Redeveloping Issues

Anti-gentrification organization says OTR redevelopment is leaving low- and middle-income people out

Jan 22, 2014 at 10:30 am
click to enlarge Anti-gentrification activists joined hundreds in Cincinnati’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march downtown.
Anti-gentrification activists joined hundreds in Cincinnati’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march downtown.

Although Cincinnati continues receiving nationwide praise for the revitalization of southern Over-the-Rhine and downtown, some local activists say low- and middle-income residents are being left out of the progress. With the formation of a new group, these activists hope to prevent Cincinnati’s wealthy elite from absorbing all the gains of what some call gentrification.

To The People’s Coalition for Equality and Justice (TPCEJ), the concern is whether Cincinnati and other cities are simply witnessing a movement back to the urban core that will ultimately displace the poor, middle class and minorities and benefit the white and wealthy — essentially the reversal of suburban flight.

“If you look up and down the street, who are working at these new restaurants?” asks Trey Gruber, a member of TPCEJ. “Who do these places hire? Who are they owned by? And clear as day, you can see. You’re almost blinded by the whiteness of all these establishments.”

The coalition, which calls itself an evolution of the group that tried to save the Anna Louise Inn, is beginning to put together what it sees as a broader movement against gentrification, a development-driven demographic shift in cities marked by the rising predominance of wealthier residents and businesses.

TPCEJ says it is not against development. The group doesn’t oppose all of the ongoing work in Over-the-Rhine and downtown, but it does take issue with how little is being done to maintain and aid the population that used to predominate Over-the-Rhine and surrounding areas downtown.

“We’re not opposed to development,” Gruber says. “That’s not the opposition, obviously. We’re opposed to inclusive development that acts as a vehicle to further remove people from their homes.”

Largely citing the national “Right to the City” movement, the group touts a few ideas for what could be done to remedy the situation: more policies that create truly affordable housing, protections for renters’ rights across the city, new forms of rent control and the formation of tenants’ unions, which could take on various issues by organizing against landlords and would-be buyers of residential properties.

Although examples of direct displacement remain a concern for the group, its members point to what’s indirectly happening to residents in Over-the-Rhine: As many of the neighborhood’s vacant buildings are rehabilitated and turned into apartments, condos and restaurants that largely appeal to wealthier young professionals, the development is effectively pricing out the area’s former residents in terms of jobs and housing.

“The reality is that historically gentrification, its functions and its lifeblood are on removing the economically unwanted … not necessarily by any means of their own but because of their inability to relate to the labor market in a manner which is useful to them,” Gruber claims.

TPCEJ’s concerns currently focus on a low-income, working-class population. But they claim that the current trend could affect higher levels of income as well.

“This concept of a gentrified neighborhood won’t work, either. It’s a temporary gap to figure out who can afford the most expensive housing,” says Steve Sunderland, TPCEJ member and University of Cincinnati professor of peace and education. “Once that’s figured out, that means the middle class has got to move out as well. It’s going to become another east-side New York kind of phenomenon.”

The other concern for TPCEJ is the direct displacement of residents from downtown and Over-the-Rhine. When asked for examples, the group readily points to high-profile cases like the Anna Louise Inn and Metropole building. 

At the Anna Louise Inn, financial giant Western & Southern successfully used legal attrition to get Cincinnati Union Bethel to agree to move low-income women out of the building that housed them since 1909. Once the former residents move to another facility, Western & Southern will be able to force its full development vision on the Lytle Park neighborhood. 

In the case of the Metropole, 3CDC (Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation) displaced hundreds of subsidized rental housing tenants downtown to build a boutique hotel — a move that eventually landed 3CDC in court before the agency agreed to an $80,000 settlement with former tenants.

Most of TPCEJ’s messaging takes aim at 3CDC, the private-public agency involved in much of the development in Over-the-Rhine and downtown. Members of TPCEJ make no attempt to mask their contempt for 3CDC — Gruber proudly wore a button reading, “fuck 3CDC,” to TPCEJ’s meeting with CityBeat — and the agency’s involvement in southern Over-the-Rhine.

Anastasia Mileham, spokesperson for 3CDC, claims critics overlook the context that drove 3CDC’s early mission, such as southern Over-the-Rhine’s higher levels of crime and poverty prior to the neighborhood’s revitalization. 

“I think people tend to over-romanticize what this neighborhood was,” Mileham says. “We started doing what development groups around the country do to bring back distressed neighborhoods affecting the rest of the city.” 

In 3CDC’s view, that meant creating new living and commercial spaces that increased the neighborhood’s market rates, brought in residents and businesses and drove out “criminal elements.”

And when 3CDC attempted to find more avenues for affordable housing, Mileham claims the agency struggled to convince state officials that southern Over-the-Rhine, an area already saturated with affordable housing, actually needed more.

“When the state looks at this neighborhood and they see the over-saturation of the low-income tax credits, and then they see the number of vacant buildings, they ask, ‘Well, why do we need to put more into this neighborhood?’” Mileham says. “It took many, many years to convince them to invest in another affordable housing project in Over-the-Rhine.” 

Given the constraints, Mileham argues 3CDC accomplished what it could. For examples, she points to the agency’s partnership with Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, which helped renovate the Jimmy Heath House, and 30 under-construction affordable housing units in the Mercer Commons development on Vine Street between 13th and 14th streets.

But Josh Spring, TPCEJ member and executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, takes issue with 3CDC’s definition of affordable.

In Spring’s view, the Mercer units will be affordable to someone who makes $25,000 or more a year. That, he says, is a far cry from the low-income residents of the Jimmy Heath House and other units operated by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, where the average tenant makes $10,000 or less a year. (Cincinnati’s median household income was $33,708 between 2008 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

“It is affordable to an extent,” Spring argues.

Outside of 3CDC and TPCEJ, some Over-the-Rhine residents provide more mixed takes than either group.

Jenny Kessler, an Over-the-Rhine resident and treasurer of Cincinnatians for Progress, says TPCEJ’s claims of displacement are exaggerated. She emphasizes that much of 3CDC’s work involves rehabilitated buildings that were already vacant.

But Kessler concedes some of the latest development is unaffordable to most.

“Being a middle-income resident, I can’t afford some of the rents on these new places that are popping up,” she says. “I got lucky that I got in early.”

Kessler also says more could be done to protect historic properties and encourage proper building management. Some of TPCEJ’s suggestions, such as protecting renters’ rights, could help in that respect, she acknowledges.

Regardless of what 3CDC and its supporters say, TPCEJ claims support for its group is growing following the failed battle to save the Anna Louise Inn. With its first public meeting scheduled this week, the group hopes to tap into solutions to prevent concerns from boiling over.

“There’s a ticking bomb in the city,” Sunderland says. “The urban pot is being stirred right now in a way that’s openly confrontational.”

He adds, “I’m a peace person. So what can we do to prevent violence and mayhem and unhappiness? One of the things we can do is inclusion.” ©

The People’s Coalition for Equality and Justice will hold a public meeting 6 p.m. Jan. 24 at Buddy’s Place, 1300 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine.