How Inclusive is Hamilton County’s Housing Market?

A countywide study completed in accordance with federal requirements highlights big challenges for some when it comes to finding safe, affordable housing.

click to enlarge Houses in Avondale - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Houses in Avondale

Imagine you’re looking for a place in Hamilton County to live. Maybe you don’t make much money. Where do you look? Where do you assume you’ll not be able to find a place? How long will it take to secure housing? 

Will it be harder if you have kids? If you’ve recently aged out of foster care? If you’re disabled? If you aren’t white? If you’re an immigrant? 

According to a 300-page study compiled over the last year and a half by Xavier University’s Community Building Institute, the answer to the latter questions is often yes.

CBI completed its 2019 Fair Housing Assessment last August and presented it to the Hamilton County Commission in October. The county is required to commission such a report tracking compliance with fair housing laws twice a decade because it receives money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This time around, officials sought a study that dove deep into dynamics across the entire county.

“Every five years as the result of us receiving federal funds — community development block grants, HOME funds, emergency solutions grants — we’re required to do an assessment of fair housing needs, an analysis of impediments to fair housing,” Hamilton County Administrator Jeff Aluotto said in October. “This year, as part of our five-year planning process, we worked with the Community Building Institute and the City of Cincinnati at a much broader level, with the perspective being that we do a much better job of analyzing the problems and identifying the solutions if we do it community-wide.” 

The study takes a look at issues that are distinct from — but intertwined with — the county’s 40,000-unit gap in affordable housing, CBI Executive Director Liz Blume told the county commission.

“It’s very hard to talk about discriminatory behavior without talking about affordability,” Blume told the County Commission when presenting the report in October. “The question that HUD is asking is, are there discriminatory practices going on in these jurisdictions, and if so, what is the nature of those practices and what might we do to mitigate those things?”

To arrive at answers to those questions, CBI held 16 focus groups and received almost 500 survey responses from Hamilton County residents — those in various racial and ethnic groups, those with disabilities, families with children and others — as well as real estate, development and housing professionals. 

“What we heard from people is that there is absolutely overt discrimination taking place in Hamilton County,” Blume says. “Young people aging out of foster care in Hamilton County are having a really hard time and are being told that they don’t have enough experience to rent. We also hear from families with children that they have a hard time finding units. That’s because it’s hard to find affordable units with two or three bedrooms, but also because they hear from landlords that kids will be too hard on the units, ‘neighbors don’t like kids, we don’t want to rent to people with kids.’ People with disabilities reported are also having a difficult time, partly because they can’t find affordable units and partly because landlords aren’t willing to make the accommodations they need.” 

All of those forms of discrimination are illegal under federal housing laws. 

Beyond overt discrimination, though, social and market forces also present barriers to fair housing access in many parts of the county. 

“I think that discrimination around race and ethnic origin is harder to see sometimes,” Blume says. “People don’t usually say ‘I’m not going to rent to you because you’re black.’ But there are a lot of places in the county where people just don’t go. People don’t go to the eastern or western suburbs because they perceive there is no housing available to them and because there is no social network. And if they need to use public transportation, they probably can’t get there anyway.”

Blume says CBI started its assessment by examining how various parts of the county rebounded from the foreclosure crisis and recession in 2007 and 2008. 

Some parts of Hamilton County — the far eastern and parts of the far western suburbs, for example, and certain sections of Cincinnati’s urban core — are doing better now than they were pre-recession in terms of building conditions and housing values. 

Those areas are places of higher opportunity, with housing that is in good condition, high-performing schools, easier access to quality food, parks and other amenities. But affordable housing and transit access are often scant in those areas.

Meanwhile, other areas continue to struggle, and even some of the success stories have a downside, Blume says. 

The long stretch of neighborhoods and municipalities running up the county’s spine — clustered around the Mill Creek or in nearby areas — have had a much more mixed recovery, as have some suburban communities. Many are struggling with increasingly concentrated poverty, greatly deteriorated housing conditions and lack of accessibility to transit, food and other necessities. 

According to Census data, one area in Mt. Airy saw more than 1,000 higher-income people move out and more than 3,500 low-income residents move in between 2000 and 2016, raising its percentage of low income residents from 26 percent to 55 percent.

That pattern repeats in some places outside the city, where smaller municipalities struggle with fewer resources to address issues as poverty moves to the suburbs. 

One Census tract in Sharonville saw 1,050 more low-income residents move into the neighborhood and more than 500 middle-to-high-income residents move out. 

