What if the vacant houses in Hamilton County neighborhoods were transformed into affordable housing?
Families would have homes that didn’t eat up a majority of their income. Neighborhoods wouldn’t have empty, deteriorating houses. Blocks would get new residents where before dark windows and boarded up doors separated neighbors.
Is it even possible?
The 100% Housing initiative, a wide-ranging collection of players in Greater Cincinnati’s housing market and neighborhood development efforts, began work this spring to answer that question. LISC of Greater Cincinnati and the Urban Land Institute of Cincinnati are spearheading the effort.
“The initiative brings together a huge, diverse group of stakeholders — builders, finance experts, architects, community development groups, social workers — to really think the challenges of housing affordability,” says LISC Executive Director Kathy Schwab. “There’s now a community-wide focus on tackling the problem of repurposing our vacant housing to provide affordable housing.”
How it Began
In 2017, a study of Greater Cincinnati’s housing affordability found Hamilton County lacks 40,000 units of housing affordable to the lowest income households. The same study, commissioned by LISC and conducted by the Community Building Institute at Xavier University, estimated Hamilton County also had more than 40,000 vacant housing units.
The numbers were estimates, coincidentally the same. But they made Schwab and others, including ULI Cincinnati Executive Director Lydia Jacobs-Horton ask: What if? What if those vacant units could be matched up with families struggling to find and pay for housing?
“Creating scale is powerful. ULI's partnership with LISC is uniting individual efforts around a single vision and create something bigger,” Jacobs-Horton says. We are reducing overhead and using all of our scarce resources more efficiently.”
LISC and ULI began pulling in stakeholders — nonprofit organizations leading community development efforts or working with families facing housing insecurity, banks, city, and county leaders, the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority — and posing to them the question of how vacant houses might help the region’s housing affordability problem. After hearing broad support for the concept, they started to plot new approaches and solutions to matching the challenge of blighted, vacant properties with the opportunity to provide affordable homes for more families in Hamilton County
Step 1: Confirm the Numbers
The initial phase of 100% Housing was confirming the estimate of vacant properties and assessing the condition of vacancies across Hamilton County. A partnership with Loveland Technologies, a Detroit-based firm that uses data and mapping to arm communities to fight blight provided the platform to collect the data.
“Cincinnati could become a national model for such a broad-based partnership, and Loveland is excited to see what the future brings,” says Nick Downer, Loveland’s Ohio project manager.
Hopefully, this vacant home in Avondale will be fixed up for a low-income family.
Similar to many other cities, in Cincinnati vacant structures cluster geographically. These areas tend to be places that have
experienced consistent disinvestment, have low housing values, and that were targeted for subprime mortgages. Although rehab is a good first step for some of these buildings, it should be noted that the root causes of vacant houses are in many ways systemic, Downer notes.
Loveland and the 100% Housing team used anonymized data from the U.S. Postal Service, water shut-offs, and a vacancy list maintained by city officials to rank and map every potentially vacant property in Hamilton County. Properties that showed up as vacant on all three lists were marked 3; properties that didn’t show up on any list were 0 — and likely not vacant.
“How accurate are those lists? Well, the answer tends to be somewhat. It’s not bullseye accurate, which is why we need a boots-on-the-ground approach, too,” Downer says.
Loveland trained four urban planning students from University of Cincinnati, they went into the community to take a physical inventory of each vacant building. They took a photo of every structure or lot and assessed it based on a predetermined survey.
“It’s like turning on lights in a dark room,” says Loveland co-founder and CEO Jerry Paffendorf. “Some of it is common sense. Before you make a plan, there’s just some basic stuff to know, like: how big is the problem? … We’ve gone from knowing there’s a lot (of vacancies) to knowing not only a solid number, but where are they located, who’s the owner, what’s the condition.”
While the surveyors were snapping pictures of vacant houses this summer, other 100% Housing partners were working to identify innovative, scalable funding mechanisms for transforming these vacancies into affordable homes and assessing the need for affordable housing across Greater Cincinnati neighborhoods. These partners are also looking at what programs are already in place to help families and trying to figure out if any could be scaled up.
At this point, Loveland, ULI and LISC are analyzing the survey data. Initial findings show that there are many fewer vacant parcels than originally estimated. The three indicators mentioned presumed that 10,514 parcels were vacant; post surveying 62% of these were actually vacant. Of the vacant parcels (including unoccupied buildings and vacant lots), single-family homes are the most common type of housing across the City and County and over 50% of them are considered to be in good conditions.
No single solution will be the answer to the question of housing affordability, Schwab says. It’s a complicated issue caused by everything from systemic racism to wage stagnation. But having so many partners at the table, working together toward solutions, is a good start.
“The market is not equitable on its own,” says Celia Smoot, Director of Housing for LISC National. “All these partners coalescing around a strategy can create more equitable outcomes,”
This is why initiatives like 100% Housing are valuable, not only for the possible outcomes but also for the people they bring together and the approach itself. Challenges like vacancy and housing affordability have been addressed in the same way for some time now and usually the issues are bigger than the capacity and the resources to solve them. Tackling parallel problems like these in a creative and innovative approach leads to open ended possibilities.
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.