A neighborhood in transition: What will happen to housing in the West End?

Take some of Cincinnati’s wealthiest people who, in a matter of months, spend a couple hundred million and build a major league stadium in one of the city’s poorest communities, and you have a recipe for a neighborhood ripe for change.

That’s the West End today, a historically Black community that has suffered from disinvestment for decades, but has remained a hub for homes and businesses.

There’s little doubt the West End will change — it already has. How that change will happen is the big question.

“It’s a community in transition,” says Kristen Baker, who heads up the Cincinnati office of Local Initiatives Support Corp. LISC, a neighborhood support organization, has been working in West End for about 10 years, surveying and meeting with residents to understand what they want their future to look like.

“It’s a community that has experienced a lot of challenging, sometimes devastating, actions,” she says.

Those include the “urban renewal” program of the 1950s and 1960s that resulted in the destruction of thousands of West End homes and businesses to create an industrial center now called Queensgate, and which made way for Interstate 75 to run through the city.

The impact of that is still felt in the neighborhood and it was recalled as the FC Cincinnati soccer team and City Hall pushed to build a $250 million stadium there, a project that would take out homes, businesses, a church, and a high school football field.

The stadium, finished now and hosting soccer games, dominates the neighborhood from its Central Parkway entrance, and will draw tens of thousands of fans from spring through fall. Those fans and the money they spend are expected to spur the development of other businesses, driving up the value of property in a neighborhood where nearly half of the residents are poor. In May, for example, a developer announced plans to build a 90-room hotel across Central Parkway from the stadium.

In a community where most of the people are renters (69% of the residents according to the 2019 West End Housing Study), and where nearly half live below the poverty level, rapidly rising property values mean some are likely to be forced out of their homes because they will no longer be able to afford them.

“As the neighborhood market changes, landlords can change their rents, they can change what they charge, or they can sell,” Baker says. “It’s just how the market is performing there. People who are living in those housing options, they do suffer.”

Even before the stadium, the West End was feeling development pressure from its neighbor across Central Parkway, Over-the-Rhine, where a focused, concerted, and subsidized development effort over the last decade-plus has resulted in its transformation to an entertainment destination.

“We had already slowly started to feel development pressures from Over-the-Rhine,” says Tia Brown,  community engagement director at Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, a not-for-profit West End community organization. “It was coming our way slowly.”

The infusion of hundreds of millions in stadium investment magnified the trend.

“When the stadium was announced, that just pressed the gas pedal super hard and accelerated everything,” Brown says.

Now, neighborhood organizations that were committed to doing the long, slow work of community building, are feeling pressure to accelerate their work before the amped-up market dynamics take over.

“It’s definitely created a sense of urgency,” says Alexis Kidd, executive director of Seven Hills.

In anticipation of the stadium, the West End Housing Study was done in 2019 for the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority and Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses.

“Recent housing redevelopment and rapidly increasing real estate values have triggered concerns of gentrification and the displacement of the communities’ people, culture, and legacy,” the report says. “The development of the new FC Cincinnati stadium is the physical manifestation of such gentrification pressures in the eyes of the many residents.”

The final report classified 27% of West End households (984), as “extremely threatened” if no housing policies or programs are created to protect them.

Those residents “would be the first group for potential displacement from the community,” the study says. “These households are all renters and would not able to withstand major shocks to rents due to very low or fixed household incomes.”

Soaring property values can be a boon to those who own their homes or businesses. But with so many people of limited means renting, the potential for displacement is significant.

“There are people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades who now have some equity in their homes and they might choose to cash in,” Brown says. “But there are people who work in the West End and have rented in the West End who can be homeowners and we need to have their product in the neighborhood, which is houses under $200,000.”

Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses is working to protect and create housing that those who live and work in the neighborhood can afford.

There’s lots of opportunity to renovate old homes or build housing on vacant lots. One-third of all the parcels in the community (641 lots) are vacant, the study says. And 20% of the buildings are empty.

“A large portion of these vacant structures are in poor or worse building condition,” the report says. “While this may be an eyesore, this represents opportunities for improvement. The only question is the degree of renovation required to re-occupy these buildings.”

