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A Moving Predicament

Metropole’s conversion sparks tenant relocations

By Adam Sievering and Kevin Osborne · December 9th, 2009 · News
Two years ago, Charles McAfee established residency at the Metropole Apartments, a 230-unit building located in the 600 block of Walnut Street across from the Aronoff Center for the Arts. He chose the Metropole because it was conveniently located in the Central Business District with bus routes and businesses nearby.

In addition to the convenient location, the efficiencies at the Metropole were considerably more affordable than the newer high-rise studio lofts in the area that cost up to $1,000 per month for a one-bedroom unit. The Metropole is one of the few project-based Section 8 buildings downtown, continually operating as federally subsidized affordable rental housing since 1971.

McAfee and more than 200 other Metropole tenants were informed Nov. 3 that the building had been purchased by the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC). On the same day, all tenants were given official notice that they must relocate within one year.

3CDC issued a media release the next day stating its intention to restore the Metropole to “its original purpose and grandeur” by converting the building into a 160-room luxury “museum hotel” that will feature a contemporary art museum with more than 8,000 square feet of public exhibition space, a new restaurant and meeting space. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places last summer.

The estimated $48 million project entails the displacement of all 207 adult occupants of Metropole Apartments, many of whom are elderly and disabled — a situation that angers low-income housing advocates.

About 60 percent of the low-income residents are African-American and 26 percent are people over age 55, according to a fair housing complaint filed by the tenants against 3CDC. It was filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on Nov. 9.

“The reason some of us moved down here was because we didn’t want to live in ‘the hood,’ ” McAfee says. “I really don’t want to move. I’m in no rush to move. Right now, we’re fighting to keep our homes.”

McAfee was a key figure in the formation of the Metropole Tenant Association, which was created in July after some residents were notified by the former owner, Showe Builders Inc., that the company was negotiating a possible sale of the building. The Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio and the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless have assisted and advised the tenant association since it was founded.

After receiving 3CDC’s relocation notice, the tenant association worked in conjunction with the Legal Aid Society and the Homeless Coalition to draft a complaint against 3CDC that petitions HUD to take several actions.

3CDC, however, counters that the complaint is riddled with misinformation. Further, the corporation believes the relocation actually will leave tenants with better homes and that the Homeless Coalition is intentionally stoking fear among tenants in an effort to generate controversy.

‘Clear the city of people who don’t fit in’

Stephen Leeper, 3CDC’s president and CEO, notes that HUD is shifting away from using project-based Section 8 housing — like the Metropole — in favor of vouchers that can be used at an apartment or house of the tenant’s choice. The Metropole’s long-term contract with HUD expired in 1991, and as a privately owned property Showe was allowed to dispose of the building whenever it wanted.

Showe sold the property to 3CDC last month for $6.25 million.

Under 3CDC’s plan, the Metropole will be converted into the 21c Museum Hotel, modeled after the similar hotel in Louisville’s West Main Street Historic District. It will be the first new hotel opened downtown since 1984.

Of the local project’s $48 million cost — which includes the Metropole’s purchase price and moving costs for tenants — about 95 percent will be paid using private sources, including Louisville’s 21c firm and 3CDC’s two equity funds.

Additionally, 3CDC will ask Cincinnati officials for a $2.5 million grant.

3CDC will own the building for about a year during the relocation process, then sell it to 21c by offering it low-interest financing available through 3CDC’s equity funds, which are funded by contributions from area corporations.

The hotel is slated to open in mid-2012.

Showe had been looking to unload the dilapidated building, which contains small, outdated efficiency apartments of only about 300 square feet each.

“We’ve been looking at this building probably for 18 months or so,” Leeper says. “I want to be clear: We approached them, they didn’t approach us. But when we did, we learned they were already thinking about (a sale).”

Housing advocates opposed the hotel project even before they learned any details, including how relocation would be handled, Leeper adds. In fact, the Homeless Coalition began distributing pamphlets to tenants to drum up support for its cause, he says, noting that tenants didn’t seek out the coalition.

Regardless, the fair housing complaint states that the planned conversion would unfairly limit housing options downtown. The complaint petitions HUD to thoroughly investigate the tenants’ housing discrimination claims.

“At this point, Metropole has 230 units of housing in the Central Business District of Cincinnati,” says attorney Rickell Howard of the Legal Aid Society. “Once those units are eliminated from the Central Business District, there will be little to no affordable housing in this area, and that’s why (tenants) feel like it’s discrimination. They have a right under the Fair Housing Act that keeps them from having the option to live in this neighborhood taken away from them.”

Josh Spring, a Homeless Coalition spokesman, says that the elimination of the Metropole will not only limit affordable housing downtown but also have an impact on the demographics of Cincinnati’s urban center.

