It’s official: after Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber announced FC Cincinnati won its bid for a league expansion franchise last week, it looks all but certain that the team will be building a privately-funded $200 million stadium in the West End.
A key, if sometimes quiet, player in the deal that is likely bringing the stadium to the neighborhood is the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority. But what, exactly, will it do as part of the project? And will the programs it can bring to the neighborhood preserve and increase affordable housing, one of the biggest concerns expressed by residents there?
Formerly known as the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, the public agency works on economic development and land banking in Hamilton County. The authority’s involvement in FC Cincinnati’s stadium deal is pivotal for two reasons.
For one, it has agreed to enter into an ownership-lease-back arrangement with the team, allowing FCC to avoid paying sales taxes on construction materials for the stadium and property taxes when it is completed. The redevelopment authority will also issue bonds to help finance the stadium.
The authority has another role, however — one that is still coming into focus in some ways. As part of the community benefits agreement between FCC and the representatives from the West End that was approved by Cincinnati City Council, the redevelopment authority is set to assume purchase options on some 60 scattered plots of land around the stadium site currently owned by Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. The redevelopment authority has pledged to develop “market rate, mixed income affordable housing” on those plots. It also has a number of programs it will accelerate or bring to the West End, where it has been working since 2013.
"This is a perfect example of an intersection between our public finance practice and our neighborhood revitalization practice,” Redevelopment Authority head Laura Brunner said at the CBA's May 16 signing. “We’re very much committed to being good partners with the West End to help your dreams come to fruition and to revitalize this community in a very respectful and inclusive way.”
The preservation of existing affordable housing and the creation of new affordable units was a key request during negotiations around the CBA from community members worried that the stadium could bring big changes to the West End.
Even though no housing will be demolished for the stadium, economic research around stadium development suggests a multi-million-dollar facility in the West End could trigger rent increases, property tax spikes and land speculation that could cost some renters — who make up 84 percent of the West End's residents — their homes.
The neighborhood contains roughly 1,000 units of rental housing locked into long-term affordability due to ownership by Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority or because they were built by private developers like The Community Builders using Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Census data shows that more than 3,000 of the neighborhood's residents live below the poverty line. Another 1,300 live above the poverty level but still well below the income needed to comfortably afford the city's average rent, which has hovered around $1,000 a month in recent months.
The gap has made some in the neighborhood nervous about big changes coming.
“The West End's history is rich with devastations,” West End Community Council Executive Board member Tia Brown told the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education earlier this year during a meeting about FCC’s plans. “We know that development is needed, but we want it to be equitable with the community at the table.”
We still don’t know who the redevelopment authority will tap to develop the CMHA plots, the mix of affordable and market-rate housing that will go there or what level of affordability the subsidized units will be offered at.
A summary of plans thus far sheds some light on what the redevelopment authority is likely to do beyond the CMHA land.
“Our team has held several meetings with the West End Community Council, Seven Hills Housing and CMHA to develop a collaborative plan for inclusive residential and commercial revitalization with the community,” the redevelopment authority says in that document. “We are actively working to protect the community’s interest by acquiring tax delinquent & vacant properties and to preserve historic buildings as well as to improve the safety and security of the neighborhood.”
There are some specific projects lined out in the CBA between FCC, West End representatives and the port — including help from the team with efforts by the redevelopment authority to stabilize and preserve the historic Regal Theater on Clark and Linn streets. Similar theaters once dotted the West End before urban renewal, and the Regal, built in 1908, is one of the last standing. Originally called the Casino Theater, the venue showed movies during the day and hosted famous musicians like Lionel Hampton at night. The port's landbank acquired and began stabilizing the building in 2013.
In the outline, the authority says it has a number of economic development tools it will bring to bear in the West End. These include:
• The Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corporation, or the Landbank, which acquires blighted properties and works with rehabbers, the city and residents to stabilize them and move them toward occupancy. The Landbank has already taken six homes on Baymiller Street in the neighborhood and stabilized them in compliance with the City of Cincinnati’s 13-point Vacant Building Maintenance License Standards. That includes making roofs watertight, securing entryways and stabilizing historic features of the homes. The redevelopment authority says it is working with Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses and the West End Community Council to determine what will happen to them next. The hope is that these homes will be fully rehabbed and occupied and that that will spark more redevelopment in surrounding areas.
• The Homesteading and Urban Redevelopment Corporation, or HURC: a 40-year-old affordable housing initiative by the city of Cincinnati and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Urban Homesteading Program, HURC has rehabbed more than 700 homes in Greater Cincinnati, according to the port.
• Rehab Across Cincinnati and Hamilton County (REACH): an initiative in which the redevelopment authority itself rehabs homes and sells them in an effort to stabilize housing in targeted neighborhoods and spur further rehabs by private owners. According to the redevelopment authority, it has placed more than 20 families and individuals into houses rehabbed by the program.
• Efforts to spark or grow neighborhood business districts via the Kresge Foundation-funded Cincinnati Neighborhood Commercial Real Estate Loan Fund, which was established in 2016.
It’s unclear what the price levels for the rehab housing generated by the redevelopment authority’s efforts will be. REACH houses completed in historically low-income neighborhoods Walnut Hills and Evanston have sold for between $160,000 and $285,000 for one to three bedroom houses. HURC properties in neighborhoods like Bond Hill and Winton Place, meanwhile, have recently sold for between $112,000 and $145,000.
That may be beyond the reach of many residents of the West End, where the median household income is about $15,000 a year. But it’s also less than the $250,000 to $500,000 price ranges for houses that CitiRama planned for the CMHA lots before FCC floated plans for its stadium.
The redevelopment authority says its first steps will be to assess the needs in the neighborhood.
“First, we plan to work with the neighborhood’s representatives to execute a housing study,” the document from the redevelopment authority says. That’s a condition of the CBA, which provides $100,000 from the team to pay for the study. “Through this study, we will gain a better understanding of the current residential landscape in the West End as well as priorities of residents for their community. The results of the study will guide us in setting market-rate and affordable housing goals moving forward. We partnered with the communities of Evanston and Walnut Hills as their public real estate developer and plan to do the same in the West End.”
Brown, a West End resident who helped negotiate the agreement between the port, the team and neighborhood representatives, says she’s ready to work to get the best deal possible with the redevelopment authority and other players.
"I'm looking forward to working with FCC, the City and the Port to have equitable development in the West End and to hold them accountable," she said following the confirmation that FCC will join MLS. "This community has been overlooked for decades and with this new attention the need for greater community support cannot be ignored. As the team prospers, the neighborhood should receive greater support and prosper as well."