We Are Here: Mary Burke Rivers on Simple Math, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, and More, Part 3

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We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at womenofcincy.org/housing.

Interview by Hillary Copsey. Photography by Stacy Wegley. | We’ve been talking most about housing in Over-the-Rhine. What can the housing struggles here tell us about the rest of Greater Cincinnati?
I’ve been curious about where people are going when this option has been taken away. There’s an online service called Rent Jungle. It’s current data, updated on a monthly basis, about rents in a particular city. So for Cincinnati, you can check, by neighborhood, the neighborhoods with the highest rents and the neighborhoods with the lowest rents.

So, the bottom four are Roselawn, one of the Price Hills; Bond Hill is in there – so what does it tell us?

What we experienced here – there’s so much focus on getting the market going. Everybody’s kind of on board with that. You have to get the market going. It’s the same in other neighborhoods, from Madisonville to College Hill. People want the market to come back. There’s so much focus on that and on the belief we all grew up with that that is how things work. You get more people with more resources in, paying more taxes; then you can lift other people’s boats. They’ll create jobs. There’ll be tax income available to provide services and all those kinds of things. What we’ve experienced is that it doesn’t lift everyone’s boat. There are people who are left behind or pushed out.

It has to be done simultaneously, thoughtfully – investing in the market and the existing residents at the same time. Focusing on the market exclusively with the idea that eventually you’ll get to the affordable piece… By the time you start saying, “Oh! We have to do something affordable!” it’s just too late.

What does that mean: investing in existing residents?
In neighborhoods where there are low-income homeowners – and more people are talking about doing this, but we’ve got to move to action – setting up a fund. So if I’m a low-income homeowner in a neighborhood where there’s a focus on market, and now my property starts to get cited, there needs to be a resource for me to go to so I can make these improvements on my property so my only option isn’t to sell to an investor. Really paying attention to what kind of supports should be available, whether it’s a loan product or a grant product or some combination… The affordable rentals – I feel like the community development corporation or some nonprofit entity needs to own that property.

Because they’re mission-driven, not market-driven. Ownership is obviously really, critically important. The market-driven folks are not going to keep it affordable. Mission-driven folks would. But that’s a whole infrastructure that still has to be created. Maybe other cities have more of that infrastructure. In Cleveland, they have the Cleveland Housing Network, and they work in all different neighborhoods. But we don’t have a community development corporation in Cincinnati that can work in all different neighborhoods.


We have various neighborhood CDCs that are in all different states of being.
Yeah, and those are all good. But it would be nice if we had an overarching one that could work with all the different neighborhoods, but the entity would have the infrastructure to do affordable housing, and the property management and the support that goes with it. For a CDC to create all that… What I’m seeing is a lot of CDCs are working with the market to bring those folks in, but they don’t own stuff. Even if it’s market rate. I think that’s a big challenge for our neighborhoods: getting CDCs, or some other nonprofit entity, to own affordable housing.

And then, making improvements. Investing in them so we can keep up with the market. Fortunately, through a variety of different programs that the city offers, we’ve been able to make improvements to our existing affordable housing stock. There’s a lead abatement program, for example. Then that means we can paint the exterior. We can get new windows. So, our properties look good and they’re healthier. That’s what I mean by investing in them.

And then also paying attention – and this is really hard – to the amenities that the low-income community needs. Like laundromats. Things that make it possible to live here.

And trying to have businesses that have lower price points. And of course, the challenge is that the demand increases for those commercial spaces, and the square footage prices go up, and then the business has to charge higher prices. Luckily, we own commercial space – but other CDCs don’t – so we can work on that mix. It’s an interesting challenge, too, to have commercial space that’s in high demand. Part of us says, “Oh! Let’s charge those higher rents so we can support our mission.” Which seems right. But then the other piece is, if we charge those higher prices, then it’s exclusive and our residents can’t be a part of it. It’s trying to walk that line.

Is there a community getting the mix of incomes and housing right? Does such a thing exist?
I don’t know. As I’m surveying different neighborhoods in my head, there are neighborhoods where rental housing and market-rate/above-market-rate home ownership exists – like Kennedy Heights; [and] the neighborhood where I live, Paddock Hills. I feel like there are neighborhoods that do have a range: Avondale, parts of North Avondale. It’s more naturally occurring. I don’t know that it’s been intentional.

Are there communities across the country that you’re looking to for examples?
Mostly, when we read about other similar urban neighborhoods, the story is pretty similar in that they’re experiencing a lot of displacement/gentrification. I don’t think any urban neighborhood has figured it out yet. It’s the whole market thing. When people want it and they’re going to pay for it, there’s going to be a loss of affordability. Maybe I’m reading the wrong stuff. There’s a book called How to Kill a City – he profiled four cities, and it is a challenge across the country.

You mentioned that we’re talking about affordable housing, and that’s an improvement, but the next step is to move to action. What’s keeping us from taking that next step?
Political will.

There’s this regard that we have for market development. We just value it so much. We think it’s going to solve so many problems, but we have to come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t. And if we put some requirements on it or limitations or something, that that’s not a bad thing – for example, requiring a for-profit market developer who’s getting some kind of public benefit to do a percentage of affordable housing. We talk about it. But the developer can be in the room – and maybe they’re in the rooms the rest of us don’t get to be in all the time – and they can say, “The numbers just don’t work. I can’t do it.” And then, the political will starts to diminish. “You said you can’t do it, so we can’t do it,” instead of saying, “Let’s just do it.” Maybe that developer couldn’t do it, but this one could.

We were just in a meeting earlier today talking about parking in Over-the-Rhine, and one of the strategies the city is considering is lifting the requirement that if you’re doing new development you have to provide a certain level of parking. The reason they want to lift that is because developers are saying, “We can’t do development if you require this parking.” So, it’s limiting development. So the city staff person was saying they could lift that requirement and that would make housing more affordable because they wouldn’t have to pay for parking. So, we were like, “Okay, so maybe you could lift that parking [requirement], but then you have to do a certain percentage of affordable [housing].” The pushback was: “We’re talking about that, but we’re going to implement this piece.” Let’s do them both!

What’s happening in Cincinnati, other than talking, that you’re encouraged by?
David Mann and P.G. Sittenfeld introduced a motion to fund human services, CDCs, and community councils through an increase in the ticket price for different events. All nine council members voted in support of putting it on the ballot. That’s exciting. That’s creating a new source of revenue.

The VTICA — that’s a new source. The structure has to be created still, about how it’s going to be administered, and we know it’ll be a couple of years before there’s any money there, but that’s positive. And once we get that structure created, then we can identify other sources for it. That’s action. I think that’s it.

Is there a woman who has influenced your work in community development?
Bonnie Neumeier. She’s lived in the neighborhood for 50 years. She’s a friend. She’s on the board here. The way she lives her life: She lives simply, but always has the resources to treat you on your birthday. She doesn’t have a lot of income, but somehow she always has the ability to take you out to lunch. She’s an amazing writer. She’s able to put into words what she’s experienced here. She’s really good at putting into words what we need. If we have to do an appeal letter, it’s always good to talk to Bonnie and ask her to help. She’s just consistent in her advocacy and her belief in equality and justice. It’s been really difficult for her living in this neighborhood with all the changes – all the people she’s known and loved who have moved or died, all the buildings where this family lived or that family lived are now condos – and not feeling like she has a place here, or struggling with that. She lifts me up and keeps me grounded at the same time.

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