Cover Story: The Fight for Over-the-Rhine

Can the neighborhood survive so many good intentions?

 
Doug Trapp


Tom Denhart, owner of Hart Realty, is liquidating most of his low-income housing empire through federal bankruptcy court.



The war for the future of Over-the-Rhine is as close to a treaty as it has ever been. For almost 30 years affordable housing advocates and market-rate developers have clashed, sometimes bitterly, over what kind of neighborhood Over-the-Rhine should be — and who should live there.

For years people have been waiting for meaningful change in Over-the-Rhine. Three days of rioting might have finally set the stage for it.

Just this week, in fact, a bidder emerged for ownership of 201 buildings in Over-the-Rhine that, until this year, had been committed to low-income housing as part of Hart Realty, Tom Denhart's property management company. Changes in federal housing policy led Denhart to file for bankruptcy in August, attracting a steady stream of bids for the whole portfolio and individual buildings.

After a year of discussions on a new master plan for the neighborhood, market-rate advocates and low-income activists are separated mainly by a definition of "affordable housing" and whether it should make up 40 or 60 percent of Over-the-Rhine.

Odds are against a quick agreement. Previous city planners have been unable to solve the question, in large part because of mistrust and fear between the warring sides.

In one corner are representatives of groups such as ReStoc, a non-profit housing developer; the Drop Inn Center and the Over-the-Rhine Community Council.

In the other are the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, private developers and business owners.

Until recently the two sides seldom talked to each other with their guards down.

That began to change in November 2000, when City Planning Director Liz Blume gathered a bipartisan group to salvage the remains of a stalled plan begun in 1997. But the coalition leaders fell into the quicksand of debating details such as a mission statement and failed to keep moving toward a common goal.

Last year Blume, a veteran of similar struggles in her former city planning job in Dayton, convened the Over-the-Rhine Steering Committee, with members from a cross-section of the neighborhood. What followed was a sometimes slow, sometimes hostile, sometimes productive series of meetings.

The discussions increased in intensity and frequency over the summer, after city council demanded a final draft in the fall. Blume's staff has so far finished only a first draft but has been keeping the fragile coalition on track and moving forward.

A successful plan endorsed by both sides would give city council — the Keystone Cops of decision-making — a clear direction to take in Over-the-Rhine. It won't resolve every conflict, but in theory this new consensus will also help turn the plan into reality. For years most major issues involving Over-the-Rhine — such as moving the School for the Creative and Performing Arts nearer Music Hall — have been political land mines, supported by one side, opposed by the other.

Of course, for the plan to mean anything, council members will have to put aside their personal agendas and pay at least some respect to the Steering Committee's plan. Few are confident. Blume will probably send a final draft of the plan to council in early 2002. All the Steering Committee can do is work hard and hope.

"If this isn't implemented, there's no hope, because they're never going to get this crew back together," says Judith Osborne, director of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce. "No way, Jose."

What will come of those properties adds another layer of complexity to the changes underway in Over-the-Rhine.

'An impossible scenario'
Jim Tarbell used to be a soldier in the war against poverty. He believed all the poor and homeless deserved sympathy and a few extra breaks. But in the 1970s he went AWOL to join the market-rate army.

It seemed as if social services were becoming more concerned about sustaining themselves than about helping people better themselves, Tarbell says.

Today, elected to a second term on city council, Tarbell sits atop a growing post-riot movement to turn Over-the-Rhine into a favorable place for market-rate development (Choosing the City issue of Nov. 21-28).

"(Over-the-Rhine has) always been the epitome of the mixed-use, mixed-income, urban environment," Tarbell says. "And that's the basis on which it thrived."

He says the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made a huge mistake by financing so much low-income housing in Over-the-Rhine in the 1970s. The contracts called for the buildings to stay that way for 30 to 40 years, he says.

"It set the stage for failure," Tarbell says. "It said to everyone, particularly the lending institutions, that this is the way this district is going."