Earlier this year, three vacant and deteriorating historic row houses on Baymiller Street owned by the Hamilton County Landbank, an arm of The Port, were singled out for renovation. Two were sold to Habitat for Humanity, which is renovating them and will select buyers who will be first-time homeowners. The third was sold to Seven Hills. It will be renovated by Habitat contractors and rented on a rent-to-own basis.

The project is an example of what can be done to preserve quality housing that people in the neighborhood can afford. But the work is time-consuming and expensive.

“It’s all about money,” says Laura Brunner, president and CEO of The Port. The Port is a not-for-profit economic development organization that uses a variety of tools, including the Landbank, public financing, and grants to restore housing and commercial development in urban neighborhoods.

“You need the money to get control,” Brunner says. “We need control to keep the private sector from tipping the balance.”

The Port looks for opportunities to buy property in West End and owns about 70 parcels there. It’s also spent a significant amount to stabilize distressed properties in the community, including the landmark Regal Theatre.

Seven Hills is the recognized community development corporation in the neighborhood and has an agreement with The Port to work on housing needs there. But it needs more funding to make an impact and be a buffer to the market forces shaping the community, Brown says.

“We haven’t got the support we need to make a difference,” she says.
She’s worked at Seven Hills since 2016; the stadium project was announced in 2018. “We are just now working on our first brick-and-mortar project,” she says, referring to the Baymiller rowhouses. “It’s taken that long to build relationships and get subsidies in place and get partnerships in place.”

Renovations to old, deteriorating homes is expensive. There’s often lead paint to deal with, original windows that need to be replaced, out-of-date heating systems, and leaky roofs. In order to keep the finished product affordable to people who earn less than average, a not-for-profit like Seven Hills would typically lose money on a project, or break even at best. Grants and public subsidies are needed to keep them in business.

“There has to be a concerted effort on the city’s part and by investors,” says Kidd. “Affordable housing doesn’t just happen. It’s a difficult task and requires a lot of subsidies. It requires philanthropists and partners who may be willing to take less than they would normally get.”

“We need more resources to make sure these organizations can do that kind of work,” Baker says. “We have to make sure we’re resourcing these community partners in a way that allows them to have that impact on the neighborhood housing market.”

Seven Hills has earned grants, but they have been relatively small, in the $25,000 to $50,000 range. “We need a large investment,” Brown says.

The agency is working with The Port now on a relatively large project to redevelop 12 units on Linn Street that are meant for retail on the ground floors and housing on the upper floors. They assembled an array of funding for the project from Fifth Third Bank, the city of Cincinnati, a grant from FC Cincinnati, and others, Brunner says.

FC Cincinnati has built a new football field for the neighborhood’s Taft High School, and supported community projects in other ways, including funding exterior renovations for 10 homes, and funding the housing study. But Brown says more could be done. She would like to see the team’s owners — who include Carl Lindner III, Silicon Valley billionaire Meg Whitman, and retired Cintas Corp. CEO Scott Farmer, to invest money and, just as importantly, their expertise, to protect affordable housing in the neighborhood.

“They have connections,” she says. “We hope they would bring more attention to the need for workforce housing in the community. They do complicated deals all day every day, so why can’t they help us figure this out?”
There are also supports that city and state policy makers could be involved in.

Local laws and regulations could also be passed to promote home ownership among low-wage earners, Baker says. She cites as an example a Washington, D.C. law that requires that tenants in buildings up for sale be offered the first rights to buy the building. The District’s housing office makes seed money and technical assistance available to help tenants form housing co-ops to purchase their homes.

More than a thousand units have been preserved as affordable housing this way, says DC’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Programs like that need to be in place early on, she says, before it becomes too late. “Once a market starts changing in a neighborhood, if we don’t have those checkpoints in place, it’s really hard to slow that down.”

Brown has urgency in her voice when she talks about the need for big investments in housing that West End residents can afford: “Help us make a difference in the neighborhood so we don’t look back in a couple of years and wonder: ‘What happened?’”
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.