Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley wants the poor to have nicer places to live — and he wants more of them to live elsewhere.
Cranley has proposed a housing strategy that would encourage more subsidized low-income housing outside the city limits.
"If you're low income, there are plenty of places to live in the city, but there are practically no places to live in the suburbs," Cranley says.
What moves Cranley is more than just a yearning to let poor folk enjoy trees, backyards, soccer fields and the rest of the suburban lure. Spreading out the poor, Cranley argues, will also help the city's property values.
"Simply put, Cincinnati's homeownership rate, at 38 percent, and the city's high concentration of low-income residents and over-saturation of subsidized housing tax too strongly city services, creating a domino effect of declining property values relative to inflation and increasing social ills," a statement from Cranley's office says.
Cranley, a Democrat, has proposed having city administrators identify neighborhoods that have too many poor people — he calls it "an over-saturation of low-income residents." Once the list is gathered, Cranley's proposed ordinance would "forbid the city of Cincinnati from spending, approving or in any way condoning more subsidized low-income development in those areas." The ordinance would restrict spending to rehabilitating existing subsidized housing in those neighborhoods.
Give them your huddled masses
Cranley says he does not want to displace low-income residents who already live in the city, but he wants other areas to help carry the load in the future.
"If we don't think of ourselves as a region, and share the responsibility of social justice region-wide, then we're in deep, deep trouble," he says.
Cranley believes the city has an over-concentration of low-income housing, and other areas should do their part.
"Nowadays, people are shifting toward a more fair share approach," he says.
Pete Witte, president of the Price Hill Civic Club, says he has seen the effect low-income housing has had on property values in his neighborhood, where he has lived his entire life.
"Over the last three to five years, the increase in landlord activity and Section 8 has increased at a noticeable rate," Witte says. "It's a little discouraging, be it a company or individual that amass chunks of property that they don't maintain real well."
Witte says neglect of some rental properties in Price Hill has driven down property values, discouraging people who own homes in the neighborhood. Witte values Price Hill, because he lives near relatives and has a short commute to work.
"Overall I have a connection and I have a like for the middle-class, hardworking kind of people that live in the community," he says.
Witte supports Cranley's proposal.
"The idea is definitely what we've been looking for — a way for everybody to share their fair share," he says. "Councilman Cranley had the guts to throw this idea out there, and I certainly appreciate it."
Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), which administers the Section 8 voucher and lease programs, has 85 percent of its portfolio in the city, according to a report by Cranley. In addition, the report says, the Section 8 program operated by Hamilton County has 72 percent of its beneficiaries in the city.
But some of the other numbers in Cranley's report are misleading, according to Donald Troendle, executive director of CMHA. A report from Cranley's office shows, for example, that Avondale has 1,270 Section 8 voucher and leased units, including both public housing and Section 8. Blue Ash, according to Cranley, only has six. But Cranley only counted Section 8 units in Blue Ash, leaving out 17 other public housing units there, according to Troendle.
Cranley's proposal is a hodgepodge of measures — one requires "regional dialogue" on dispersal of low-income housing, one requires the new zoning code to encourage owner-occupied housing, one bans "predatory mortgage broker" practices — that fit in with what he calls his "new urbanist" philosophy. He wants to increase homeownership rates in the city and stem its loss of population. Cincinnati has a homeownership rate of 38 percent, compared to a national average of 61 percent, according to Cranley.
"Of cities, ours is lower than most," he says.
Low homeownership rates, he says, are the result of various factors, including the fact that Cincinnati has an older housing stock, hilly land and a lack of homes with features many people want — for example, garages.
"A lot of the homes were built before cars were really commonplace," he says.
Declining population is taking a toll on city finances, Cranley says.
"We have declining tax revenues," he says. "We've lost 10 percent of our population in the last 10 years."
What's worse, he says, is the kind of people leaving the city: high earners who brought cash into the city's pockets.
"You have less haves around to help the have-nots," Cranley says.
Moreover, the have-nots who are left behind can be an unpleasant lot.
"Studies have long shown that over-saturation of low-income residences are often correlated with higher crime, litter, less economic opportunity for social mobility, blight, and an overall lower quality of life," Cranley's report says.
But that description is an unfair stereotype of people in subsidized housing, according to Troendle, who takes exception to CMHA clients being portrayed as the creators of blight. The truth, he says, is 40 percent of CMHA clients are elderly, 20 percent are handicapped or disabled and the other 25 to 30 percent are the working poor.
Maybe they like it here
Cranley argues his proposal would give those living in low-income housing the option to live outside high crime areas and help create diverse neighborhoods with both high- and low-income residents.
"Ideally, all neighborhoods would be racially and economically mixed, thereby attracting and constantly creating economic opportunities and social mobility for all," Cranley writes in a recent campaign statement. "However, this ideal is not being reached. Increasingly, the economic segregation of our region is exacerbated as low-income development becomes more concentrated within the City of Cincinnati."
But Cranley's proposal to disperse subsidized housing misses an essential point, according to Scott Merusi, a real estate consultant who often works in neighborhoods with a great deal of public housing. The reason low-income housing concentrates within the city is because the services the poor need are there, Merusi says. Social services such as drug counseling and affordable day care are not readily available once you leave the city, and transportation to jobs is not as easy to find.
Nor is cooperation from the suburbs. Even if Cranley's proposal were a good idea, Merusi says, it has no practical value; the city can't force other areas to welcome subsidized housing.
"I don't see how that can get done," Merusi says. "They're under no obligation to do that."
In fact, Merusi says, City Council already tried a similar tactic 27 years ago. He cites a resolution passed Nov. 14, 1974.
"It is the official policy of the city of Cincinnati to place major emphasis upon promoting home ownership within the city," the resolution says. "It is the official policy of the city of Cincinnati to encourage economically heterogeneous neighborhoods, including efforts to attract middle- and upper-income households into central core areas."
Troendle says CMHA has already been making some efforts in the way of helping low-income people find housing outside high poverty neighborhoods through programs such as the Regional Opportunity Counseling Program.
"We at CMHA are working very hard to address some of the issues Councilman Cranley attempts to deal with in his motion," Troendle says. "I think we need to expand affordable housing options in low poverty neighborhoods in the city and outside the city."
Troendle says CMHA is developing programs that encourage home ownership, and one is in the works that would allow Section 8 participants to buy homes.
Although Cranley describes his proposal as a way to improve neighborhoods and he calls for cooperation with the city's suburban neighbors, Merusi thinks the measure will have the opposite effect.
"Cranley came up with a motion that he thought would be fairer, and I think what's going to happen in the long run — I think it's just going to create tension in the region rather than resolve anything," Merusi says. ©