Fire ravaged the roof of the Alexandra Apartments in 1993, forcing the building to remain vacant. In 1998 the city of Cincinnati condemned the historic landmark, and it appeared doomed to the wrecking ball.
But then Miller Valentine, a private developer, saved the three-wing complex, beginning renovation in 2001. Two years later, the 83-unit senior complex is now at 82 percent occupancy, according to Jim King, executive director of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation (WHRF).
In partnership with the Neighborhood Development Corporation (NDC) Association of Greater Cincinnati and other organizations, the WHRF is on a mission to save low- to moderate-income housing from blight.
The NDC Association works with neighborhood development groups, housing service providers and financial institutions to bring life back to deteriorating communities such as Walnut Hills and Lincoln Heights. They buy existing homes that are becoming blighted and rehabilitate them for resale to families in financial need. They also build new homes on vacant lots and bring the community together to save their identity.
'We can't do nothing'
"Providing housing to people in need makes you feel good inside," said Pat Garry, a board member and co-founder of the NDC Association. "That's why I got into housing. It makes you feel good."
The most striking thing about the NDC Association is that its strength lies in residents taking action. The organization receives little assistance from the city.
"They are our neighborhoods," King said. "If we turn our backs on the fire, who will do it? We can't do nothing just because of what it is."
The NDC Association's annual bus tour Oct. 24 showcased the accomplishments of its member organizations and what they would like to accomplish in the future. Beginning at the former Cummins School in Walnut Hills — itself an NDC Association renovation success — the tour visited three targeted communities.
In Carthage, Sister Ann Rene McConn, president of Cincinnati Housing Partners, told the gloomy story of the neighborhood before that group intervened.
"There were five to six burned-out lots," she said. "We were worried about that trend. I think this community would have been gone a long time ago if we hadn't started the NDC. The question, I think, for the city is, 'Which neighborhoods are going to survive the clutter?' "
Cincinnati Housing Partners has built or rehabbed more than 150 homes, including 30 in Carthage. It renovated the Carthaginian, a 37-unit senior residence; $65,000 of the funding was raised by the neighborhood.
"It opened in '94 and has been full ever since," McConn said.
The work done by the organization has improved the standard of living in the neighborhood and increased the tax base of the community.
"When rehab goes on, appraisals go up," McConn said.
She bragged that four businesses had opened in the past two months.
Driving through Lockland, another target area for Cincinnati Housing Partners, McConn expressed the importance of a good school system. She said Lockland schools scored higher than Princeton on statewide evaluations.
"There's something to be said for small school systems," she said. "Nobody gets away with anything. It's just like a small town. Everybody knows everybody's business."
'Buy the neighborhood'
The tour continued on to Lincoln Heights, where 26 new houses have been built, according to Albert Kanters, executive director of the Lincoln Heights Community Improvement Corporation. The organization takes out loans, builds homes and sells them to needy families.
Part of the success comes from a requirement that families receiving public assistance do volunteer work.
"The youth is one of the most critical factors we have here," Kanters said. "The youth have very few options."
As the tour drove through Lincoln Heights, Kanters pointed out what he said are crack houses, one of them next door to the Lincoln Heights Police station.
A new commercial building is near completion beside Interstate 75.
"We are trying to cater to the African-American businesses in particular," Kanters said. "We want people to come shop and spend their money in Lincoln Heights."
Among other future aspirations is a senior residence to be located near the site where a new elementary school is to be built.
After returning to Walnut Hills, participants walked to 11 new townhouses and a handicapped-accessible ranch house on Taft Road built by the WHRF. All the new homes have attached garages.
"I think off-the-street parking is key element for preventing crime," King said.
Financing for the homes is designed to keep new residents in the community for several years.
"Like Sister Ann said, we are trying to get people not only to buy a home but to buy the neighborhood as well," King said.
After a tour through the Alexandra, King led participants to Gilbert Avenue and East McMillan Street, site of the WHRF's new E-Business and Information Technology Center. The center teaches residents how to use computers for career opportunities and other practical purposes. Professionals in computer technology provide instruction.
"If we do not get people to know how to use technology, we cannot save our community," King said. "Most kids in our neighborhood won't see a computer until they're in high school — and most teachers who are over 50 don't know how to use a computer."
Another 42 housing units in and around Walnut Hills are planned in the next five years. At the same time, WHRF is also trying to market to African-American small businesses in order to give them an edge.
The sense these organizations seem to have is that the time to act is now, with or without the city leading the way.
"You can't wait for the whole neighborhood to be gone before you rebuild it," warned Sister McConn.
For more information about the Neighborhood Development Corporation Association of Greater Cincinnati, call Sister Ann McConn at 513-662-9729 or Pat Garry at 513-281-3774.