Local communities concerned with the link between development and displacement

Communities all around Cincinnati are considering how development can cause displacement and how to minimize the effect and keep communities intact.

Audrey Scott isn’t against change in Avondale.

Living in the community for 57 years, she has seen plenty of change and wishes for more. She wants the neighborhood to have a grocery store again, a post office — or at least a mailbox to drop a package. She wants more shopping options than a dollar store and jobs for the community’s young people. She wants the streets to be as clean and safe as they were in her youth, and she wants fewer empty lots to attract litter and crime. She wants the city and property owners to invest in Avondale.

But she also worries about the effect development might have on her neighbors.

Her grandparents lost their Avondale home to a shopping center. An interstate exit recently replaced houses near Scott’s. She sees the housing complexes where her friends and neighbors live and wonders if the affordable housing will be replaced by high-end condos. How long before developers looking for the next urban hot spot recognize Avondale for the perfectly situated, beautiful community her family realized it was nearly 60 years ago?

“This is prime property out there,” Scott said. “We all know it.”

Communities all around Cincinnati are considering how development can cause displacement and how to minimize the effect and keep communities intact.

Historically, in Cincinnati and across the United States, the communities most affected by displacement have been black and low-income neighborhoods like the West End and Avondale. In the middle of the 20th century, planners identified these neighborhoods as blighted and targeted them for urban renewal projects that forced thousands of people to relocate. This process followed patterns of racial segregation that resulted from a variety of racially discriminatory practices, including restrictive covenants that prevented non-white residents from purchasing property and redlining practices that barred minorities from accessing federally subsidized home financing.

In the West End alone, more than 26,000 residents — most of them black — were forced to move when 7,000 housing units were razed to make way for industrial development. Tens of thousands more lost their homes to interstates 71 and 75.

Federal regulations define displacement — focusing on a permanent move made necessary because of a federal project — and outline rules for minimizing it and providing reimbursement to people displaced.

But displacement is also a broader concept.

Sometimes there’s a direct line between development and displacement: property is taken by purchase or eminent domain and people must move. But displacement also happens less directly, and this indirect displacement usually is what people mean when they talk about neighborhood gentrification.

A property owner might not say to tenants, “You must leave,” but raises the rent past the point of affordability for the existing tenants. A homeowner never misses a mortgage payment and no one wants her house for development, but the new mixed-use shopping center down the street raises property values — and therefore puts her property taxes beyond her means. A neighborhood beautification project brings about a code violation that necessitates a repair a homeowner can’t afford.

Sometimes community agencies can tackle the issues that cause involuntary displacement head on. This past summer, while  the City’s Neighborhood Enhancement Program was focused on the West End, Seven Hills Neighborhood House worked with city officials to get the name of every homeowner who received a code violation and then helped those residents work through finding loans to make the repairs or ask for extra time to fix the issue.

“I told people, a fine is not a reason to sell (your home),” said Alexis Kidd, executive director of Seven Hills, a social service agency that acts as the community development corporation in the neighborhood.

The Avondale Comprehensive Development Corp. regularly helps residents facing eviction or unsafe housing conditions connect with Legal Aid of Greater Cincinnati. Community Organizer April Gallelli has seen Avondale residents living with black mold, broken pipes and sewage back-ups — and landlords who refuse to make repairs until Legal Aid or the community development corporation gets involved.

“As an agency, we have some weight, so we go in there and we yell for the repairs,” Gallelli said. “And every time we don’t start screaming and yelling, the repairs stop.”

On a larger scale, in neighborhoods including Walnut Hills and Madisonville, local community development corporations are trying to prevent displacement by developing affordable housing and advocating for policies, such as inclusionary zoning and homeowner tax abatements, that protect existing residents.

And community development corporations around the region are putting residents at the center of community planning. They’re asking what residents want and value before seeking out developers and making sure private developers know and understand the community’s vision. Optimistically, it’s one strategy for minimizing indirect displacement.

As West End residents face   a proposal that would bring a major league soccer stadium — and all the development likely to follow it — to their neighborhood, Seven Hills Neighborhood House is calling meetings with the city and Cincinnati Public Schools and Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, which own the potential development sites

, armed with the neighborhood’s vision for its future. The WE Speak plan should serve as a guide for a Community Benefits Agreement that helps the West End meet its goals, Kidd said.

“We’ve gone through the process. We have already have a plan,” Kidd said. “How does it fit in? This is a real opportunity we have to leverage.”

Even if the soccer stadium never materializes, Seven Hills and West End residents feel there is a need to manage development interest spilling over from Over-The-Rhine. The West End is right next to OTR, which a decade of public and private investments have transformed into a trendy neighborhood of restaurants and million-dollar renovations featured in a variety of national news outlets, including most recently the New York Times travel section.

With prices rising and space already at a premium in OTR, the Cincinnati Home Builders Association had picked West End as the location for CiTiRAMA, a home showcase development. Families wanting urban living but in a quieter neighborhood should look to the West End, developers said. The plan is on hold because of the soccer stadium proposal, but if it moves forward, CiTiRAMA would bring to the neighborhood dozens of new homes, with prices starting around $250,000.

More than half of West End residents live in poverty.

Kidd said the goal is not to stop development like this, but work with developers to also create affordable housing and needed amenities, such as a grocery store, for all residents.

Melvin Grier, 76, was a teenager when city planners wiped out the West End neighborhood they named “Kenyon-Barr,” after two cross streets, and which he called home. As a photojournalist, he’s watched Cincinnati’s neighborhood’s shift and change, sometimes with residents’ input — sometimes without. He and his wife have lived in Avondale since 1978, and, like Audrey Scott, he worries about the effects of development in his neighborhood.

“We can’t seem to blend income levels so it’s truly a mixed community. You start seeing the services you’d like to have — but with it comes higher taxes, higher prices ... people get forced out,” Grier said.

After being displaced from his childhood home and seeing so many others forced to move out of the communities where they knew everyone and everything, Grier said he can’t help but be a little cynical when he hears about neighborhood improvement projects.

But Grier and Scott said they stay involved in their communities because that’s how they can try to help. Grier is part of the committee working on a community clean-up effort. Scott, since the closure of the Burger King where she used to meet and chat with everyone in the community, spends a great deal of time at the Avondale Comprehensive Development Corp.

They care about their neighborhood. They want their neighborhood to have nice things, and they want to keep their neighbors.

The series, Community Stories, is supported by LISC Greater Cincinnati. Learn more at lisc.org/greatercincinnati.
LISC supports contributing journalist, Hillary Copsey. Read more stories about community development from Hillary here.

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