have to be relocated and that we’d have to go to another building, then they said we wouldn’t,” Richardson says. “And when you move, you’re never sure if it will be better or not. I don’t want to move somewhere worse than where I am now. And moving is a job. It’s a lot of work.” 

The latest plan from CMHA is to rehab the building while residents are still living there, moving most residents to vacant units while rehab work takes place gradually. Any residents who may have to move during renovations will have the right to come back, Wardlow says.

“CMHA recognizes the concerns,” a response to questions raised by the Pinecrest Residents Council earlier this year reads. “Although it is not the intent of CMHA to displace any resident, the funding sources may create an issue for a low number of individuals and families… In no case, through any transition, will CMHA cause an individual/family that is not homeless to become homeless.”

Some affordable housing advocates see RAD as a move to privatize public housing. 

They point to cases at public housing converted to RAD in other cities, including Maryland and Virginia, in which some residents have had to contend with eviction or threats of eviction outside the usual HUD process from the private developers who redeveloped their housing. In the Virginia case, residents eventually won a $337,000 settlement after a HUD investigation. A similar investigation is pending in the Maryland case.

Critics say that it is unclear what ownership structures at specific buildings and federal oversight will look like for the private entities that will be running once-public housing complexes.

CMHA says it will keep at least partial ownership of all its properties. 

“CMHA is in the process of reviewing the management agreements and we intend on having a part in all of the ownerships with our partners,” Wardlow said in response to questions about ownership structures of CMHA properties under RAD. “We know this is a big concern for residents and the community overall. This process keeps these units affordable for the next 100 years or more.” 

CMHA has already tapped private developers for some properties undergoing RAD conversion, and some rehab efforts are already underway.

On July 16, the housing authority held a groundbreaking event for renovations of Sutter View Apartments in North Fairmount. The rehab efforts on the 120-unit development will include building additions and interior remodeling.

Other projects are in the planning phases.

Wisconsin-based Gorman & Company will work Winton Terrace and Findlater Gardens, sprawling complexes of low-slung redbrick townhouses with more than 600 units in northern Cincinnati. Telesis Corp., based in Washington, D.C., will handle the West End’s Stanley Rowe Towers and Liberty Street Apartments. Wallick Communities, from New Albany, Ohio, will rehab The Beechwood and Maple Tower in Avondale. And New Jersey-based Michaels Development Co. will tackle Millvale, another large complex along Cincinnati’s Beekman Ave. corridor.

No one, especially residents at those buildings and others like The Pinecrest, is debating that many CMHA properties need work.

As CityBeat has reported in past stories, some of the city’s public housing developments — which house about 10,000 people and are an average of 74 years old — have seen the gamut of problems from leaking roofs to infestations to security issues.

Winton Terrace has been one of those places.

CMHA built Winton Terrace in 1941, just a few years after the advent of modern American public housing and the creation of the local housing authority through the 1933 National Recovery Act.

Problems with plumbing and water mains were common and persistent last year. Ceilings leaked. An enveloping and mysterious swarm of insects had made a field between several of the buildings impassable. A herd of dozens of cats had overtaken another.

CMHA says it has addressed many concerns at Winton Terrace and is working hard to keep up with facilities’ needs, performing roughly 50,000 work orders a year. 

But the money to do that kind of work is dwindling. And President Donald Trump and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson would like to eliminate it altogether.

Trump zeroed out funding for maintenance of public housing given by HUD to housing authorities like CMHA in his last budget proposal. While Congress didn’t take that suggestion up, it’s an example of the current administration’s approach to public housing.

According to Carson, the continued maintenance on existing public housing and the effort to build more are too expensive for the federal government to undertake. Instead, the administration says, it would like to further explore ways to leverage private investment to meet public housing’s maintenance needs.

“You can just throw more money at it, or you can say ‘Why is that happening and why is it getting worse and is there anything that we can do about those factors?’ “ Carson told a U.S. House of Representatives committee earlier this year. 

While the Trump administration’s budget proposals likely won’t come to pass, they are a window into the creaking ship that is American public housing: HUD’s budget has been significantly reduced, and its attempts to provide for the most immediate needs of the nation’s poorest citizens has fallen behind the need for low-income housing.

HUD’s $42 billion budget authority is about half what the department got from Congress 40 years ago when adjusting for inflation. And in the past decade, cuts to public housing have been steep. 

Between 2010 and 2016, Congress gave HUD $1.6 billion less for public housing — a 20 percent reduction, according to federal Office of Management and Budget data. Funding for repairs specifically, now about $2 billion to $3 billion a year, is half of what it was in 2000. Some estimates place the cost of fully repairing America’s public housing stock as high as $50 billion.

Adams and Richardson say they’ve seen the decline at Pinecrest, embodied by troubles with plumbing, general cleanliness in the building’s hallways, security and swarms of pests.

“The plumbing is horrible in the building,” Richardson says. “I live on the sixth floor, and it seems like when you wash up there, there is always a flood. When you place a work order, it can take two or three weeks before they come out to do the maintenance.” 

Critics of RAD say that instead of privatizing funding for repairs and construction of public housing, Congress should provide more robust funding to HUD so that it can better perform its mission. 

In the meantime, residents debate the trade-offs between buildings that are crumbling and the uncertainty of privatizing elements of public housing.

“Pinecrest has been going down, slowly but surely,” Adams says. “We’ve had issues with mice, bedbugs, roaches. They seem like they’re working on those now, but the buildings do need to be remodeled. We hope that in the end, it’s going to better. But you just don’t know until it happens. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to be.” 

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