No one should be surprised that the Affordable Housing Amendment (Issue 3) is on the ballot next month. When an issue does not get resolved by policymakers, and there is understandable frustration, then grassroots organizing often puts a solution forward. Kudos to those working on affordable housing issues for pushing for action on this issue. As someone who has spent 3/4 of my life as a renter and who grew up working poor, I personally understand what it means to have housing that is affordable. However, it’s a straw man to say that anyone opposed to Issue 3 is opposed to affordable housing. I’m supportive of the objective, but believe there is a better alternative. I also believe that it’s incumbent upon any elected official or anyone running for elected office, such as I am with City Council, if they say ‘no’ to then put forward an alternative.
Why no on Issue 3
The biggest reasons why I’m a “no” on Issue 3 are:
- Affordable housing is a regional problem that requires a regional solution: Just like giving children quality preschool (Preschool Promise) and improving public transportation (Issue 7) are regional issues that required regional solutions, affordable housing is not just a Cincinnati problem. There are an estimated 28,000 unit shortfall of affordable housing units in Cincinnati, but 40,000 in Hamilton County. The issue is regional and the solution should be regional.
- Administration of Issue 3 $ needs checks & balances: currently, the way the amendment is constructed, people who are appointed to administer the $50M can allocate up to 5% of the costs to administrative costs (~$2.5M/year); that includes funds for their own salaries and organizations. Those appointed to serve would not have any term limits or mechanism for being taken off that board; so $50M/year of taxpayer $ is allocated to be administered to a group of people with no checks or balances. I believe that is bad policy.
- Precluding Federal $: the amendment precludes the city from using any Federal $ for that $50M/year even though getting Federal matching dollars is one of the best ways to maximize any investment.
- No specific plan for the $50M/year: No specific plans have been shared on the details of how the $50M/year would spent, where/what type of units would be built, whether that is a sufficient or insufficient investment, etc. It’s like signing a contract for $100,000 with a contractor for improvements on your house without seeing the specifics for what the contractor will do with that $100,000. The first place to start is to get aligned on the specific gap. It’s clear that the gap is 80,000 units in Hamilton County, but in the city there have been different numbers thrown around: 8,000 vs 28,000. There is a gap in the city. That is a fact. The size of the gap though should dictate the amount of money we need to fill it and the specific plans that follow from that.
So what’s the alternative?
An alternative needs to be a short and long term plan. Immediately, we should be building a broad coalition of people across Hamilton County for a regional solution in the same way that we approached it for transportation and preschool. This has already started with the Housing Our Future Coalition.
But that takes time and there are some solutions that we can/should do immediately in Cincinnati. To be clear, I’m not an expert in affordable housing, but I have spent the past few weeks talking to experts and studying initiatives from other cities to help shape solutions. Some of these ideas are consistent with the paper put out by the “Housing Our Future” coalition, which has several other valid ideas to consider.
1. Start Building Now by allocating $50M from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) toward the Affordable Housing Trust fund immediately.
Columbus has $100M in their trust — this at least gets a quick injection of funds in it while we develop the regional plans and specific plans for that $50M. This is a shot in the arm — we can’t wait for regional coalitions to be built and develop plans. People need affordable housing now. In parallel, we should shape a permanent funding model that includes private dollars. Private dollars can/should be used immediately to scale models like the Scholar’s House (in Walnut Hills & Northside).
2. Keep people in their homes
Any affordable housing plan must keep people in quality homes. In North Fairmount, for example, the neighborhood saw a 34% decline in population with no new significant development in the last decade. People are leaving their homes for multiple reasons including poor housing conditions. We need to do a few specific things to keep people in quality homes:
- Implement a housing court to keep negligent landlords accountable: no child should be at Children’s Hospital with mold in their lungs because of the conditions of their apartment or home.
- Pursue property tax rollback that was promised with the stadiums 20 years ago that was never fully leveraged. For people with fixed income in particular this will help keep them in their homes as property tax rates have risen in recent years.
Another part of keeping people in their homes also needs to be giving long-time residents in their neighborhoods an opportunity to own their own home/apartment. Cincinnati is a city of renters (62% rent vs 34.2% in the U.S.). It has become all too common for long-time residents who are renters in neighborhoods such as Over the Rhine. Walnut Hills, & the West End to be priced out of the neighborhoods. The benefits of investments in neighborhoods are not always widely shared.
