Moved Aside: Longtime residents are being uprooted as affordable housing options dwindle in OTR

Over-the-Rhine's rise has strained housing affordability for the city’s most vulnerable, many of whom trace their lives in the neighborhood back generations.

Charles Wiley has lived in Over-the-Rhine since his father, a railroad man, packed his family onto a train called The Hummingbird and moved them from Alabama in the 1940s.

For the last 27 years of his time in the neighborhood, Wiley has made his home at Parkway Towers, a 100-unit subsidized apartment complex among the rapidly changing blocks near Findlay Market.

In March, a buzz spread through the building after Wiley’s neighbors were notified it was being vacated.

“We know that your building has a lot of conditions and problems,” read a letter many tenants received from developer Model Group, which recently purchased Parkway. “We have determined that it will be necessary to empty the building in its entirety. It will be necessary to relocate both you and your low-income rent subsidies to other housing units in the area.”

The news troubled Wiley, who lost part of his foot to diabetes a few years back and relies on living close to the market because of his limited mobility. He is also very fond of his friends in the building, some of whom he’s known since childhood. Though Model's letter promised rents would not go up after relocation, residents were wary.

“I told my buddies, you better start saving every penny you have,” Wiley said earlier this summer as he sat in his recliner surrounded by vintage football paraphernalia and photos and paintings of family and friends. “You’re about to have to move somewhere a lot more expensive.”

It’s no secret that Cincinnati’s hottest neighborhood has gotten more costly to live in over the last few years. Over-the-Rhine’s rise has remade beautiful parks and turned crumbling historic buildings into glistening storefronts and high-dollar condos, as well as some more affordable dwellings.

It has also strained housing affordability for the city’s most vulnerable, many of whom trace their lives in the neighborhood back generations to urban renewal of the city's historically black neighborhoods, migration from Appalachia or the South and other major social forces in the 20th century.

The changes of this century have, until recently, centered around Over-the-Rhine’s southern half, mostly fueled by more than half a billion dollars in investment poured into the neighborhood by the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), a public-private partnership with the city of Cincinnati. But recently, these dynamics have begun intensifying in other parts of  the neighborhood as well, including the area around Findlay Market and around a recently rehabbed Ziegler Park on the OTR-Pendleton border. 

Having seen the changes firsthand, other residents at Parkway were less surprised about their potential impending moves. Charlene, 44, who asked that her last name not be used for this story, was facing her third move in two years. She lived for 23 years in an apartment on Sycamore Avenue until it was renovated in 2015. From there, she rented an apartment on Elm Street just blocks from Parkway Towers until Model told her last year it was rehabbing that building and she would have to leave. Now, she faced moving again.

“This is prime real estate,” Charlene says of the Findlay Market area. “I’ve been in downtown Cincinnati since I was three days old. I have family who have lived down here all their lives, too. I want to stay here.”

For now, Charlene will get her wish. Advocates with the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition began working with the tenants so they could advocate for themselves, and the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio discovered that her building has a use restriction — that is, a requirement tied to past rehabilitation funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that it stay affordable. For the next five to 15 years, Model will likely have to continue with that arrangement. 

Contrary to Model’s letter, most residents there have only mild complaints about the building’s condition, and HUD documents show that Parkway scored an 84 percent — much higher than other buildings that continue to receive HUD approval — during a recent inspection.

Model has since backed off telling tenants to move. In response to a request by CityBeat for comment on the situation, Chief Operating Officer Bobby Maly said the company has decided to leave the building as it is after Legal Aid’s requests.

At a recent meeting about the situation, Legal Aid’s Nick DiNardo told residents they were in the clear — for now.

“I think they tried to pull a fast one here, and they got caught,” he said. “And now they say they’re not going to try and do that anymore.”

In hot spots around OTR, other residents haven’t been as lucky. As the neighborhood heats up and the temptation to make money on valuable real estate rises, low-income people are getting shuffled around and, in some cases, moved out of the neighborhood entirely. In many buildings, expiring HUD subsidies or rent restrictions are allowing landlords to shift affordable housing to market rate.

