This is part of a new series exploring the question: “How Does Gentrification Work?”
Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority’s (CMHA) 2014 annual plan calls for the demolition of 1455 units of public housing across Hamilton county. This would disperse the population, probably in excess of 5000 people, throughout the county. CMHA controlled properties stand at 99% occupancy, and the federal funds identified to build new housing are already disbursed, so the residents will likely be given Housing Choice (Section 8) Vouchers and be pushed back into the private housing market. The extent of the plan is striking, with large developments like Stanley Rowe and Winton Terrace set to be vacated and razed along with nearly the entire neighborhood of Millvale, each project accounting for 200 to 500 units of the total amount. There are two primary questions to be explored: Why is the housing being demolished? And where does this fit in with the pattern of displacement at the city-wide level?
To understand housing policy in Cincinnati, one must first understand the city’s geography. Like any modern city in the United States, Cincinnati is heavily segregated. Though neighborhoods like Avondale and Over-the-Rhine (OTR) serve as the de-facto centers of the black population, the city has no main dividing line between black and white halves–in a city that loves to talk about imagined differences between the East and West Side, no given cardinal direction can be identified as the black-side of town. Cincinnati’s black population, about 45% of the total, lives in several pockets strewn throughout the city. Many neighborhoods are upwards of 90% black–Avondale, Bond Hill, Madisonville, Millvale, Villages at Roll Hill (Fay Apartments), The West End and Winton Hills and others. These neighborhood are also among the most impoverished. City wide blacks face very high rates of poverty–46% of blacks compared with 22% of whites are in poverty. Additionally, blacks face high levels of police discrimination and an unfathomable unemployment rate, relying on public services to a much larger degree than their white counterparts. Of the roughly 13,000 families on the waiting list for CMHA assistance, either for vouchers or for public housing, about 12,000 are black.
With its stark delineation of black and white neighborhoods, Cincinnati ranks as one of the top segregated cities in the country. The disparities in the racial makeup of neighborhoods and the way that poverty follows racial segregation, call into question whether residents who would be dispersed under the regime of de-concentration of poverty would be welcome in new communities.
The Stanley Rowe towers serve as a center of gravity in a neighborhood slated for change. This removal would prime the northern half of the West End for an OTR-like renovation, which is already being incubated in the Brighton arts district in the northern section of the neighborhood. And there is talk of rebranding the neighborhood as the “Betts Longworth Historic District,” a move akin to the rebranding of sections of OTR as “The Gateway Quarter” and “The Brewery District.” Removal is the first step in the gentrification of the neighborhood and observers can be sure to see land speculators and development companies close behind, if they haven’t begun to move in already.
Even advocates for housing, and some tenants themselves, acknowledge the relatively poor quality housing in the towers, but it remains to be seen whether the private housing market will itself be able to provide housing of quality. In many Cincinnati neighborhoods, the “slumlords” are well known, but very little is done to hold the property-rich individuals accountable. Recently, landlords in Mt Healthy successfully fought back against an attempt to have rental units inspected for adherence to housing standards, citing property rights and that such inspections would be an invasion of privacy. The housing authority, on the other hand, is held accountable to a number of HUD regulations and must prove its adherence. Even so, this is not the reason for the demolition, or the towers would have come down decades ago, and recently renovated projects in Millvale and Winton Terrace would not be included in the plan. Questions about the quality of the housing in these project can be traced back to the same source as the planned reduction of the housing liability–a lack of funding caused by an uneven distribution of wealth in our society, a marker of capitalism.
On the front-end, the move to demolish housing destroys communities that currently exist. On the back-end, questions of availability of housing and the willingness of communities and landlords to accommodate new residents remain open ended and unanswered.
But one question, why?, is easy to answer: profits. Capitalism, with its drive to produce for production’s sake, has created the condition where there is too much housing. The same paradoxical crises of over-production that causes wars, hunger and homelessness leads to the disruption and destruction of any attempt at an effective housing policy. There is simply too much capital. So it must be destroyed in order to create a more profitable arrangement. Those profits will be for developers, landlords and banks. And poor residents, whose numbers are on the rise in Cincinnati, will suffer. Take note, austerity has come to town.
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The neoliberal urban process makes heavy use of privatization of services and the demolition of these projects is part of a recent trend by CMHA to move away from having to be responsible for its core service–providing housing. If funded adequately, CMHA could provide safe, well managed, housing that fostered vibrant communities. Instead, we have a system that outsources the problems that it causes, hollowing out core services in favor of the market. And it’s questionable whether CMHA even wants to deliver on its task. Three events in particular illuminate the shortfalls of the housing authority.
First, in 2005, 702 units of the public housing in the English Woods neighborhood were destroyed. The unwillingness of CMHA to lease units that had become vacant in the preceding decade reduced the number of occupied apartments and town homes to around half of that number. This was a deliberate move to reduce the liability of CMHA for another large swath of housing. Most of these residents were given Housing Choice Vouchers, which today total about half of the agency’s $141 million budget. An additional influx of vouchers would be a boon for the private housing market, but landlords have no requirement to accept the vouchers, so any “choice” that residents will have will be limited.