HUD didn't simply fill vacant space, according to Tarbell. The low-income apartment conversions it financed took over many of the buildings that only needed slight renovations. Working-class people were kicked out to make room for HUD-subsidized tenants. On this point, Tarbell and housing activist Bonnie Neumeier agree.

"(The working poor) were literally the backbone of the neighborhood," Tarbell says.

As Tarbell walks north on Vine Street, sporting his trademark felt fedora, he shakes hands and waves to several people. From across the street, a black man taunts him, saying Tarbell should keep moving before he finds something to throw at him. In the past year or so, Tarbell's support for the police has made him a target of contempt for people who don't share his view.

Tarbell has owned Arnold's and Grammer's restaurants, was the director of the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce and raised a little civic hell with his Broadway Commons proposal. But his real calling is saving what's left of Over-the-Rhine. His latest project is the old Kauffman Brewery at 1725 Vine St., built in 1876. A suspicious fire in November destroyed most of the building after it had sat empty at least a decade.

"When that fire happened, it just shook me," Tarbell says.

The facade has to be saved, perhaps as the front for a parking garage, he says. Otherwise, a huge, irreplaceable tooth will be missing along the storefronts of Vine Street.

A police cruiser whooshes by, sirens blaring, and heads south for Vine and 13th streets, where an argument is flaring. Another cruiser follows minutes later. Tarbell, across the street from the burned-out brewery, cranes his neck to get a look. His voice low, as if telling a secret, he says he feels more tension in Over-the-Rhine today than he has in 30 years of walking the neighborhood.

The ongoing conflict between the police and residents isn't going to be resolved by talking, he says.

"It's an impossible scenario," he says.

For Tarbell, changing the economic balance of Over-the-Rhine — bringing back the middle and upper classes — would help reduce crime and resolve the ongoing conflict between the police and their critics, including many black citizens.

Residents in any neighborhood can't rely only on the police to fight crime, according to Officer Eric Vogelpohl, a bike cop who's worked in Over-the-Rhine for six years.

People have to take ownership of their homes, streets and neighborhoods to make them uncomfortable for drug dealers and criminals, Vogelpohl says. Many of the criminals arrested in Over-the-Rhine live in neighborhoods such as Evanston, English Woods and Roselawn, he says.

Over-the-Rhine clearly doesn't have the kind of stakeholders other neighborhoods have. Only 4 percent of the people who live in Over-the-Rhine own their homes, according to the 2000 Census. Plus nearly 500 of the buildings in Over-the-Rhine are vacant, giving criminals a foothold.

"In my opinion, there are more good people in Over-the-Rhine than bad people," Vogelpohl says. "But the bad people scare the good people to death."

'A different class of folks'
A few blocks away, Bonnie Neumeier works in a 14th Street building the Cincinnati Public Schools discarded in 1981.

Many know the business face of Neumeier: the reading glasses on the end of her nose, the stern face, the graying mane of hair framing it and especially the steely voice that can drown out anyone trying to interrupt her.

Neumeier is an Over-the-Rhine Community Council trustee and director of the Peaslee Neighborhood Center, which offers everything from day care to photography lessons. She looks at home among the waist-high bookshelves and walls full of children's drawings.

Here her voice is quieter and more level. She offers a rare smile when asked about Buddy Gray, whom she knew more than 20 years. In 1996 a mentally ill client at the Drop Inn Center, which Gray founded, shot and killed him.

When the HUD renovations forced out the old working-class Over-the-Rhine residents, Neumeier used her Volkswagen Beetle to move their furniture and find a new place for them to live.

"Our history was always connected to people fighting for housing," Neumeier says.

Neumeier declines to say where and how she grew up, except that it taught her the reasons there are haves and have-nots.

One of the myths hampering activists like Neumeier is that they want to keep the status quo; they don't really want to reduce poverty, crime and other problems, which keep them employed.

"That just angers me," Neumeier says. "There's always been attempts to discredit us and attack us. We speak truth to power, and that's not welcomed."

Of course the activists want safer streets. Of course they want better schools. Of course they want better housing. But they also want to make sure residents have housing they can afford and places to deal with their problems. That's why they created the affordable housing developer ReStoc and Tender Mercies, an organization that helps the mentally ill find permanent housing.

"We've done lots of work," Neumeier says. "People don't want to see what we have been doing."

Their work is an uphill battle, she says. Welfare reform and the housing policies of the Reagan and Bush years reduced affordable housing and increased homelessness.

"The way the system works, the odds are stacked against us," Neumeier says.

She has listened to people from outside Over-the-Rhine talk for hours about what the neighborhood needs. It reminds her of European colonists deciding what's best for native civilizations: Adopt our ways, and all will be fine. Neumeier calls it the "We Know What's Good For You" attitude.

Market-rate supporters say they want a mixed neighborhood in Over-the-Rhine. But Neumeier is skeptical; she wonders how much they will fight for a mix if the real estate market takes off.

The new businesses and residences on Main Street aren't as mixed as Over-the-Rhine activists would have liked, she says.

"It caters to a different class of folks," Neumeier says. "I have heard people say, 'When I walk down Main Street, I feel like I'm a stranger on my own street.' "

Contrary to what Tarbell believes, moving wealthy people into Over-the-Rhine won't solve all of the current residents' problems, Neumeier says. Wealth doesn't "rub off." Besides, not everyone in Cincinnati really wants a mixed-income Over-the-Rhine.

"There's a force in this town that has a different plan for this neighborhood," she says.

Some are trying to use the April riots to justify wholesale changes without understanding Over-the-Rhine, according to Neumeier.

"Now, all of a sudden Over-the-Rhine is everybody's neighborhood," she says.

The land in Over-the-Rhine has been desirable for a long time because it's so close to the business district.

"It's very much a land struggle," Neumeier says. "It's almost like a gold rush."

She believes it's easier these days for the Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce and developers to get City Hall's attention.

"We're seeing them being able to make progress really quickly," Neumeier says.

But she and other affordable housing advocates blink when asked about the hundreds of low-income residents who took new federal housing vouchers and left Over-the-Rhine in the past year. Instead of the old argument of displacement by force, Neumeier now has to argue it was displacement by choice.

"The folks who have moved out — it's an attempt to find decent affordable housing," she says.

While market-rate developers see the departure of low-income residents as evidence of decreasing demand for low-income housing, Neumeier sees it as evidence there's not enough. Is it any wonder why the two sides haven't gotten along?

Send them to Indian Hill
It's time to change the way we the city treats Over-the-Rhine, according to Councilman John Cranley; the riots proved that. His way is to take on the affordable housing advocates.

Last summer Cranley sponsored an ordinance restricting low-income housing. The ordinance blocks the city from awarding any of its $25 million in housing subsidies to low-income projects unless they reduce a neighborhood's concentration of poverty or replace other low-income housing. The funds can also go to home-ownership programs and environmental improvements such as lead abatement.

Cranley talks incredulously about the people who opposed him and their reasons, as if they were speaking an incomprehensible language. With so many buildings vacant, Cranley says, gentrification is hardly a major concern.

Affordable housing advocates opposed Cranley from the start. They asked why he was pushing hard for the ordinance just weeks before the election. Was it a coincidence he included the proposal in his campaign commercials? Why wasn't he holding the required public hearing?

A representative from HUD's Cincinnati Area Office wrote a letter in late October saying hearings and a 30-day waiting period were in order. But Cranley said council could hold hearings after the ordinance passed.

"It is a formality," he says. "It has nothing to do with substance. It's not like the substance wasn't debated."

Formal hearings are expected to be scheduled in coming weeks.

Just as Cranley believes it's unnatural to concentrate poverty in already-poor neighborhoods, he says it's unnatural to have high concentrations of very wealthy people, as in Indian Hill.

The ordinance originally had language in favor of spending city dollars on affordable housing outside the city. But that idea drew strong opposition from outside the city, and Cranley dropped it.

"It's unknown what Cranley's ordinance does at this point," says Don Troendle, executive director of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA).

But it definitely doesn't actually create any more affordable housing outside of the city.

"It appears to continue the concentration of low-income people in high poverty neighborhoods," Troendle says.

If Cranley wants mixed-income housing, Troendle wonders why he led the charge to stop CMHA's Seminary Ridge project in Price Hill. The plan met all the requirements of the ordinance Cranley later introduced, according to Troendle: reducing the density of the existing project from 147 units to 47 and combining two-thirds market-rate housing with one-third public housing.

"It fully embraced mixed-income," Troendle says.

But the property, which has a view of the city, was too valuable to use for public housing, according to Cranley. Council told CMHA to redesign the project.

A mystery called 'OMHAR'
People who know Thomas Denhart agree he is smart, even cagey. After all, he didn't become the largest manager of low-income housing in Over-the-Rhine by making bad decisions.

To put his empire into perspective, consider his share of local public housing. In early 2000, Denhart managed roughly 20 percent of all the Section 8 units occupied by families in the county.

Last year there were 11,334 privately owned, federally subsidized Section 8 units in Hamilton County, according to HUD — 7,675 occupied by families, and the rest by senior citizens, the disabled and others. Denhart managed 1,578 of the units through Hart Realty, the vast majority of them apartments in Over-the-Rhine.

That doesn't include the 120 or so vacant lots and approximately 40 empty shells of buildings he manages through Liberty Management Inc.

It all began with one building in 1947 when Denhart was 17. His father's wholesale candy business had an office in a building on Race Street, just south of Liberty Street, which today houses Denhart's offices.

In a small meeting room on the second floor of his offices, Denhart sits back and takes a drag on a Vantage cigarette. A large, framed map of Over-the-Rhine, leaning against a wall, shows all of his properties in little red addresses — clumps of red between Central Parkway, Vine Street, West 14th Street and Green Street.

A family friend, Carl Rich — then mayor of Cincinnati and owner of several savings and loans — encouraged Denhart to buy property. So he did.

"And the rents paid for the building," Denhart says.

Back then most of the tenants were Germans, Irish, Italians and Appalachians, and the neighborhood was dense with working-class people.

Denhart's first building still sits across Race Street from his offices at 1534 Race. The building houses a custom iron workshop for the company he created to maintain Hart Realty's buildings.

In the 1950s the city leveled much of the West End to make room for Interstate 75 and future industrial and business development. It was a popular, mostly black neighborhood with good public transit to downtown.

"That started the integration of Over-the-Rhine," Denhart says.

In the late 1960s, Cincinnati became a HUD project rehab city.

"It was almost like a payoff after the riots," says Denhart, who talks about HUD policies with the ease and depth of knowledge of Martha Stewart discussing home decor.

In the late 1960s HUD began loaning 40-year mortgages to entrepreneurs willing to rehab buildings into low-income housing. The new tenants paid 30 percent of their incomes as rent, and HUD paid the rest. It was an attempt to get the private sector to own and operate affordable housing and compete with the public housing authorities.

Denhart set up limited partnerships with silent investors. In return for thousands of dollars to buy and rehab buildings, in as little as five years the investors earned two-and-a-half to five times their money through federal tax deductions, Denhart says.

In 1974, Congress created the Section 8 program, which set up the modern formula for rent subsidies and 15-year Housing Assistance Program (HAP) contracts. Under HAP, landlords submitted market rent appraisals and company budgets to HUD to justify federal subsidies, including provision for maintenance expenses and a profit.

But in 1997 the Republican-controlled Congress passed the Multifamily Assisted Housing Reform and Affordability Act, an attempt to reign in the cost of public housing. The law created the Office of Multifamily Housing Assistance Restructuring (OMHAR).

