Urban Frontier

How many times have you driven past an abandoned home or building and thought, "What a shame," or "Why do they just let them sit there?" or "Man, could I do something with that." It's a common react

How many times have you driven past an abandoned home or building and thought, "What a shame," or "Why do they just let them sit there?" or "Man, could I do something with that." It's a common reaction to neighborhood blight and neglect throughout the city, especially when seen through the eyes of those of us who lack the money to be real estate developers. We just want a place to live, chasing after the fabled American Dream of a home we can call our own.

The dream sometimes seems quite distant. Living paycheck to paycheck, the common situation for those in today's "service economy" isn't conducive to saving the capital needed for a down payment on real estate. So we continue to fork over our rent money each month, making our contribution to the wealth of others but having precious little to show for our own efforts.

We watch the tremendous waste occurring all around us, but we feel there's nothing we can do about it because we're stuck where we are. Many abandoned buildings downtown and in Over-the-Rhine are beyond the means of ordinary people. Their future hangs in the balance between historic preservation and commercial potential.

Commercial potential depends on getting people with money to spend it on these neighborhoods.

But people simply don't want to invest it in neighborhoods where they don't see others doing the same, so they wait for a pack mentality to arise, a frenzy of gentrification, the next Main Street.

Fortunately, there is a means for working-class singles and families to buy homes that might otherwise remain distant dreams. Cincinnati's Urban Homesteading Program is a prime example of how government can and does work on a social level. The program, administered through the city's Department of Neighborhood Services, operates as a lottery, where qualified participants enter their names for the chance to purchase selected properties for $1. The lottery winners then must secure a bank loan to pay for the rehabs needed to make the house livable. That bank loan then serves as the mortgage on the property. Essentially, Urban Homesteading allows people to become homeowners without the cost of a downpayment.

"They can get in pretty cheap," says Hermann Bowling, a program administrator. He says that the lowest end of the rehabs for this season's "dollar house" is $20,000 to $25,000 for a couple of two-bedroom homes in Price Hill. The next lottery will be held April 27 and features 15 houses scattered throughout different neighborhoods. Out of about 100 applicants, 40 will be entered in drawings for the 15 houses, so individual odds are quite favorable. The most expensive rehab in this batch of houses is around $90,000 for a multi-family.

"These aren't going to be places in Hyde Park or Mount Lookout," Bowling advises. "We do a lot in Price Hill and a lot in Evanston. We try to get a diverse group of properties."

The Homesteading Program was on hiatus from 1993 to 1997. At that time, the federal government had shifted funding to a program where houses had to be totally rehabbed first and then sold on the open market, resulting in properties lacking much in the way of individuality or distinction. Most interiors ended up being simply white and beige. Bowling points out that with the Homesteading Program the homeowner does get to make decisions in the rehab.

I know. The Evanston house I've lived in for the past 10 years was won in one of Bowling's lotteries. The rehab came in at around $34,000. Unlike other low-cost housing programs, I was able to pick and choose different options for my house, like foregoing carpeting throughout, paint-graining the floors myself and having a skylight installed in my studio with the money I saved. I also had new capitals carved to replace the rotted ones on my porch pillars, little details that enhance the house's architectural integrity but that are often ignored in government-run slap-dash rehabs.

The $1 house lotteries happen a few times a year depending on the availability of properties and of homeowners to match them with. "The last lottery had so few people we didn't give away seven houses," Bowling says, adding that he hopes to have another 12 to 15 houses available for a lottery in September.

Income qualifications for the $1 houses are quite generous. A single person cannot make more than $35,000 per year, or $41,750 for a family of four. Applicants cannot have owned a home for the past three years and are expected to live in their home for three years following. Bowling's advice for anyone interested in future lotteries is to get involved now, get an application and get qualified for the program.

For more information on the Urban Homesteading Program or to get an application, call Hermann Bowling at the Department of Neighborhood Services, 352-1949.

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