The second event is the development of the Hope VI units in The West End. Generally, Hope IV neighborhoods are intended to be mixed-use and mixed income, with commercial, retail and residential space combined to serve a variety of needs in a community. But this has all but failed in Cincinnati. A drive down Linn Street, where the Stanley Rowe towers stand today, illustrates this point, with vacant storefronts and apartments in otherwise pristine buildings along with undeveloped lots interspersed among newer-looking buildings. The development was mismanaged by the private developer overseeing the project, ran over budget, and remains partially unfinished.
The third event was the controversy surrounding the expansion of section 8 housing into Green Township, northwest of Cincinnati, and the resulting fallout. In 2010, CMHA had planned to build or convert 32 units of affordable housing in the township. Residents stonewalled the development, espousing racist panic and citing fears of drug dealing and undesirables standing on the corners. The housing was blocked and a bill in the Ohio State legislature passed which targeted Cincinnati in particular, expanding CMHA’s board from five to seven members, two of whom must come from outside of the city limits. One seat on the board is held for a recipient of CMHA services, but this leaves the other six positions to be appointed by various bodies who may or may not be friendly to public housing. Though the positions are unpaid, the appointments themselves are surely political chips, rewards for good service to capitalist powers that be. Under this patronage system, the most radical members of the board may support public housing, but voices that actively call for its expansion, or point to the societal inequality which creates the need for the housing to begin with, remain all but silent. The two suburban members have generally been opposed to any expansion of public housing and serve mainly as a defense against the development of any units outside of the city limits.
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Cincinnati’s history is marked by instances of forced removal. The most egregious case is probably the redevelopment of the West End, which saw the demolition of between 13,147 and 22,354 low-cost housing units from 1940 to 1970, totaling over 50,000 residents. Kenyon-Barr, now known as Queensgate, in the southern portion of the neighborhood, saw 10,000 families removed. Today, remembrances of the neighborhood are more about the buildings lost than the people and community who were uprooted. The housing stock was very much like that of OTR and, even though the West End was very much a black neighborhood, the demolition is a viewed as a betrayal of the German history of Cincinnati’s basin.
During the time of the massive highway project that caused the dramatic displacement, opposition was less likely to come from the residents themselves than from suburban voices who foresaw the outflow of the tens of thousands of residents as leading to unstable neighborhoods in the areas outside of the slums where the poor had been previously requisitioned. Kenyon-Barr’s demolition, along with an influx of black residents from the South re-centered the black population of Cincinnati into Avondale and OTR.
But more than simply being a story of displacement, the destruction of the Kenyon-Barr community (and the collective repression of the event in the memories of the citizens of Cincinnati) serves as a kind of fixed point in time. It exists as a reference that all stories of displacement and strife should be measured against. The slated destruction of the Stanley Rowe towers and the other projects are in many ways, aftershocks of that original flash point. The riots of 1967 and 68, the nostalgia and neglect in OTR, the disproportionate policing of blacks in Cincinnati and the reaction during the 2001 uprising, the expansion of public housing along with the current contraction all share roots in the removal of Kenyon-Barr to make way for warehouses, highways and rail yards–“progress” by another name.
OTR’s revitalization relies heavily on the influence of the long-lost German culture but the black community of Cincinnati is systematically denied this legacy via the destruction of their neighborhoods and communities, their removal and dispersal to make way for redevelopment, and the selective remembrance of the city’s past. The latest move to destroy public housing is a reminder that the black experience in Cincinnati is marked by many little Kenyon-Barrs.
John Schrider Jr, Director of the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio shared this on the Cincinnati Affordable Housing Advocates Listserv on May 28th:
Yesterday, many public housing residents attended the CMHA board meeting and CMHA ‘s presentation on its Strategic Plan. While CMHA did not address demolition plans at either meeting, the residents of CMHA housing were there to show support for keeping their housing. Included was a large group of residents from the Stanley Rowe towers and townhomes. At the CMHA Board meeting they demonstrated their opposition to demolition.
While opponents of affordable rental housing would have us believe it is all terrible, the residents of Stanley Rowe like their housing and where they live. For example, there are 77 townhomes in the West End location, and last week 72 of the resident families signed a petition urging CMHA not to demolish their housing.
Many other residents of CMHA like there housing. Residents of CMHA’s scattered site housing, much of it in the suburbs, are very happy with their housing and where they live. About 10% of CMHA owned housing is in the suburbs. About 1/3 of housing voucher (HCV) housing is in the suburbs.
Many more people need good affordable rental housing. There are thousands of families and low income individuals on the waiting lists for CMHA housing. Greater Cincinnati needs more affordable rental housing not less. And that housing should be in all parts of Hamilton County.
Local media coverage tends to emphasize problems with CMHA housing, not its many successes. The media also gives inordinate coverage to people who oppose the HVC program; many of those opponents really oppose many of the people who get housing in the HCV program, low income African Americans.
CMHA does seems to recognize it has an image problem. It even says that the way to address this is to work with the entire community. Working with the community means talking about problems and solutions.
While CMHA is financially strapped, there are solutions. Creative use of funding options like the low income housing tax credit program or government bonds are just two examples. CMHA needs to work with community to create a plan to maintain and increase affordable housing in all of Hamilton County.