Many of Denhart's 15-year HAP contracts were expiring, and it was OMHAR's job to make sure renewed contracts closely matched "true market" rents. OMHAR set its own "fair market" rents, which were about one-third lower than Denhart's old Section 8 rents, he says. The new rents weren't even enough to pay the monthly utility bills on his properties, he says.

OMHAR also drew a hard line on the budgets of Section 8 landlords. Nationally, OMHAR rejected 258 rent appraisals; 168 of them were in Cincinnati, and 42 of them represented every one of Denhart's partnerships and properties.

One low-income housing consultant says Denhart's rents had gradually escalated to rates as high as apartments in Hyde Park. "(Denhart) was able to get rents based on the region, not the neighborhood," says Mark Brunner, a residential housing consultant in the local low-income housing business. "There was no rhyme or reason to HUD's appraisals. They were all over the place."

Denhart says the cost of maintaining low-income housing increases perpetually, but he agrees HUD's appraisals were odd. Sometimes two Section 8 buildings next door to each other would qualify for different rents. But OMHAR's ways are equally mysterious, Denhart says.

"Nobody can really tell what OMHAR does," he says. "I'm serious. It's hard to figure out OMHAR."

Landlords whose appraisals OMHAR rejected had two options: commit to using their buildings for affordable housing for 30 years, with HUD agreeing only to one-year contracts for the rent payments; or opt out of Section 8. This allowed the building to open to any tenants, but gave current Section 8 clients the right to stay or apply for vouchers and move.

Denhart divests
In early 2001, Denhart chose to opt out for his 42 limited partnerships, thinking it less risky. At first, his occupancy rates dropped to about 50 percent as tenants left. But before April, new people — some with good jobs — were replacing them, bringing occupancy rates up to 60 percent.

The new tenants included a woman who worked for Delta Airlines at $40,000 a year. She just wanted to live close to the city, Denhart says. He thought he could get Hart Realty up to 95 percent occupancy in 18 months, with a return to the working-class mix that hasn't existed in the neighborhood in decades.

Then the riots hit the heart of Denhart's territory. In one month, Hart Realty absorbed more than an average year's vacancies.

"The cash flow dropped tremendously," he says. "A lot of them wanted to leave Over-the-Rhine."

In mid-August, Denhart filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for 25 of the partnerships, accounting for 201 buildings and 1,089 apartments. Denhart plans to continue managing the other 17 more profitable partnerships, representing 489 apartments. His vacant lots and buildings are part of the sale.

Denhart's properties are one of the largest single Over-the-Rhine real estate portfolios on the market in years. Two separate real estate firms are marketing the 1,089 apartments — one for individual buildings, the other for the entire batch, which is being sold off a little each week.

But before Denhart can accept an offer, he has to put the properties up for bid in bankruptcy court. HUD, as the mortgage holder, has the right to reject an offer it believes too low or not in the best interest of the tenants.

The first 17 properties to change hands contained 53 apartments mostly on Boal, Findlay, Milton and Republic streets and a vacant parcel. They went out for bid in late November and early December and attracted no competing bids but still are awaiting HUD approval.

Months of rumors proved true Dec. 11 as Tom Williams, president of North American Properties, offered an undisclosed amount for Denhart's remaining portfolio of 185 buildings and 99 vacant parcels, valued at $13 million. Speculation had been circulating since August that Williams was interested in the properties. He was in New York and couldn't be reached for comment.

The offer could kick off a small market-rate development spree in Over-the-Rhine. As of two weeks ago, 60 to 70 percent of the 1,036 apartments in the buildings were occupied, mostly by Section 8 voucher holders who can't be forced to move, according to Denhart. The rest are vacant and could be turned into market-rate housing.

Williams' offer is just the first step toward selling the properties. Denhart said four other parties are seriously interested in the entire portfolio and he wouldn't be surprised if one of them submitted a competing bid soon.

