Connected Communities feedback from neighbors in East Price Hill, North Avondale, and Mt. Airy

A home is so much more than a dwelling. For most families, it’s their largest investment. It’s where people cultivate their authentic selves, develop their closest relationships, and the community where people feel pride and a sense of identity. 

Given its central role in life, someone’s home is their castle. However, the realm’s dominion ends at the property line. The inclination of the government and elected representatives who serve and represent the community can influence the quality of a community’s quality of life, for good or ill, for a generation or longer. 

Mayor Aftab Pureval has often expressed a desire for higher housing density, and in January he and Councilman Reggie Harris spearheaded Connected Communities. Cincinnati City Council and local appointed officials have espoused the Connected Communities program, with the goal of increasing the city’s quantity of middle housing – small and mid-sized multi-family units, with an emphasis on two- to four-family unit buildings in close proximity to neighborhood business districts (NBDs) – in an effort to enhance housing availability and affordability. 

Zoning will be the primary catalyst for the change, adapting guidelines to promote zoning near NBDs and upcoming bus rapid transit (BRT) routes. Row houses will be permitted citywide in areas zoned SF-2, which represents single-family-zoned areas with the smallest minimum lot sizes.

City representatives held information sessions in many of the city’s 52 neighborhoods, and a Housing Summit in March assembled elected officials, city zoning, planning, housing and community engagement representatives, and various construction, nonprofit, and environmental experts who unanimously tout the plan. 

On May 17, the City Planning Commission will vote on the Connected Communities proposal. If it’s supported at that meeting, it will advance to a ballot within the Equitable Housing Committee at its June 3 meeting. If it succeeds there, it moves along to a City Council vote the next day. 

Most Cincinnatians agree that the city needs more housing stock to make the city more desirable to retain and attract a wide array of workers across the socioeconomic spectrum. However, residents of diverse Cincinnati neighborhoods have reservations about city officials’ rapid advancement of the proposal, stating what’s been recommended doesn’t account for neighborhoods’ needs, and claiming there’s been minimal responsiveness and feedback. The concerns are unique to each neighborhood, but the anxiety expressed by some neighborhood representatives follows a common thread.

J. Miles WolfThe proposal's intent is to craft a zoning regulation that minimizes parking requirements.

North Avondale | Donald Dudrow, Jr.
Architect Donald Dudrow Jr. possesses extensive experience with architecture and housing. A 1984 Ohio State graduate, he served as the chief architect and development director for the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority from the late ‘80s through the early ‘90s. In 1994 he established Creative Housing Solutions, which provides affordable housing consulting and architectural services to cities, state agencies and HUD throughout the USA. His firm was a consulting Architect for the City of Cincinnati and provided architectural services for a program that preserved over 30 OTR buildings (Vacant Building Stabilization - VBS). The program made essential repairs with City funds. The City then transferred ownership of the stabilized buildings to 3CDC. 3CDC then created a program that sold the properties for $1 if the buyer could demonstrate a viable development and investment plan to transform the previously neglected structure. This initiative was a catalyst for the transformation of OTR into a thriving neighborhood the city enjoys today. Dudrow is a resident of North Avondale.

Dudrow was asked to serve on an initial stakeholder committee during Connected Communities’ formation, but doesn’t support the plan. 

He cited an April 2023 Urban Land Institute report, the results published by the National Low Income Housing Institute, that found that loosened zone regulations didn’t translate into more accessible affordable housing. According to the report, three to nine years after cities loosened zoning regulations, the report authors found a net increase in housing of only 0.8%. And the primary beneficiaries were families with incomes higher than the national median – 43% more short-term units available to that demographic, and 63% medium- and long-term units. The increase of units available to low-income housing was not statistically significant, according to the report summary. 

“These changes will exacerbate the problem by promoting higher cost rental and increased homeownership costs in the Connected Communities areas by driving out the affordable housing opportunities.” 

Dudrow cited additional problems with the proposed plan: A decline in property values brought about by transforming neighborhoods that were historically single-family housing into areas of multi-family housing, and the lack of addressing the city’s chronic issue with absentee landlords and property investors who are unwilling or unable to remedy code violations, and are prone to simply divide up a single-family home for multiple-family usage instead of developing more intentionally developed property that creates a better living situation.

Better alternatives Dudrow cited included for creating an improved supply of affordable housing include:
  • More vigorous enforcement of municipal housing and maintenance code, which would compel noncompliant owners to upgrade properties or sell,
  • Aggressive foreclosure on negligent owners to facilitate transforming blighted properties into increased housing inventory,
  • Strategic use of variances, which provide flexibility to make modifications on a case-by-case basis while enabling transparency for stakeholders,
  • Public or private economic-development tools, such as the vacant building stabilization program such as what the city successfully used in OTR during the ‘90s; tax abatement and other incentives to stimulate investment in challenged neighborhoods; and, in the midst of current higher interest rates (the early ‘80s, when mortgage interest rates stood in the teens, would scoff, but enough digression), Dudrow suggested interest-rate buydowns, would be a city or privately funded opportunity for investors that commit to certain terms, such as scope of renovations, rental rates, etc. Hamilton County currently operates the Home Improvement Program, which enables residents undertaking owner-occupied house renovations to borrow funds at rates three points lower than standard bank rates, according to its website. 
Additionally, he expressed doubts about the proposal’s intent to craft zoning regulation that minimizes parking requirements, pointing to Cincinnati’s lack of public-transit options relative to other cities. 

“I don’t think the assumption we’re all just going to ride bicycles is accurate,” Dudrow said. "Whether someone is rich or poor, the U.S. is a car culture, and that’s not going to change overnight.”

Natalie GrilliAndrew Fisher of The Port inspects one of the agency-owned houses in East Price Hill.