“For 30 years the Central Business District has been classified as a racially diverse neighborhood, and that would likely change if the Metropole were closed,” Spring says. “We believe that this is an attempt to clear the city of people that 3CDC and maybe some of the businesses around the building believe don’t fit in.”

At least part of that criticism might be unfounded. 3CDC is negotiating to buy another property in the Central Business District. If successful, the building would be converted into about 70 units of supportive housing for elderly and disabled low-income people, Leeper says.

“It’s possible we could relocate some of (the Metropole tenants) and then move them back (downtown),” he says.

3CDC isn’t opposed to all project-based Section 8 housing, Leeper adds.

“We need to do more of these. There are great facilities out there,” he says, but the Metropole wasn’t one of them.

Of the Metropole’s 230 apartments, there already were 34 vacancies due to deteriorating conditions and crime. At any given time, the building had a roughly 60 percent turnover rate. For the past several years, the Metropole has been subject to a consent decree that required the owner to hire off-duty police officers to provide security.

The fair housing complaint also petitions HUD to prohibit all efforts by 3CDC to move the residents from their homes by pressuring them to relocate.

Besides the tenants, the project also will force the relocation of two businesses located in the Metropole: the Trattoria Roma restaurant on the ground floor and The Subway Lounge in the basement. Trattoria’s lease expires in November 2011, while The Subway has been renting month to month for some time.

3CDC is helping the eatery’s owner find a new home.

During the last few years, the same city block has seen new entertainment businesses and facilities open, including the Contemporary Arts Center, Bootsy’s and The Righteous Room, part of a burgeoning arts and entertainment district.

As of now, 3CDC is providing some monetary compensation to aid tenants’ relocation.

“If I have to leave, I don’t want to live in ‘the hood,’ ” McAfee says. “It’s not all about money, but they’re giving us $400 for moving expenses. That’s not enough. That’s a slap in my face. It’s like, at least give us enough to buy a bed and some furniture.”

The Metropole’s apartments, 3CDC counters, are cramped with little natural light and no central air conditioning. Tenants will be able to move to larger, better units with no increase in rent.

3CDC has hired a local firm, Brickstone Properties, to facilitate the relocation process. Brickstone staffers are taking Metropole tenants on tours of other properties and letting them choose where to move. Two popular destinations are a property near Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Avondale and a site off Red Bank Road near Madisonville.

Several tenants have moved in the past month.

“We literally drive people to other buildings,” Leeper says.

‘Overcompensating tenants in other ways’

The tenant complaint also petitions HUD to order 3CDC to cease and refrain from interfering with the rights of Metropole residents to meet and organize.

This last petition is in response to an incident that occurred Nov. 4 when two members of the Homeless Coalition were denied entrance to a meeting despite the Metropole Tenant Association’s request for them to attend.

Spring notes that the meeting was scheduled on short notice in what he alleges is a possible attempt on 3CDC’s behalf to prevent tenants from preparing questions and statements. The next morning, Spring and another coalition representative showed up at the Metropole and, upon entering the front door, were escorted out by a management member. A police officer was stationed outside to keep them from returning.

“That was a clear violation of federal law to keep tenants from organizing and bringing in housing advocates for legal advice,” Spring says.

Two separate meetings with tenants were held, on Nov. 4 and 5, Leeper says. At the first session, only tenants were allowed.

“We said there would be a time and place for people who wanted to have advocates, caregivers, family members or whatever,” he says. “We thought we could do that one-on-one.”

Because of the controversy, both the Legal Aid Society and the Homeless Coalition were allowed into the second session.

The two groups immediately struck a confrontational pose that hampered dialogue, according to 3CDC.

“It became a free-for-all,” Leeper says.

“The meeting never really happened.”

That attitude was best epitomized by one of the Legal Aid attorneys, John Schrider. He was quoted in Streetvibes, a newspaper produced by the Homeless Coalition, as telling tenants, “This is legal advice: Don’t move. If you move, you won’t get what you’re entitled to. If you give into the lies and false promises of the new owners, you’re going to get ripped off. What the owners of this building are trying to do is cleanse downtown of people like you. They want rich, white people.”

3CDC denies the allegations, adding tenants have a full year to find new housing, a rare benefit. Ensuring the tenants’ general well-being is the first step in the redevelopment process.

“The highest priority right now is that the current residents are given the time and assistance they need to find new and improved housing,” Leeper says. “We are working with Brickstone and the city to insure that the relocation plan addresses the concerns and meets the needs of the residents and ultimately results in improved, higher quality living conditions.

“They will not be at Sixth and Walnut, let’s not paint it any other way. So what we need to do is overcompensate (tenants) in other ways.”



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