Denhart will keep marketing the individual buildings until the sale closes — if it does — in February. Then the properties proceed to bankruptcy court, where anyone who's interested has a final chance to bid on all or some of the properties. That process could wrap up by March.

Denhart isn't interested in selling to anyone who wants to remove current residents, according to Tim Miller of Taft, Stettinius, and Hollister, Denhart's bankruptcy attorney.

"We're not going to deal with someone who wants to reject a bunch of leases," Miller says.

That wouldn't be easy, anyway. Current residents can't be evicted from their apartments without cause, even if they're the only tenants left in a large building. New owners can negotiate with them to move to another building, Miller says.

Miller expects the low-income housing business to stabilize in Over-the-Rhine over the long term. If the neighborhood takes off, people will want to live there.

Lost in the discussion about people leaving Over-the-Rhine and Denhart's vacancy rate is a key fact: There's still a strong demand for affordable housing in Hamilton County.

Both CMHA and Hamilton County — which respectively manage 70 and 30 percent of the Section 8 vouchers in the county — can only take voucher applications for a couple of weeks before they have to close their waiting lists.

CMHA can only offer about 2,100 vouchers each year because only 30 percent of the 6,500 it controls open up each year. But more than 9,000 people turned in applications when CMHA opened its waiting list for one week in June. CMHA already had 1,000 people on the waiting list, according to Troendle.

The county has a similar experience with the demand for vouchers, says Susan Walsh, director of the Hamilton County Community Development Department. For several years the county has used a lottery to pick people from its waiting list.

"There's just never been enough to meet the demand," she says.

In March, the county's waiting list filled up in about three and one-half weeks. New applicants for the county's 2,770 vouchers will probably have to wait two years, Walsh says.

Not everyone qualifies for a Section 8 voucher, Troendle says. People with criminal records, bad credit histories and eviction notices might not be accepted.

But Brunner says he could find 10 apartments in one day for voucher holders with good backgrounds.

"It's something that housing advocates don't want to hear," he says.

Ironically, Denhart backs the federal government's new market-rate, mixed-income philosophy that he says forced him into bankruptcy.

"I think it's a positive thing for Over-the-Rhine," he says.

Displacing the status quo
There's a lot more going on in Over-the-Rhine than Denhart's bankruptcy, Section 8 reforms and Cranley's ordinance. All signs point to more development.

After months of lobbying by the Cincinnati Development Fund, six local banks lined up this year to loan $17.5 million to the Cincinnati Urban Living Fund. The money will help finance housing of all kinds at interest rates below the commercial rate.

The catch is the boundary for the loans — between Liberty Street, Eggleston Avenue, the Ohio River and Dalton Avenue. That means about half of Over-the-Rhine is ineligible.

But that's better than when the discussion with the banks began, according to Jeanne Golliher, director of the Urban Living Fund.

"(The bankers) wanted to limit it even more," she says. "It took a year and a riot to get their attention."

The fund's longer-term goal is to raise $40 million. So far it has $28 million. The Cincinnati Development Fund will continue to concentrate on financing larger projects, such as the Emery Center apartments. The city's other major low-interest loan fund, the Cincinnati Equity Fund, continues similar work.

Another new financial tool is the city's "Mini-Housing Round" for all types of housing. The city is taking applications for the first round of $2.3 million in loans. This is in addition to the city's regular, twice-a-year Housing Round loan program.

"That's the biggest problem — the financing," says Jim Moll, a partner in Urban Sites Properties, Over-the-Rhine's largest residential developer. "They'll only loan you what a property's worth."

Most rehab projects cost thousands more than can be made in rents, Moll says.

Urban Sites has gone to great lengths to turn old Over-the-Rhine buildings into new urban apartments with exposed brick walls and other popular features. The company rehabbed and manages the 58-unit Emery Center apartments, now near 100 percent occupancy, according to Moll. The company also manages 107 other apartments, mostly in Over-the-Rhine.

