We Are Here: Mary Burke Rivers on Simple Math, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, and More, Part 2

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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. |Over-the-Rhine Community Housing does such a wide variety of things: supportive housing, subsidized housing, recovery housing, etc. In your mission, you use the phrase “dignified housing” to encompass everything you do. What does dignified housing mean?
That’s a good question. That you’re treated with respect and you’re valued. You’re not made to feel less than. Our director of maintenance puts it this way: It’s our property, but it’s their home. So when you go in to do some maintenance work, they’re in charge. It’s respecting people. Valuing them. And then providing a good product. It’s not that you’re poor, so therefore you don’t need some level of decency. You’re treated as an equal.

And what is supportive housing? How is it different from recovery housing?
There can be supportive housing that is recovery housing, too. There’s so many different ways to talk about it. The supportive housing is, if we’re talking about the HUD definition, they have funding set aside specifically for housing for people who have experienced homelessness. That is something that every city in the country and participating jurisdiction applies for: the HUD continuum of care. It’s an annual application where we apply for supportive housing grants. And HUD has really pushed all communities to move toward housing first. That means that there are fewer barriers to get into housing. You meet people where they are. There’s not a requirement of sobriety or compliance with medication.

So, let’s put a roof over your head and then we’ll deal with everything else?
Yes. Yes, exactly.

Then, the challenge is, if you stick with the true housing-first model, even if someone is drinking in their unit, the priority still is housing. You continue working with them over time, supporting them, in hopes that they will get better, but it’s about keeping people in housing.

And this is all subsidized housing?
The rents are subsidized by the grants that we get on an annual basis. So tenants pay 30 percent of their income for their housing.

There’s also scattered site supportive housing. It works in a similar fashion, but it’s more like a Section 8 voucher. We have case managers working with someone who has experienced homelessness, helping them find an apartment out in the Greater Cincinnati area – finding a unit, finding a landlord who will accept the program, moving folks in and then providing the support in the unit out in the community. The rents are subsidized and they can continue to get support with case management. For some folks, that works better. For others, the site-based [model] works best.

How are you expanding family supportive housing? We talked about the federal money being less, so I’m curious about the how and why of the expansion?
It’s really convoluted. Geez. How do I even talk about it? We’re moving some rental subsidies from other properties into our building. So the rents will be subsidized, and then … those units will be available to families who have experienced homelessness. We’ll provide the support services. In our continuum of care process, we did apply for additional funding. So … our continuum of care is about $15 million. The year we applied, there might have been some new money available. Some years there are bonuses available.

And the continuum of care grants – do they pay for social workers and services, or will it go toward rent subsidies, as well?
It can be either one, or both. But in this case, the rental subsidies don’t come from continuum of care.

Because the rental subsidies come from the other properties?
Exactly. It was properties owned by a group from New York – a portfolio that had properties in Over-the-Rhine, Avondale, Walnut Hills, and some other areas. They were complete absentee owners, taking rents and not taking care of the properties. Eventually, Fannie Mae foreclosed on those properties and the different neighborhoods were paying attention, and Legal Aid was paying attention, so we all approached Fannie Mae and said, “Please don’t sell this portfolio to another east coast or west coast absentee person.”

And Fannie Mae was like, “Well, we have to make sure the taxpayers get their money.” So there’s a group, The Community Builders – they’re out of Boston, but they have a presence here in Cincinnati. They did some development in the West End, some public housing, and then they’re doing a lot of work in Avondale. … What ended up happening is The Community Builders have an allocation of federal dollars to buy foreclosed properties, so the community and the city of Cincinnati said, “Would you buy this whole portfolio?” They did. Each neighborhood had their own ideas about how to deal with these properties. In Over-the-Rhine, it was us, the Model Group, and 3CDC, and then the Homeless Coalition working with residents. That’s where some of the subsidies came from. There’s a property, now vacant, that 3CDC is developing, and we moved those subsidies to some of our properties.

When we’re talking about moving subsidies, are you also talking about moving people?
Yeah, it’s really complicated. Yes, the people have to be taken care of. They do have to move, initially. It’s like musical chairs. Some people can move to another unit; some people want to stay in the neighborhood, so they’ll move temporarily and then when we have a unit ready, they’ll move into that unit. But there can be the potential for losing folks in that process. There were several meetings with residents: “This is the strategy; what do you think?” … It gets a little difficult.


Given how complicated all of that is, why expand the family supportive housing? Why work through all that?
That wasn’t the motivation. Our advocacy was: The subsidy has to stay in the neighborhood. We want that affordability to stay here. We don’t want it taken somewhere else. So we had some properties we wanted to rehab, and it was an opportunity to move subsidies to those properties.

And that all felt like it made sense, because we know the family shelters have such a hard time finding decent housing for families. And we have great social work staff who do a great job working with families moving out of homelessness, getting them stable and helping them get support, and feel valued. We know we do it really well, and I think the family shelters know we do it really well, too. So it all made sense.

You wanted that affordability to stay in the neighborhood. Do you have a goal of what the mix of housing should be in Over-the-Rhine?
What we negotiated and agreed on in the Over-the-Rhine comprehensive plan was:


  • 25 percent of housing would be affordable to people at 30 percent of the area median income [AMI] and below
  • The next category is between 30 and 60 percent AMI
  • The next category was up to 80 percent AMI
  • The top 25 percent is just unlimited

From our perspective, it gives people the opportunity for their incomes to go up, but they still have an affordability option in the neighborhood. Eighty percent of AMI is pretty high. So that’s the goal.

We would love for it to be that way, but where it is now, the high end is just getting so high. The challenge is the middle. The bottom of the economic ladder is always a challenge just because the numbers don’t work. But as far as the middle goes, the numbers would work – but if it’s the private, for-profit sector doing that, they don’t do it, because they can charge more. That’s the challenge in all this affordable housing stuff: the economic system. The highest dollar you can charge, that’s what you’re going to do if you’re a for-profit. That’s the goal. If you can charge $1,200 for a one-bedroom, why charge $900?

That middle part – let’s talk about the problems there. With the lowest – 30 percent AMI – there are subsidies available.
Very limited.

But who’s in that middle part, and what are they struggling with?
Okay. We do have that market. The majority of our units are not 30 percent and below. It’s the low-income housing tax credit program that serves that market: 60 percent AMI, 50 percent AMI. The struggle for that market is just making everything work on that budget. The definition – how we determine affordability – is 30 percent of your income for your gross. It’s not what you’re bringing home; you’re bringing home less. And then utility costs. In Over-the-Rhine, part of the challenge is parking, the meters, and getting tickets. Washers and dryers – there’s not a laundromat in the neighborhood any more. Every unit we create, we try to have an in-unit washer-dryer hookup or at least have a washer and dryer on the property. It’s a real challenge. In 2018, people are doing laundry in their bathtub.

And these people are working? By definition they are working; they have income. Like, are these the daycare workers you were talking about?
Yes. Yes. Yeah, it’s nursing homes, daycare, school bus drivers, food service. … It’s $10-, $12-, maybe $15-an-hour jobs.

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