Its share of low-income population went from 17 percent to almost 38 percent. The neighboring tract to the west saw an even more dramatic change — low-income residents went from about 28 percent of the population to 51 percent.

Even though geographic patterns are changing, some underlying racial inequities are not. 

Between 2000 and 2016, most black residents moving to suburbs (almost 26,000) went to places experiencing strong economic decline. Residents of Hispanic origin saw a similar trend. About 1,600 went to high-performing suburbs, while 17,000 went to suburbs decaying economically.

And while the reversals of fortunes in neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine have their upsides, there are also consequences.

Development there has restored myriads of historic properties, brought new businesses to the area and attracted new residents who fill renovated apartments and condos. 

But Census data and recent studies suggest that lower-income people, many of them African American, have left OTR in recent years at the same time rents have risen. 

The four Census tracts that make up Over-the-Rhine saw 635 more middle-to-high-income residents move in between 2000 and 2016, while as many as 3,000 low-income residents moved out over time, according to a study from the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. The neighborhood is still predominantly low income, though by a much lower margin.

Those findings are roughly consistent with a 2017 analysis of Census data by CityBeat suggesting that as many as 1,800 predominantly low-income black residents left the neighborhood during a more specific time period between 2010 and 2016, even as the neighborhood’s white population increased by about 200. A 2015 CBI study using Census data and real estate listings found that even as middle- and high-income housing has increased, the most affordable housing in OTR decreased by 73 percent from 2000 to 2015, going from 3,235 units to just 869. OTR has also seen a decrease in residents living in the neighborhood who receive rental help from HUD attached to Section 8 vouchers. In 2004, 545 voucher holders lived in OTR. By 2015, that number had dropped to 326, according to HUD data.

“Some areas in the urban core have rebounded remarkably,” Blume says of Cincinnati’s hotter urban neighborhoods. “This region has become almost a national market on how you harness revitalization and a preference for urban living. I think that’s a good thing. But it also means that we’re displacing residents in neighborhoods where they historically lived because property values are heating up.” 

Exacerbating issues with discrimination and housing affordability, many moderate-income families find it hard to access the capital necessary to purchase a home, CBI’s study suggests. 

That dynamic hits people of color especially hard. About 24 percent of black households in Cincinnati owned a home in 2017, for example. 

Meanwhile, roughly 50 percent of white households here lived in a home they owned that year, according to an aggregate of five years of American Community Survey results from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Lack of homeownership opportunities isn’t always a matter of scarce supply, according to CBI’s study.

“There are a lot of units in Hamilton County that are available,” Blume says. “Small, detached single-family brick houses from 900 to 1,200 square feet in good school districts. But most lending institutions don’t want to do mortgages for under $100,000. These houses are under $100,000, which makes them great affordable housing, but the lending just doesn’t work. Either their credit is bad or they can’t get a mortgage low enough.”

What can Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati do to begin mitigating those issues? CBI issues a number of recommendations in its study. Those include the following:

• Affordable housing trust funds at the city and county level with dedicated funding streams

• Funding for economic development in areas in the county’s northern reaches experiencing disinvestment and concentrating poverty 

• Support for neighborhood and regionally-based affordable housing providers and anti-housing discrimination organizations like Housing Opportunities Made Equal

• Expanded public transportation offerings in Hamilton County’s disadvantaged suburbs 

• New lending mechanisms that enable moderate-income families to buy and renovate vacant homes in Hamilton County

• Collaboration between municipalities to hold trouble landlords accountable

• Efforts to loosen zoning codes in areas that currently only allow single-family housing and large lots 

More clarity on how much those solutions could cost and how to achieve them could come with the completion of a comprehensive housing study funded by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and currently being completed by the Greater Cincinnati Local Initiatives Support Corporation.  

In the meantime, Blume says there have been encouraging shifts recently.

“People seem to be coalescing around the big pieces,” she says, though many details remain to be worked out.

In October, now-retired Hamilton County Commission member Todd Portune said the county has worked on the various problems the study discussed, and will continue to do so. But, he noted, the county government can’t take on those immense issues by itself.

“The board of county commissioners has over the years been very strategic and deliberative in terms of using every bit of resources it can catalytically to try to invest in these types of solutions, whether it be economic development or housing or et cetera,” Portune said. “But we’ve been very limited in how we can do that. 

“This challenges those of us who are in positions of authority to stand up and fight for what has to be done in addressing issues like this.”

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