Urban Sites' latest project is a small building on Walnut Street — near the Emery — that last housed a bar. When finished, three apartments will be upstairs and a light-fixture store on the ground floor. Like most of Urban Sites' work, it's a project most other developers would shy away from.

The building cost $20,000, but needed $40,000 to make it structurally sound. Moll expects the entire renovation to cost $325,000.

Moll and his partner, Bill Baum, patched together funding from a variety of sources at an average interest rate of 4.5 percent. About 60 percent came from the Cincinnati Equity and Development Funds, 30 percent from private investors and 10 percent from city programs.

Future rehabs like these should also be easier because city council rewrote some of the fire and building codes that stood in the way of historic renovations, such as minimum width requirements for staircases. The revisions, introduced by Councilman Pat DeWine, could make more projects possible and save developers thousands of dollars.

City council also let the housing retention ordinance expire in October. The ordinance required property owners to pay $4 per square foot to a city renovation fund when they demolished a building in Over-the-Rhine.

In more than 20 years, only two people paid the fee. Instead, most property owners mothballed their buildings or simply let them decay until the city declared them hazards and demolished them. Council essentially replaced the law with formation of a local historic district covering the northern half of Over-the-Rhine.

Cincinnati Public Schools are in the early stages of reorganizing Over-the-Rhine's three elementary schools, perhaps by closing Vine Street Elementary and building new versions of Rothenberg and Washington Park elementary schools. Cincinnati Public Schools and the Ohio School Facilities Commission plan to unveil more details about the district's 10-year facilities plan in mid-December.

"I'd say there's a strong (neighborhood) sentiment for renovation of Rothenberg School," says Mike Burson, director of facilities for Cincinnati Public Schools.

The effort to move the School for the Creative and Performing Arts closer to Music Hall, begun five years ago, missed a key fundraising deadline in October. But the project isn't dead, according to Paul Bernish, executive director of Cincinnati Arts School Inc., the project's backers.

Cincinnati Public Schools agreed to provide $26 million in matching funds for the project if Cincinnati Arts School Inc. could raise $26 million by October 2001. But organizers only netted $5 million by the deadline. They hope to negotiate a deadline extension with the school board in January, Bernish says.

Bernish expects project architects to finish more specific site plans sometime in December.

"We've got to get something a little more specific to help us with fundraising," he says. "The original concept still holds."

The Drop-Inn Center will not have to move. The project also calls for the Schiel Primary School, now in Corryville, to move to the new SCPA site.

Findlay Market, which turns 150 years old in October 2002, is in the last stage of a four-stage, $12 million renovation and expansion. Phase three — a $6 million streetscape project and doubling of the market house — began in October and is expected to wrap up in about 18 months. Demand for the new vendors' spaces is already high, according to market manager Greg Kathman.

Although the market is known for selling meat, fish and poultry, the renovation plan identifies a potential demand for ethnic food and a specialty wine shop.

The last big market renovation was in 1971, according to Mike Bender, proprietor of Mike's Meats and treasurer of the Findlay Market Board of Directors. Vendors were scattered all around the area during the last renovation, but it won't be as bad this time, says Bender, a market vendor since 1972.

Bender complimented the New Prospect Baptist Church's litter clean-up program, called the SEA Team. Bender says it has made a real difference in the amount of trash around the market.

Bruce Phillips manages the regular patrols along Elm, McMicken, Race and other nearby streets from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The basic idea is to give regular work to people who need it.

"Some of them are recovering addicts that ... basically need a job," says Phillips, who received about 500 applications for the eight positions.

After passing a drug test, workers start at $7 an hour for 40 hours a week. They get a 30-cent raise each month for the first three months if they don't have any tardiness or unexcused absences.

Speaking of economic empowerment, the Franciscans and the non-profit Women's Research Development Center are developing 28 units of housing that should be a key to home ownership for low-income people, according to Greg Friedman, the Franciscan's representative in the project.

