News: Abandoned, but Not Yet Lost: Clean up the Vacant Buildings

Forget the metaphor that holds the Ohio Riverfront is Cincinnati's front yard. The riverfront is, at best, our playground. The city's front yard, its first neighborhood, is Over-the-Rhine. And our

Forget the metaphor that holds the Ohio Riverfront is Cincinnati's front yard. The riverfront is, at best, our playground.

The city's front yard, its first neighborhood, is Over-the-Rhine. And our front yard is in serious disrepair.

Once teeming with working families, the neighborhood has lost nearly 90 percent of its population. Those who remain largely are there not by choice but compelled by circumstance of poverty or subsidized-housing regulation.

Nearly 500 buildings sit vacant in Over-the-Rhine, essentially abandoned by their owners — a cold slap in the face of the homeless and the nearly so, as well as a deterrent to meaningful economic development.

"The greatest deterrent to private investment is the abandonment of buildings that leads to vacancies and physical deterioration of the public space," say Thomas Dutton and Jonathan Diskin of the Miami University Center for Community Advocacy, in a soon-to-be-published analysis of housing issues in Over-the-Rhine.

None would argue abandoned buildings aren't a wasted resource, a safety hazard and a potential haven for criminal activity. But discussion of solutions to the problem inevitably causes clashes between those who favor market forces, those who favor government subsidies and those who favor a mix.

"Mixed-income" is the new watchword for housing advocates, a solution based on the conclusion that Over-the-Rhine suffers from what City Councilman John Cranley calls "the city's high concentration of low-income residents and over-saturation of subsidized housing" (Show the Poor the Door issue of July 5-11).

Cranley has proposed legislation to encourage the dispersal of subsidized housing, and therefore low-income families, to suburban communities.

Cranley isn't alone in his thinking. "Initiative for Reinvestment in the Region's Urban Core Communities," a collaboration between the Metropolitan Growth Alliance and the Cincinnatus Association, makes a similar argument about improving housing in the region's urban core.

The report, issued following a Housing Summit in June, calls for measures that, like Cranley's, would decentralize poor people. Greater Cincinnati should "analyze municipal and county zoning code provisions that contribute to concentrations of subsidized and affordable housing in the urban core by limiting distribution," the report says.

But some of the assumptions behind such proposals are flawed, according to Dutton and Diskin. The deterioration of Over-the-Rhine predates the introduction of subsidized housing, they argue.

"Over-the-Rhine lost most of its income and population in substantial numbers in the 1960s, before much subsidized housing existed in OTR," Dutton and Diskin write. "Subsidized housing increased in the 1970s, but by then well over half the white population had already moved from OTR. ... According to census figures, white households began to move in large numbers from OTR starting in the 1950s, when 17 percent left, and reached critical mass in the 1960s, when an amazing 55 percent of the white households left OTR."

Indeed Cranley's effort to send more subsidized housing outside the city can only add to the problems in Over-the-Rhine, because subsidies are essential to low-income housing, the Miami University professors contend.

"The irony of Mr. Cranley's motion is that it will consign many buildings of the area's non-profits to vacancy," Dutton and Diskin write.

Several studies and proposals are in the works for long-term improvements in the availability of affordable housing. The Initiative for Reinvestment in the Region's Urban Core Communities, for example, calls for creation of a regional development authority — "a public-private partnership with clear authority and duties as well as financing, responsible for implementing investment strategies in the urban core, with a focus on housing production."

But reclaiming the hundreds of abandoned buildings in Over-the-Rhine is a more immediate step, and one most housing advocates support in principle. "The Initiative for Reinvestment in the Region's Urban Core Communities" suggests efforts in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky to "link condemnation enforcement practices with productive use, i.e., modify state codes that currently discourage re-use of old buildings."

While the long-term character of Over-the-Rhine will take years to manifest, one aspect that nearly all hope to change is the blight of so many abandoned buildings.

One proposal that holds promise is the Hamilton County Home Improvement Program, proposed by County Commissioner Todd Portune and modeled on a program launched by the Cuyahoga County Treasurer. Portune's goal is to increase home ownership in the county and to stanch the loss of population experienced by the both the city and the county in the past decade.

"This program would be based on Cuyahoga County's Housing Enhancement Loan Program (HELP), which allows homeowners borrow money to repair or remodel their homes or rental property at 3 percent below the lowest rate a bank would normally offer," Portune says.

Although the plan wouldn't be limited to low-income or moderate-income housing, it's one way to increase available funding for rehabbing deteriorating buildings.

"Initiative for Reinvestment in the Region's Urban Core Communities" identifies other possible sources of funding, including a $40 million Downtown Living Loan Fund targeted to downtown, Over-the-Rhone and West End and the use of Community Development Block Grant funds to establish a second-mortgage pool.

Dutton and Diskin argue that an important resource, now maligned by some, is underutilized, especially in Over-the-Rhine — namely nonprofit organizations.

"Far from hurting local property values, nonprofit development, by taking abandoned buildings, rehabbing them and filling them with regular tenants, often improves the social and economic climate in the surrounding areas," they write.

What remains, of course, is for the city to make a priority of cleaning up abandoned buildings and investing in their rehabilitation. Cincinnati MUST make a priority of saving Over-the-Rhine, and the first step is reclaiming its 500 or so vacant buildings. ©

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