“It’s a process involving pressure,” Legal Aid Director John Schrider says of the squeeze felt by low-income renters in redeveloping neighborhoods. “The pressure can come in a number of subtle or not-so-subtle ways. As neighborhoods change, unless you find the right way to do it, which seems really elusive, the former residents are going to lose.”

Despite efforts to preserve affordable housing in OTR and other neighborhoods, the situation could get worse.

Wiley hopes it won’t.

“I’ve been down here all my life,” he says. “This is where I want to be. This is where I want to die.”

Rapid change in the urban core

OTR’s revitalization has been nationally lauded by The Atlantic, The New York Times and a number of other prestigious publications. But it has come at a price.

A study by Xavier’s Community Building Institute using Census data and real estate listings found that even as middle and high-income housing has increased, the most affordable housing — units costing about $400 for a one bedroom — 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. With vouchers, HUD picks up the cost of rent above 30 percent of a recipient’s income for any private residence that accepts them. At its peak, in 2004, 545 voucher holders lived in OTR. By 2015, that number had dropped to 326, according to HUD data.

The reasons people with vouchers leave a neighborhood can be complex, but some almost certainly left OTR because they couldn’t find landlords accepting the subsidies.

Charlene, the Parkway Towers resident, can attest to this.

“Look at my gray hair. I got these from worrying about a roof over my head,” she says. “Most landlords just don’t want to mess with Section 8. The government makes them do things they should be doing already (to maintain buildings) and they think everyone on Section 8 doesn’t have any money.”

Big demographic shifts have also occurred in the wake of OTR’s revitalization. That might seem like a good thing at first glance — less segregation for a largely black, low-income community. But the changes have come mostly due to black residents leaving the neighborhood, thanks in part to problems that tightly bind race and economic status in Cincinnati CityBeat documented in 2015.

The five census tracts making up Over-the-Rhine and neighboring Pendleton lost as many as 1,800 black residents between 2010 and 2015, according to Census data. Meanwhile, white population in the neighborhood increased by a couple hundred residents. Residents move out of neighborhoods for a variety of reasons, and those numbers are based in part on American Community Survey data between 2011 and 2015. That data has a higher margin of error than 10-year Census data, but the pattern seems clear.

In 2015, CityBeat published a story detailing the displacement of some low-income, predominantly black residents out of southern OTR, including a man named Reginald Stroud, who lost two businesses and his home when developers purchased and renovated the building his family occupied on Walnut Street.

The trend has repeated, albeit more slowly and less drastically, in other parts of OTR. But it could speed up as some of those areas, including the blocks on the Pendleton-OTR border surrounding a newly revamped Ziegler Park and the area around Findlay Market in OTR’s northwestern quadrant, receive more attention from developers.

And respite may not be readily available in other neighborhoods — a recent study by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation released in February found that Hamilton County needs 40,000 more units of housing to meet the needs of the area’s low-income families.

For those who advocate for tenants, it’s a distressing situation.

“With the robust housing and commercial market in Over-the-Rhine, it is difficult for people to hear and believe that there is a downside,” says Mary Burke Rivers, executive director of Over-the-Rhine Community Housing. “As Over-the-Rhine loses affordable housing, there is no neighborhood that is opening its doors.”

Traumatic transitions 

Around the same time residents at Parkway Towers were worrying they would need to leave their building, Birdie Fleming sat on a couch in her neighbor Catherine Chiles’ apartment a few blocks away at 1900 Race St. Boxes, clothing and packing material surrounded the two. 

Both Fleming and Chiles are in their mid-seventies and hold HUD vouchers for subsidized rent. Both had lived in their building near Findlay Market for more than 15 years and both were in the process of moving out. As they sat in Chiles’ soon-to-be former apartment, they were at turns angry and frightened, sometimes in tears. 

Both struggle with various chronic illnesses and rely on walkers to get around. They also rely on each other and don’t want to be split up.

“I’m worried about her,” Fleming said, motioning to Chiles. “She’s in the same shape I am. I don’t have that much longer, I believe. I just want a peaceful place where I can sit and not be bothered.” 

Model Group, which owns the building, told Chiles and Fleming last summer they eventually have to move — something they resisted — but would get relocation assistance in doing so. Fleming signed a lease on an apartment in the West End but says she never wanted to live there. She says stress around the move has affected her mental state and that she didn’t understand what she was signing at the time. 

After signing the contract and being told she couldn’t get out of it, Fleming begrudgingly began undertaking the slow, painful process of lugging bags of belongings the 20-minute walk from her old apartment to the new one. 

Maly, Model Group’s CEO, says the building on Race Street is in bad repair and must be vacated — something contested by the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and residents in the building they've helped. Maly says Model plans to build a new mixed-use development at the site with a quarter of its residential units affordable at or below 80 percent of the area median income, or AMI. 

AMI is the measure HUD uses to determine housing affordability based on countywide income statistics. In Hamilton County, AMI is about $71,000 for a family of four. That means that at 80 percent AMI, Model’s affordable apartments would be financially accessible to families making about $56,800 a year, or a single person making $40,000 a year. 

The Census tract containing Findlay market has many low-income residents, some on fixed incomes like Fleming and Chiles, and the median household income there was just $7,500 at the 2010 Census. To be affordable for such a household by HUD standards — which stipulate a tenant should pay no more than 30 percent of her or his income for housing costs —  an apartment would have to cost about $188 a month.

It’s a conundrum common in the affordable housing world. Subsidized developments touted as affordable at 30, 60 or 80 percent of AMI are still out of reach for residents in many areas of OTR and other neighborhoods where the median household incomes have hovered at $15,000 or less a year. Some residents close the gap with Section 8 vouchers — but there’s a lengthy wait list to get those.

After some back and forth between Model, Legal Aid and the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, Fleming was let out of her lease on her apartment in the West End. She now lives on 14th Street in OTR, where she is somewhat happier. Chiles will soon join her there. Still, the two say, they’ve had to throw away many of their belongings and endure a traumatic transition.

click to enlarge A Model Group rehab project near Findlay Market - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
A Model Group rehab project near Findlay Market

Big plans, big changes

Model is one of the few for-profit developers in the city working with affordable housing, which presents difficult and complicated financing challenges. The company has a good track record, affordable housing advocates say, but some of the recent moves it has made are distressing.

“They’re known as the model for-profit developer,” says Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition. “The affordable units they develop, historically, have been quality, and their management has been good. But Model will also sell out their tenants easily. It gets to the point where you start to wonder — are they doing affordable housing because it’s the right thing to do? Or are they doing it because it’s good PR and when the market shifts on a block, they can move people out?” 

The building where Fleming and Chiles lived is just a small piece of a larger plan. Model, one of the first developers to work with 3CDC in the years after the latter was founded in 2003, has purchased 35 buildings in the area around Findlay Market for renovation, including most of the block south of 1900 Race.

Those plans include a $19 million project providing 23 market-rate apartments and nine condominiums ranging between $225,000 and $575,000. Other developers are moving fast in the neighborhood as well, rehabbing buildings for market-rate apartments and condos. 

Maly says preserving affordability in the neighborhood is a big priority for Model, as is creating mixed-income communities.

“We believe that OTR’s diversity is one of the most interesting and appealing parts of the community,” he said in an email response to questions about the developer’s plans. “We will continue as we have done for many years to try to develop high-quality affordable housing that is indistinguishable from market-rate housing alongside high-quality market-rate housing.”

There are currently about 300 affordable housing units in the neighborhood around Findlay Market, and the city would like to see 50 more — part of larger pushes in City Hall to boost affordable housing. 

Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, one of the last major nonprofit affordable housing providers standing in OTR, provides more than 400 units of affordable housing in OTR and Pendleton. OTRCH is working on a plan that includes a 43-unit scattered site project for the areas around the market. That effort, called Carrie’s Place, is part of a bigger project involving affordable housing across OTR with Model and 3CDC at the helm. 