Build a City of Owners:
- Rent to own/Dividend housing: We need to create a “rent to own” initiative in collaboration with lenders and property owners that would include an opportunity to buy into one’s house/apartment converting the rent to a mortgage with some stability on the rates. A model of “dividend housing” does exist here in Cincinnati in which renter households receive financial credits toward home ownership when they fulfill long-term lease commitments and share in the upkeep of common areas. Now is when we need to scale it further.
Developing a full rent to own model would take time to craft, but it would mean less displacement and more wealth creation particularly in historically African-American neighborhoods such as Avondale where 75% of residents rent.
- Increase access to lending products: The city should collaborate with lenders to create innovative home purchase financing products such as small-dollar mortgages ($75K-100K) where credit history might rely on alternative credit histories such as rental payments. This will empower renters to be able to buy into their own home and stay in their own neighborhoods.
3. Build new affordable housing:
We used to be a city of 500K people with houses to accommodate that population. There are three parts to building new affordable housing: (1) Immediately leverage the $50M from ARP injected into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to build more affordable housing stock, which was noted above; (2) Zoning reform; and (3) Alter tax abatements.
We have zoned our way out of supply. Reforming the zoning code will enable people to live closer to business districts, and make investments in public transportation and bike infrastructure more efficient.
- More 2–4 unit places & freeing up building housing in manufacturing districts: ~90% of the city is zoned for single family only. We should enable more 2–4 unit places to be built throughout the city as well as enable building in the city’s Manufacturing Light and Manufacturing General Districts. This would enable housing next to places like breweries that is not allowed today.
- Density & Height bonus: Zoning laws control the height and density of buildings. These limitations make it harder to include affordable housing. We should provide density and height bonuses, like extra stories on a building, in exchange for a commitment to build affordable housing on-site (eg. a certain percentage of units), or a commitment to pay into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. That’s a win-win: more affordable units, and better economics for the investor (because it is often more affordable to build additional stories vs. building affordable housing elsewhere). Similarly, there are density limits throughout neighborhoods in the city that specify a certain number of units per land area. We can loosen these restrictions for developments that include affordable housing, making it easier to build.
- Eliminate zones that are Community, Commercial, Auto Districts: These commercial districts are located throughout the city, in places as diverse as South Fairmount, Pleasant Ridge, and Westwood. They are zoned for auto-oriented uses and designs, like fast food restaurants and strip malls with large parking lots, while banning or extremely limiting the ability to build residential. These districts are also dangerous for pedestrians and make transit less efficient. When cities such as Seattle have eliminated these types of districts they saw an increase in affordable housing production.
- Reduce minimum lot sizes and allow accessory dwelling units: Cincinnati has much larger minimum lot sizes than peer cities that have seen more housing production. Our large minimum lot sizes make it harder to build affordable housing. We should reduce minimum lot sizes throughout the city. Other cities have allowed accessory dwelling units (i.e. a backyard or basement apartment) on single-family lots. This is a quick way to dramatically increase the number of permitted units and these types of units tend to be more naturally affordable.
Alter the tax abatement:
- Tax abatements should be redesigned to be more targeted and defined. First, we should target tax abatements for zip codes where it will benefit from accelerated investment instead of neighborhoods that don’t need it e.g. Clifton or Hyde Park. Second, we should change abatements to be graduated and reduce by 10% each year. So for example it’s 100% in the first year, 90% in the second year, etc for other developments and yes we should tie it with either building more affordable housing or putting funds in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. At the same time, we need a clearer set of principles and a policy for tax abatements across the city so the rules are clear and any elected official is free of any influence when applying pre-approved policy/principles. Councilman Landsman’s scorecard is a great start.
Of course the best way to ensure Cincinnatians can afford housing is to grow the economy with high paying jobs coupled with providing opportunities for people to be trained to meet those job opportunities including in the building trades, health care, computer sciences, etc.
But that is a parallel strategy. We need immediate solutions combined with longer-term solutions and approach this issue as the regional problem that it is. We also can’t use “no” as an excuse not to put forward alternative solutions. Constructive policy requires specifics and debate: what I offer here may not be perfect, but it’s a specific alternative to Issue 3 that moves us forward without the downsides of Issue 3.