From projects to promise: The fall of area housing projects shows the need for affordable options

A lone, abandoned eight-unit complex, stands overlooking a sparse grassy knoll in Northern Newport with windows boarded up; the last remembrance of a housing complex that once stood and a history not too far gone.

Formerly a 171-unit low-income apartment complex, the Peter G. Noll Apartments laid along one of the northernmost main commuting routes into Newport from Covington.

Plagued with crime and riddled with neglect, it was one of thousands of public housing projects across the country deemed to have failed, before it was demolished and slated to be replaced by mixed-income developments and an entertainment venue.

But during the relocation process, many who lived there did not know where to go.

Since the early to mid 1900s some of the poorest people in the United States have lived in subsidized housing developments often known as "projects." Many of these projects, however, are now being torn down and studies suggest only one in three residents find a home in the mixed-income developments built to replace them.

"Newport's housing project was home for many parents who raised their families with a high sense of pride, ambition and community," says Jerome Bowles, President of the Northern Kentucky branch of the NAACP. "This community offered families a connection to their heritage and roots. For the families and those who resided in the communities, this was home."

But Northern Kentucky's experience with dispersing poverty did not begin in Newport. In 2006, Covington Housing Authority (CHA) began demolishing the Jacob Price housing project, located in Covington's Eastside neighborhood. Throughout the process, soon-to-be-displaced residents were told of a re-imagined property on the site with increased income mixing, more businesses, and more owner-occupied homes to replace their beloved Jacob Price homes. It would have rental units comprised of roughly 30% market rate; 30% preserved for tenants making under 60% of the average median income for the region; and the remaining 40% would be developed as public housing units, including senior living units.

American housing projects: A history

The construction of public housing became national policy in 1937 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which was a series of social reforms introduced in response to the Great Depression. This was when many public housing projects were erected; being deemed successful, well-built, and well-managed.

Originally designed to provide homes to working-class residents of all races, it wasn't until the passage of the Housing Act of 1949 — which facilitated new low-interest mortgages for white working-class people to buy homes while making public housing available only to people on the lowest incomes — that the projects began to house only the poorest minority communities.

By the early 1950s, projects were being built that would soon become symbols of the problem with public housing. This was when CHA built City Heights. Originally named Ida Spence Homes (named for the wife of Kentucky Congressman Brent Spence), City Heights' number of units was a small portion of a little more than the 600,000 units of the originally-planned one million units that were in use throughout the United States.

City Heights still stands today.

But after a recent announcement from CHA detailing their plan to move current residents out in phases over the next three years, there has been a small resident-led push for current residents to purchase the housing development themselves.

"I think that it is a bad idea," says Penny Blevins, long-time City Heights resident. "Many residents here are not financially stable enough to purchase a home, nor do we have the type of credit needed." 

Most recently, public housing authorities came to see the problems associated with the projects could be solved by decentralizing low-income housing and by creating mixed-income communities where public housing residents lived among wealthier neighbors.

"But there are not too many places here in Covington to go," says Blevins.

Continued support needed for housing affordability
A growing number of our region’s residents are struggling to cope with the high and rising cost of rental housing.

From July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019, at least 1,530 individuals experienced unsheltered homelessness in the three-county Northern Kentucky region as reported by the Northern Kentucky Homelessness Working Group. In addition, although larger cities across the country have seen spikes in homelessness in recent years, the number of people staying in homeless shelters or living on the streets in Cincinnati and Hamilton County — which amounts to roughly 7,000 annually — didn’t change much between 2015 and 2019, according to new data released by Strategies to End Homelessness.

"The razing of both properties has created a loss of culture for many who resided in the communities," Bowles continues. "However, we have to move forward. In doing so, we have to make sure progress entails providing affordable low-income housing so home ownership opportunities can increase and families and individuals can be provided programs and services to secure and sustain affordable low income housing."

And Bowles is not alone in his thinking.

Some in the Kentucky legislature also recognize the critical need for affordable housing. Introduced to the Kentucky State Legislature January in 2021 and co-sponsored by Kentucky House of Representative member Kim Banta (R) of Northern Kentucky, House Bill 142 aims to add verbiage to the Kentucky Revised Statutes which will establish a non-refundable Kentucky affordable housing credit that can be applied to individuals and small businesses.

“I want the area to thrive and one way for our area to do that is to support this bill,” says Banta. “I support this bill because it attempts to expand affordable housing options for the folks who need it the most; those with special needs, the elderly, those who may be experiencing substance abuse recovery, and so on.”

Despite the gradual re-opening of the economy and the federal government’s distribution of stimulus checks, families across the region continue to struggle financially.

Local area social service providers are promoting industrial-strength plans to not only provide subsidies for low-income renters, but also increase efforts to escalate construction; emphasizing the need to build more affordable housing. That could make a big difference.

“Our mission is to improve the quality of life,” says Adam Rockel, program director for real estate development at Covington’s The Center for Great Neighborhoods. “One way that we have developed to make this happen is to address blight with the goal of increasing homeownership; helping low-to moderate income individuals become homeowners.”

The focus on construction is a welcome development. The United States is in the depths of a decade-long construction drought that is driving up the cost of existing homes, but The Center for Great Neighborhoods has expanded their property development efforts to combat local affordable housing issues.

The Center has completed more than 60 projects, boosting Covington’s real estate stock with mostly market-rate homes to sell. But recently, The Center has expanded its offerings for market-rate rentals, due to an increased number of community residents asking for additional affordable rental options within the urban core.

“Working with residents we, heard that there was an extreme lack of affordable options to live in Covington. Because of this, we have worked with the City of Covington to help extend Section 8 options to a few of our rental properties,” says Rockel.

More affordable rental options are a worthy goal because low-income households increasingly are unable to afford paying rent in the urban core, where many jobs and most economic opportunity are concentrated. That is where a variety of government programs, including public housing, subsidized housing, and rent vouchers, provide affordable homes and apartments for many throughout the region. 

This is one of the reasons why another local organization began re-envisioning quality, low-income residential options several years ago.

Taking over the former school, nearly five years ago, which educated Northern Kentucky’s African American students during Segregation, the Lincoln Grant Scholar House became one of the region's most innovative residential-supportive service models for low-income single parents who are obtaining a post-secondary degree. Home to 45-families, the Scholar House is conveniently located in Covington’s Eastside Neighborhood, just three blocks from Covington’s vibrant business district.

“Residential programs, like our Lincoln Grant Scholar House, serves as a viable tool for reducing residential segregation,” says Catrena Bowman-Thomas, executive director of Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission, the agency who runs the Lincoln Grant Scholar House.

“There is evidence that children raised in low-income families, but raised in economically diverse neighborhoods, have a much higher rate of success. Despite this, a great number of subsidized housing developments tend to be built in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty. This is one of the reasons we thought it was important that we offer our residential program close to Covington’s downtown business district, where housing tends to be more expensive. So far, we have experienced great results,” she continues.

The mere addition of new jobs to metropolitan areas with strong economies cannot ensure that all residents have equal access to economic opportunities unless the supply of affordable units to house the local workforce is sufficient. The success of the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area relies heavily on the ability for low-wage workers to thrive. Addressing housing affordability is essential for the economy to bounce back after the COVID-19 pandemic and its omnipotent hold on our region.
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Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.