Last year, the groups announced the $135 million effort, which would rehabilitate about 300 units of affordable housing at 60 percent AMI — affordable to a single person making about $31,000 a year — while adding 250 units of market-rate housing. The city provided $2 million toward that project and forgave $2 million in debt previous owners owed on some buildings involved in it. The rehabs will take place at eight sites scattered across OTR once owned by Denver-based Mercy Housing and other affordable housing providers. 

Even this effort to preserve affordable housing will entail some loss of affordable units, though. According to an analysis of a list of the properties included in the project, the effort will take some 335 existing affordable units of housing and yield 303. That’s if all the planned affordable units come through — something some affordable housing advocates have expressed doubts about.

A long and ongoing loss 

The mechanisms by which OTR is losing its affordable housing are complex and not necessarily all about developers. In some ways, they’re baked into current federal housing policy, which has become increasingly reliant on the private market. 

In the 1970s, HUD began to move away from large-scale public housing complexes toward more market-based approaches like Section 8. By the 1980s, HUD had launched a program called Low- Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), which are given to developers in exchange for a promise that the residential buildings they construct will remain affordable for 15 or 30 years. HUD has also used other subsidies, including rental vouchers that stay with particular units in particular buildings, to try and ensure that those without the means for market-rate housing have a place to live.

Some of the subsidies that have left 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, Denhart declared bankruptcy and got rid of properties containing about 900 affordable units of housing. 

Some of those units, purchased by other landlords, stayed HUD-subsidized. Others became vacant or were converted to market-rate housing. It’s hard to know how many low-income tenants eventually trickled out of OTR due to the bankruptcy, but it was far less than the 2,356 low-income units CBI found the neighborhood lost in the last decade and a half.

Rent restrictions on LIHTC buildings and building-specific subsidies expiring are another part of that puzzle — and future expirations could claim many more units of affordable housing over the coming years. 

HUD data shows that about 30 buildings containing about 500 units of affordable housing in OTR and neighboring Pendleton had their HUD affordability restrictions or subsidies expire between 2001 and last year. 

In some cases, building owners can ask the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, which handles HUD contracts for the state, to opt out of their rent restrictions early. That has happened in other Ohio cities, and at least one building in the Mercy Housing portfolio has received that permission as well.

And time is winding down on restrictions and subsidies at a number of other buildings, meaning the potential for far less affordable housing in the future.

“There are some older tax credit projects, and as they bump up to their 15th year, they’re increasingly at risk of no longer being low-income housing,” Legal Aid’s Schrider says.

click to enlarge Sycamore Manor - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Sycamore Manor

Sycamore Manor represents 19 units of affordable housing in an area of Pendleton seeing rapid reinvestment. The building’s HUD subsidies will expire in September this year, and tenants there have already been told they will need to be out by the end of the summer. Residents there have a variety of opinions about that — some shrug it off as simple economics. But others, including one elderly tenant who sat on his doorstep recently with a bandage on his arm from the dialysis he must undergo, say they are very upset about the situation. At this point, many aren’t sure where they’ll move.

Like Sycamore Manor, buildings in OTR and Pendleton containing at least 900 low-income units are set to have their HUD subsidies or LIHTC-related rent restrictions expire over the next five years, HUD data shows. That’s not counting buildings OTRCH, Model and other groups are working to keep affordable.

Meanwhile, revitalization efforts are making the neighborhood more expensive. Sycamore Manor sits across from the current hum and roar of construction on an underground parking garage for the Alumni Lofts, the former Woodward School building where market-rate apartments run between $800 and $1,900 a month. The building is also across the street from Ziegler Park, which recently received a $30 million renovation from 3CDC. 

Residents in other buildings nearby are seeing big increases in their rents tied to improvements in the neighborhood. Low- and moderate-income residents at an apartment building a block away from Ziegler on 13th Street received a letter last month advising them their rent would go up $110 a month — an increase that residents say they can’t afford.

“The neighborhood continues to improve around us,” the letter says, also citing improvements to the building itself. “The new parking garage and green space at Woodward School across the street and the completely rebuilt Ziegler Park, 200 feet away. Improvements throughout the Pendleton and OTR are creating great energy that has spread throughout the city.”

That increase isn’t a one-time occurrence. Census data shows that median rent in the Pendleton Census tract went from $296 in 2010 to $486 in 2015

The Homeless Coalition stepped in after the rent increase and began working with the tenants to help them advocate for themselves, but the situation has continued to be stressful, residents say. A few weeks after the letter, residents in the building received eviction notices telling them they would need to be out in 30 days to make way for renovations.

Stephanie Clark, who lives in the building, says that’s devastating. Clark has been in the area for more than a decade — she once lived just blocks away on Broadway Street before renovations there forced her to a place on McMicken Avenue near Findlay Market. In 2014, she was overjoyed to find an affordable place on 13th near her job at Jack Casino. Clark doesn’t own a car and relies on her proximity to work and the grocery. She’s not sure where she’ll go, but the increases in rent in the area are something she says she can’t afford.

“It takes one whole check, plus some of the next, to pay rent,” she says of her situation now, which is quickly coming to an end. She and other tenants in the building aren’t sure where they’ll go. “Thirty days is pretty short notice,” she says. “I don’t know which way to turn.”

click to enlarge Developers unveil rehabbed affordable housing in Pendleton. - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Developers unveil rehabbed affordable housing in Pendleton.

An uphill battle for affordability

As in the area near Findlay Market, there are efforts to preserve affordable housing in Pendleton.

In late May, a group including Mayor John Cranley, OTRCH Executive Director Rivers and Tom Feusse of Wallick Communities, a for-profit developer, gathered at the Peaslee Neighborhood Center to unveil a $5.4 million renovation of 40 units of LIHTC housing in the neighborhood called Cutter Apartments. The rehabs were financed with HUD dollars, meaning they’ll stay affordable for at least another 15 years. 

But even as those units are saved, many others remain in danger or are gone for good. What’s more, proposed changes to tax policies at the federal level have deflated the value of funding mechanisms like LIHTC, making it harder to rehab buildings or build new affordable housing. And President Donald Trump’s administration earlier this year proposed deep cuts to HUD programs that maintain affordable housing. 

In cities like San Francisco, where housing costs have exploded over the past decade, debates have raged about how to address the skyrocketing expense of places to live. 

Some pro-development factions trust the market to take care of housing costs, arguing that increasing density in the city by building more housing of any kind — even luxury condos — will eventually decrease all housing costs by soaking up demand. But others say those high-end units just increase property values around them and make the neighborhood more and more expensive. While data isn’t conclusive in San Francisco, studies in other cities show more housing doesn’t always equal affordability. 

A study released in April by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that even in Houston, producing more housing didn’t always lead to lower prices in changing neighborhoods. In fact, higher property taxes and the demolition of more-modest housing in favor of higher-priced dwellings, even denser ones, was increasing cost of living in some urban Houston neighborhoods, according to the study.

It’s a debate that’s likely to intensify around neighborhoods like OTR and Pendleton. As affordable options there continue to dwindle, tenants look likely to be moved around or out of the neighborhoods entirely. That’s a source of constant stress for some — a feeling they could be uprooted at any time.

“There are days when the loss of affordable housing in Over-the-Rhine and the loss of the people who lived here breaks my spirit,” says OTRCH’s Rivers. “I get overwhelmed by all the losses and the potential losses that lie ahead. When we lose a unit of affordable housing, here or in any neighborhood, it will be years before we get it back, if we ever do get it back. With all the changes and the loss of housing I’d guess that most residents don’t feel that their home is secure here. That’s a hard way to live.”

Just days before she moved, Fleming sat on her doorstep outside her apartment at 1900 Race St. She looked up and down the street wistfully.

“It’s peaceful here,” she said. “Right here, this is my spot. I sit here and see the world. I liked to barbeque here and have a thousand kids come around. You moved me like I’m a youngster who just moved out of momma’s house. I’m 75 years old. Just let me do like I’ve been doing, taking care of myself.” ©

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