News: Zoning and the Homeless

City council wants zoning laws to help manage social service agencies

May 28, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Jon Hughes/

Dormitory-style housing such as in the Drop Inn Center would be limited under proposed zoning code changes.

Cincinnati officials are considering proposed zoning code changes that would limit where some social services agencies like homeless shelters could build new facilities. They'd also like to impose stricter requirements on existing agencies that want to expand.

The proposal has alarmed some area religious and community leaders who believe it unduly burdens nonprofit agencies that offer dormitory-style housing and prevents new facilities in areas zoned as general manufacturing districts, where many services are now provided.

City council began mulling the zoning code changes after the city lost a two-year long legal battle against the City Link Center, a proposed $12 million "social services mall" that some suburban churches want to build in the West End despite the objections of city council and many neighborhood residents.

One of the leaders behind City Link, the Rev. Tim Senff of Crossroads Community Church in Oakley, says the proposed changes are just a backdoor method to stop the project if construction hasn't begun during the next year. That's because building permits issued by the city are valid for only 12 months.

Senff is worried that the new, tougher zoning code might be used by officials to deny an extension.

"If the current zoning is changed before we're able to build our property and hence be 'grandfathered' in, that's another way to inhibit what we're trying to do," Senff wrote in a recent mass e-mail sent to his congregation and other City Link supporters, urging them to lobby against the proposed changes.

But city council members who support the changes say general manufacturing districts always were intended for projects that would create new jobs. Social service agencies that want to offer dormitory-style housing still can be built downtown and in areas zoned for commercial use and other types of specialized manufacturing, they say.

Regardless, court rulings in the City Link case makes it unlikely that any zoning changes could be applied toward that project, officials add.

"This isn't about City Link. This is about future cases like City Link," City Councilman Chris Bortz says. "Though it's really a question for our Law Department to decide, my assumption has been because the court has already ruled in City Link's favor, any change that would affect them would be seen as (an illegal) taking (of land)."

The City Link dispute ended earlier this year when the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear the city's last appeal in the case. (See "The Final Link," issue of April 16.)

In November a state appellate court upheld a lower court's ruling that found City Link would be an allowable use in an area that's zoned for manufacturing because the services proposed there mostly fall under uses designated in the zoning code as office, medical services and small-scale recreation.

Cincinnati officials and some West End residents had argued that City Link should qualify as a community services center, which means it wouldn't be allowed on the intended five-acre site on Bank Street. Further, officials added that a court shouldn't be allowed to apply its own separate set of facts and standards to replace the role of an administrative agency — Cincinnati's Board of Zoning Appeals — that's been designated under city law as the deciding body in the matter.

Ultimately a judge concluded that City Link doesn't qualify as a community services center because the facility will offer services to residents citywide, not just in the West End neighborhood. If the city wants to prohibit such uses, it needs to clarify and tighten up such terms in its zoning code.

"What we learned is there's a hole in our zoning code that you can drive a truck through," Bortz says. "We need some clarity in the code, not just for the city and our planning staff but for individual users who come to us with projects."

Several nonprofit social services agencies counter that the proposed changes are too severe.

One proposed change limits all shelter programs to 50 residents per night and requires at least 50 square feet of space be provided for each resident. By comparison, the Drop Inn Center in Over-the-Rhine offers beds for up to 300 people on some cold nights during the winter. Any change would essentially block all current shelters and programs from expanding, opponents say.

Another change would require all people in transitional housing to have their own rooms and prohibit dormitory-style beds. The change would make it more expensive for some social services agencies to operate and could put them out of business, opponents continue.

Bortz and other supporters aren't moved by the argument.

"The intent was to ensure they weren't warehousing people," he says.

The primary cause for concern for opponents, however, is that the changes would make social services a zoning issue. The wording in the changes is overly broad, they say, and would affect all agencies "operated by a nonprofit organization to advance the welfare of citizens in need."

As currently drafted, the changes would prohibit a social service agency's administrative offices from being in the same building where services like counseling and food distribution are provided. That would hamper the level of services offered if new space had to be found, opponents say.

Among the groups opposed to the zoning changes are the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cincinnati, the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati and the Faith Community Alliance.

Cincinnati City Council was scheduled to vote May 21 on the zoning code changes, but the outcry sparked a delay while a compromise on wording could be reached.

"They need some work," Bortz says.

City officials will attempt to clarify wording further to distinguish between social service providers and other nonprofit organizations such as community development corporations and community council offices.

"My job is to get the best possible definitions into place. It's a policy question," Bortz says. "It's not to worry about if it's acceptable to the Homeless Coalition or not. As far as I can tell, they wouldn't like any definition in place or any limitations. That's not what I'm hearing from residents, and it's not in the city's best interests." ©