East Price Hill | Amber Kassem
Amber is an East Price Hill resident. Although her neighborhood has never been affluent, she noted that at one time it was solidly working-to-middle-class with a number of properties owned by multiple generations of the same family. However, such owners gradually disappeared as the number of blue-collar job opportunities dissipated, and the Great Recession of 2008 exacted a deathblow to neighborhood stability. 

Today, Kassem says the previously owner-occupied properties are largely either vacant or filled with people who receive housing vouchers from a hodgepodge of organizations. When asked if the properties were administered through the federal Section 8 housing program, she scoffed. 

“If they were administered through Section 8, there would be some oversight and property inspection,” Kassem said. “In this case, it’s minimal. I’ve spent three years trying to find out who’s administering the Rapid Rehousing voucher program, and haven’t been able to find out.”

Through the voucher program, landlords are given $1,100 per month to house previously unhoused clients. While providing shelter for homeless individuals is certainly admirable, this doesn’t carry specific stipulations for property improvement and upkeep, providing little incentive for improvement.

As it is, rampant illicit activity takes place in her neighborhood, including drug usage and dealing, prostitution, domestic violence, and kidnapping. Kassem said some enterprising voucher holders rent out their apartments for $5 an hour for, ahem, conjugal relations. Debris commonly found on the sidewalk includes used condoms and drug paraphernalia. 

The decline in property values that results from these activities Kassem describes is understandable. She doesn’t see much opportunity to access other neighborhoods in better conditions. 

“I don’t want to live in a neighborhood where some of the houses have their address numbers spray painted on brick,” Kassem said frustratedly. “But where else could I go with the $150,000 I would get from selling my house in this market? Politicians can declare that this plan opens up every neighborhood to every income level, but I’m not going to be able to afford any property in Oakley or Hyde Park.” reports that the median home listing price in East Price Hill is $150,000; by comparison the median listing price in Oakley’s ZIP code is $719,900. 

She also thinks that the number of occupied properties in the neighborhood is misrepresented. Kassem has asked for a water utilization report for East Price Hill for three years to track where water is being used, and presumably reflecting where people are living. 

“I’ve been given data on where water is hooked up, but this doesn’t reflect accurately how many people live there,” she said. “The only report I’ve been given is from 2006, which was before The Great Recession and doesn’t reflect current occupancy. Insurance is higher for vacant properties, so slumlords who own vacant properties benefit from inaccurate reporting of vacancies.”

Given the decline in city population – in 1970, the city’s population was 452,000, and 309,000 in 2021 – Kassem is skeptical that a true housing shortage exists in Cincinnati. She notes that voucher holders from other neighboring counties are moved into the West Side, which would not reflect a dearth of available housing in the city.

“How about some protections against undesirable neighborhoods through abuse of housing vouchers,” she said. “Everyone deserves a home, but codes need to be enforced to provide livable housing and the quality of neighborhoods. We don’t expect to enormously raise the median income by trying to attract doctors to live here. We just want to protect the value of the investment for those who own in our neighborhood.”

She continued, “A plan that encourages multi-family housing is going to encourage landlords to turn single-family homes into four-family rentals and further reduce homeownership here.”

Gary KesslerMt. Airy is in the midst of a business district development plan for the Colerain Avenue-North Bend Road corridor.

Mt. Airy | Scott Hand
Mt. Airy, on the northwestern edge of the city, endured several decades of heavy population losses and the decimation of its business community (to learn more about its history, read Soapbox’s Resilient Neighborhoods series about the community). After decades of losses, community leaders began to flip the script in the mid-2010s. Mt. Airy CURE was founded to advocate for the city’s business community, and it began to regain population. Scott Hand, an architect, resident of Mt. Airy and co-founder of Northside brewery Urban Artifact is currently Mt. Airy CURE’s president and is excited about Mt. Airy’s prospects for growth. 

“We’re in the midst of a development plan for the Colerain Avenue-North Bend Road corridor, and we’re hoping to start construction next year,” he said. “A plan isn’t finalized, but the goal is a plan that includes small-scale restaurants and retail, and the middle housing plan that the city is proposing integrates well with our goals for the Mt. Airy Business District.”

Mt. Airy has several large multi-family developments, such as Hawaiian Terrace and Bahama Terrace, and a comparatively affordable repertoire of single-family housing, and Hand views incorporating two- to four-family units as a balancing factor in improving its housing stock. Hand looks at the community’s adjacent community, College Hill, as an inspiring example of an attractive business corridor, but his vision is for Mt. Airy to “do it our own way.”

“We want to develop our community, but we want to do it intentionally and gradually,” he said. “We want it to happen in several phases and not to be unsustainable or disruptive to our quality of life.”

Hand thinks that the proposal actually could go further to improve the community’s housing stock, including possibly expanding middle housing zoning beyond proximity to commercial business districts.

“I don’t think Connected Communities will be the end of the city’s development plan,” Hand said. “I want to see the next step to move the housing boost beyond business districts and transit corridors to improve middle housing. But the next step might take another 10-15 years and an entire new cycle of city council members to evolve into the next generation of ideas for development. I hope they’re already thinking about it and how to present the vision to the community; the next step is above my visibility.”

He thinks that opposition to increasing housing density and inventory is shortsighted: “To make the city more attractive to people considering Cincinnati as a place to live and work requires a diverse repertoire of housing and types of businesses. The only alternative would be to heavily raise taxes, which I don’t think anyone wants.”

This is part one of two Soapbox stories to provide more feedback with voices from the neighborhoods about the upcoming Connective Communities legislation.

Publisher / managing editor Patrice Watson resides in North Avondale; Steve Aust resides in Oakley; contributing photographers reside in the City of Cincinnati.

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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.