It’s a quiet, muggy Saturday afternoon in Avondale on Alaska Avenue. There’s a woman coaxing her pet boxer inside from the front yard of her apartment building. A group of friends meander down the sidewalk. Someone’s tending to a garden outside. Just what you’d expect to see on a summer afternoon in a residential neighborhood, save one thing: a grassy, overgrown eyesore of land at 3584 Alaska Ave.
It was once the site of Alaska Acres Care Center, a shuttered nursing home condemned by the city in August 2012. Now, it’s the impending location of Commons at Alaska, a 99-unit permanent supportive housing complex set to provide housing to 79 chronically homeless individuals and 20 disabled, low-income individuals.
By all indications, that sounds positive — Cincinnati does suffer from a debilitating homeless problem, and the city’s 2008 Homeless to Homes plan specifically cited a need for more permanent supportive housing facilities as means to facilitate the homeless population’s ability to live independently. The plan explicitly named National Church Residences (NCR), a Columbus, Ohio-based, nationally respected nonprofit developer and manager of affordable housing service, as the operator the city had charged to bring a permanent supportive housing facility to Cincinnati.
On Feb. 13, Cincinnati City Council passed a resolution 7-2 in favor of the development, and in June the project received more than $1 million in tax credit financing from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, paving way for construction to begin in late summer or fall of 2014.
But several Avondale residents are saying they feel duped by their own neighbors, board members of the Avondale Community Council, who offered support for the development two to three years ago, a decision residents are arguing was made without transparency or consideration for the community.
Several Alaska Avenue residents and other Avondale stakeholders have retorted by forming Avondale 29, a community group trying to convince NCR and the Avondale Community Council to put the facility elsewhere. They worry the facility will have a negative impact on an already-struggling community too saturated with low-income housing and poverty-stricken residents; building the complex, they say, is a way of “adding insult to injury” and actively hindering the community’s conscientious revitalization efforts in a neighborhood long riddled with poverty, crime, obesity, unemployment and homelessness.
A 2009 Cincinnati Business Courier article quoted Avondale Community Council President Patricia Milton commenting that Avondale already “has an overabundance of low-income rental housing” and is striving to increase home ownership. (Home ownership in Avondale is notoriously low; according to Cincinnati’s 2010 census, homeowners only comprise about 24 percent of Avondale housing tenure.)
However, in Milton’s Jan. 22 letter of support for Commons at Alaska to NCR, she stated, “The Commons at Alaska community, under the direction of National Church Residences, will fill a pressing and urgent community need, and is well deserving of the funding it seeks…. We support their proposal for quality housing that will provide stable living quarters for individuals that are presently homeless or at a risk.”
CityBeat’s multiple attempts to contact Milton for comment were unsuccessful. NCR’s application to OHFA says the NCR team attended multiple Avondale Community Council board and general body meetings to discuss the project, all of which were open to the public. Linda Lee Thomas, president of Avondale 29, claims that’s false; she says the Avondale Community Council, Cincinnati City Council and NCR have all recklessly neglected responsibilities to make sincere community outreach efforts, both moral and those required by the OFHA.
She claims the Avondale Community Council has dodged Avondale 29’s multiple requests for an explanation of how the project will benefit the community as a whole.
“The project sort of exposed a disconnect between the Avondale Community Council leadership and some of the people in the neighborhood,” says Kevin Finn, executive director at Strategies to End Homelessness, which was charged with developing the Homeless to Homes Plan. “National Church Residences, I believe, honestly thought they had all the neighbors informed through the community leadership, and that turned out not to be the case.”
Karen Twinem, vice president of communications and marketing for NCR, says Avondale 29’s opposition is a result of the spread of misinformation about the nature of the project. She says that candidates for NCR permanent supportive housing undergo a thorough application process including criminal background checks, credit checks and a behavioral health assessment with a mental health professional; applicants with records of sex offenses, arson or manufacturing or distributing drugs are automatically disqualified from residency. Other offenses, Twinem says, are examined on a case-by-case basis. “We rule out anyone we think will harm people or property. The people who we let into that facility … have to have the capability to benefit from the program.”
NCR’s supportive housing facilities also provide comprehensive on-site support services inside the residential buildings, including case management and care coordination, work readiness and life skills training, crisis intervention and financial management; facilities also have 24-hour staffed front desks, computer resource centers and interior and exterior security cameras, according to an NCR brochure. New residents also receive a “starter kit” with living essentials upon move-in.
NCR’s permanent supportive housing facility Commons at Livingston in Columbus, Ohio, has, if anything, made a positive impact on the residential community surrounding it, according to Columbus Police Department’s Gary Scott, community liaison officer for the precinct in which the development is located.
Scott meets monthly with the residents at Livingston, opened in 2011, and works to engage them in the surrounding community with projects like neighborhood cleanups and block watches, which he says are helping actually connect the Commons at Livingston residents with the rest of the community. He says since the facility opened in 2011, he hasn’t noticed any increase in crime in the area surrounding nor has he received complaints from neighbors about the facility.
Lee Zellars, a member of Avondale 29, created a short documentary titled, “Why Avondale?” In it, fellow member Lucy Zellars says the opposition group has been vilified simply for expressing concern about the community they’ve watched evolve out of blight. “It was basically as if we were told, ‘This is what it is, and to heck with you, basically, if you don’t like it.’... Every time someone in the group stands up for our beliefs ... we are immediately, oftentimes, just shut down. And yea, I really have a problem with that.” ©