With a colorful line of empty but recently-stabilized row houses as a backdrop, the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority and West End community organization Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses formally kicked off a partnership that will seek to marshal energy released from a coming FC Cincinnati stadium into equitable development in the predominantly low-income neighborhood.
During the news conference today, Redevelopment Authority President Laura Brunner and Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses Community Engagement Coordinator Tia Brown signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two groups and talked about some of the details of the work the two will do going forward.
Seven Hills, which has served the West End for 50 years, has already begun advocating for its interests in the West End. Those include access to affordable housing and help for small businesses. Using funding from the city, the Redevelopment Authority stabilized the Baymiller rowhouses earlier this year. Now, by request of Seven Hills, two of the sturdy, historic brick buildings will be redeveloped as affordable housing by Habitat for Humanity.
Brown says Seven Hills wants to make sure that coming development — either attracted by the stadium or simply from a growing interest in urban real estate near downtown Cincinnati — is equitable and aligns with a comprehensive neighborhood plan West End residents completed in 2016 called WE Speak.
“Now that this agreement is complete, the real work begins,” Brown said before signing the MOU. “When it comes to development in the West End, we look forward to having an active seat at the table, making sure that the community is heard and taken into consideration with every decision.”
Brunner says the Redevelopment Authority shares that goal.
“We thought that this was an important way to really solidify our relationship,” she said of the MOU, “and to have an understanding of how we’re going to work together as we embrace the big investment being made by FC. Our goal at the port is to work in partnership with Seven Hills to revitalize this community, to prevent gentrification and to make sure that at the same time we celebrate new investment and new people and growth in the community, that we’re protecting the legacy of residents who have been here for so long, and providing opportunity as well.”
The signing today drew some local leaders and Cincinnati heavy hitters: Pastor James Strayhorn of Bright Star Community Church on Linn Street gave the opening prayer. West End Community Council President Keith Blake showed up. Former mayor Mark Mallory, who does community development work for FCC, and former mayor Charlie Luken, who chairs the Redevelopment Authority’s board, were both there. Cincinnati City Council members P.G. Sittenfeld and Jeff Pastor, both heavily involved in the deal-making and city legislation that paved the way for FC Cincinnati’s stadium, also attended.
FCC President and General Manager Jeff Berding was also present. He highlighted recent contributions the team has made toward the Redevelopment Authority’s efforts in the West End, including $100,000 for a housing study to be completed by an independent contractor, another $100,000 for affordable housing for long-term West End residents, and $50,000 for community engagement in the neighborhood.
Berding says the housing study “will show how we can best integrate rental and home ownership opportunities, identify the best mix of market rate, affordable and low-income housing opportunities and also, recommend actions to support at-risk West End renters, homeowners and business owners to help prevent displacement and protect against adverse effects of redevelopment. That’s going to be a critical piece of work.”
The neighborhood, which is predominantly African-American, contains roughly 1,000 units of rental housing locked into long-term affordability due to ownership by Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority or because they were built by private developers like The Community Builders using Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Census data shows that more than 3,000 of the neighborhood's residents live below the poverty line. Another 1,300 live above the poverty level but still well below the income needed to comfortably afford the city's average rent, which has hovered around $1,000 a month in recent months.
The Redevelopment Authority says it has a number of tools it will use in the neighborhood, including the involvement of the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corporation, the Homesteading and Urban Redevelopment Corporation and $2 million in financing finalized two weeks ago that can be used for property acquisition and stabilization. Seven Hills will have a say in how those properties are redeveloped.
The coming stadium has been controversial, and the signing of the agreement between the two organizations comes as questions remain around the fate of businesses — a convenience store, barber shop and soul food carryout restaurant — that must move to make way for FC Cincinnati’s coming stadium in the east portion of the West End. Representatives for the Redevelopment Authority say they’re working with at least one of those businesses — Just Cookin’ — to help it find a new venue. FC Cincinnati offered $20,000 in relocation assistance for the businesses, but two of the business owners say that assistance likely won’t be enough on its own to keep them afloat through the transition.
Brown says Seven Hills will continue to push to make sure redevelopment in the West End is equitable as construction of the stadium ramps up.
“We’ll be working to build upon and develop our capacity, while also attracting and supporting purposeful developments that align with the goals of the WE Speak plan,” she said. “Our doors are always open so the community can stay informed, build their knowledge and participate in neighborhood development.”