Is OTR Affordable?

Study: Though housing options have diversified, 73 percent of lowest-income units have disappeared from OTR since 2002

OTR housing cost by region
OTR housing cost by region

Options for housing in one of Cincinnati’s most popular neighborhoods are becoming more diverse but also less affordable for the city’s lowest-income renters, a new study shows.

Xavier University’s Community Building Institute on Jan. 25 released a housing inventory commissioned by the Over-the-Rhine Community Council of the housing stock in the quickly developing neighborhood.

The study, which uses Census data from 2000, found that the most affordable housing (units costing about $400 for a one bedroom) had decreased by 73 percent, going from 3,235 units in 2000 to just 869 in 2015. After that decrease, such affordable housing now accounts for about 22 percent of the neighborhood’s housing stock.

The study also found that since 2000, the number of occupied housing units in the neighborhood had increased and that many of those units — some 70 percent — were affordable to people making less than the area median income of about $71,000 for a family of four.

Community council members say the study’s finding of plentiful middle class housing and remaining subsidized units demonstrates that OTR is inclusive.

“This shows that we are still very diverse,” OTR Community Council President Rylan Messer told WCPO. “But the big question is, what are the next 10 to 20 years going to look like now that we have this data? If we wake up 20 years from now, and this is a predominately Caucasian, upper-middle class neighborhood, we will have failed miserably. ”

Other community council members, as well as Liz Blume, director of study authors CBI, echoed the sentiment that the neighborhood has housing stock for a diverse group of residents.

But questions around the large drop in the neighborhood's most affordable housing remain, and some residents say the change has been difficult. Angela Merritt, who works with Over-the-Rhine Community Housing and lives in affordable housing on East Clifton Avenue, says the shifts she’s seen in the neighborhood over the last decade have taken some adjustment and that OTR’s transformation could be more equitable.

“It’s just about making the change for everyone,” she says. “I don’t think it’s for everyone, and it should be.”

Over the summer, CityBeat shared the story of residents who have had to leave the neighborhood due to rising prices and new development. 

Some of the lowest-cost units gone from OTR belonged to Hart Realty, run by former affordable housing magnate Thomas Denhart. In 2001, following the civil unrest in OTR and changes to the way the Department of Housing and Urban Development assessed fair market rents for Section 8 buildings, Denhart declared bankruptcy and got rid of properties containing about 1,000 of the 1,600 affordable units he controlled. But Hart's bankruptcy in and of itself didn't eliminate all those units from the neighborhood's supply of lowest-income housing. Reports from the time show that some of Denhart's properties sold quickly and that between 60 and 70 percent of those units stayed occupied for some time after the bankruptcy, often with HUD tenants. It's hard to know how many low-income tenants eventually trickled out of OTR due to the bankruptcy, but it's far less than the 2,356 low-income units CBI found the neighborhood lost in the last decade and a half.

OTR has seen rapid change in the past decade, mostly through the efforts of the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation, founded in 2003 by then-mayor Charlie Luken and city business leaders. At the time, there were more vacant buildings in the neighborhood and much of the housing there was affordable, much of it subsidized for low-income residents.

3CDC has poured more than $800 million of public and private money into OTR and downtown, including an expansive remodeling of Washington Park and intensive residential and commercial development efforts along the southern stretch of Vine Street in what has become known as the Gateway Corridor.

CBI's area median income includes incomes from all over Hamilton County. But the neighborhood's median household income is different. Overall, it's about $15,000 a year, according to Census data, though that number has risen quickly in the southern portions where development has occurred most heavily. In the tract containing southern Vine Street, median income is nearly $40,000 a year. In the northern Census tracts, it remains around $10,000 a year.

The southern section of OTR has seen the biggest shift in housing. According to the CBI study, more than half of the housing stock in the area around Vine and Main streets south of Liberty Street is affordable only to those making more than 60 percent of the area median income, or about $43,000 a year.

Those changes are now moving north of Liberty Street as well, the study suggests, though those areas still have a majority of housing affordable to people who make under 60 percent of the area median income. More change is headed for the area north of Liberty Street as development springs up around Findlay Market, Rothenberg Elementary and other locations.

New shifts in housing aren’t just about numbers, some who live in the neighborhood say, but also about the way the neighborhood feels and how newcomers and long-time residents interact.

“It’s all about how humble you are,” says Merritt, who lives north of Liberty Street, of newer residents. “It’s been somewhat of an adjustment because the lower-income people feel like new people are trying to take over. But we all need to learn how to deal with each other, no matter what class you are.”


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