Tenants who pay regular rent, help maintain the property and attend community functions will be eligible for a $5,000 payment after five years. A 10-year stay could mean $10,000. The hope is they will use the money for down-payments on houses.

Six buildings around Liberty and Republic streets are under renovation, and one more is scheduled to begin soon. The first units are expected to open in early 2002 and the rest should be open by the end of 2002, Friedman says.

The 60 percent solution
Last December the Over-the-Rhine Steering Committee spent several minutes of one session debating whether to have snacks during meetings, and what kind.

But under the leadership of Blume, attorney John Hauck and community organizer Debbie Mays, among others, the committee is closer to reaching a shared vision.

Hauck and Mays shared the toughest job, co-chairing the Housing Subcommittee. It was easy enough for the transportation and quality of life committees to decide the neighborhood wants better schools, safer streets, accessible transportation and nicer parks.

But sooner or later, everyone was going to have to deal with The Number — that is, the number of low-income housing units to be included in the Over-the-Rhine master plan.

In the 1985 master plan, the number was 5,520, thanks to Buddy Gray and the support he rallied. That was roughly equivalent to the number of occupied housing units in all of Over-the-Rhine, if not higher. Market-rate advocates, however, cite that number as a key factor in scaring investment from Over-the-Rhine.

In September, the city planning staff unveiled its first draft of the plan. Census 2000 figures indicated there were about 3,200 low-income housing units left in Over-the-Rhine — a drop that alarmed the low-income advocates. That was before last summer's wave of Section 8 opt-outs further reduced the number.

ReStoc coordinator Jennifer Summers walked out before the meeting ended, saying they never agreed to that number. Summers, Neumeier and others skipped the next committee meeting. In November, Blume called a special Steering Committee meeting to talk about what both sides really want. Blume says it wasn't a private meeting, but it was held in the planning department's offices instead of its usual location, and without the usual mailed notices.

The session produced little progress, but some of the social service advocates were satisfied they weren't the only ones feeling frustrated.

At the Nov. 29 Steering Committee meeting, Neumeier gave what has so far been the only ultimatum from the social service side. A specific strategy is needed to keep Over-the-Rhine housing prices reasonable, she says.

"It needs to be more concrete than it has been in the past," Neumeier says. "And if it's not there, we feel like we won't be here in the future."

Their three-page proposal calls for 60 percent of all of Over-the-Rhine's housing to be "affordable" — not low-income.

It is clearly a new way of looking at the problem: "Affordable" in this sense means a four-bracket range of housing prices based on 30 percent of a person's income, from $124 to $837.

This was very similar to a proposal included in the first draft of the Over-the-Rhine master plan. Steering Committee members agreed to delve deeper into the issue at a Housing Committee meeting a week later.

On Dec. 5, Hauck skillfully guided the debate, limiting the usual rhetoric and focusing on specific comments on the affordable housing plan.

Kathy Schwab of Downtown Cincinnati Inc. and Chuck Downton, president of the Over-the-Rhine Foundation, said 60 percent is probably too high, but 40 percent might work. The debate then turned to what "affordable" means, whether or not it should be expressed as a percentage of income and how to boost home ownership.

Downton proposed a subcommittee to meet in the following two weeks and hash out the definition, and no one objected.

"With patience, things eventually work out," Hauck said before the meeting. "There's been a large amount of patience required."

A year earlier, after the Steering Committee first met in a tense, feeling-each-other-out session, Blume admitted candidly that this was the scariest thing she's ever attempted.

On Dec. 5, that was still true, she said. She left the meeting feeling optimistic, but realized things could still fall apart at any time.

"It seems as though the stars are lined up for real change," Blume says. "In my mind, part of the urgency is that this neighborhood just has the whole world's attention right now. ... These buildings are not going to be here forever. And eventually, there is no Over-the-Rhine left for everybody. And then there's isn't anything left in Over-the-Rhine to argue about." ©

Scroll to read more News Feature articles
Join the CityBeat Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.

Newsletters

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.