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Redeveloping Issues

Anti-gentrification organization says OTR redevelopment is leaving low- and middle-income people out

By German Lopez · January 22nd, 2014 · News
news_gentrification_jf3Anti-gentrification activists joined hundreds in Cincinnati’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day march downtown. - Photo: Jesse Fox

Although Cincinnati continues receiving nationwide praise for the revitalization of southern Over-the-Rhine and downtown, some local activists say low- and middle-income residents are being left out of the progress. With the formation of a new group, these activists hope to prevent Cincinnati’s wealthy elite from absorbing all the gains of what some call gentrification.

To The People’s Coalition for Equality and Justice (TPCEJ), the concern is whether Cincinnati and other cities are simply witnessing a movement back to the urban core that will ultimately displace the poor, middle class and minorities and benefit the white and wealthy — essentially the reversal of suburban flight.

“If you look up and down the street, who are working at these new restaurants?” asks Trey Gruber, a member of TPCEJ. “Who do these places hire? Who are they owned by? And clear as day, you can see. You’re almost blinded by the whiteness of all these establishments.”

The coalition, which calls itself an evolution of the group that tried to save the Anna Louise Inn, is beginning to put together what it sees as a broader movement against gentrification, a development-driven demographic shift in cities marked by the rising predominance of wealthier residents and businesses.

TPCEJ says it is not against development. The group doesn’t oppose all of the ongoing work in Over-the-Rhine and downtown, but it does take issue with how little is being done to maintain and aid the population that used to predominate Over-the-Rhine and surrounding areas downtown.

“We’re not opposed to development,” Gruber says. “That’s not the opposition, obviously. We’re opposed to inclusive development that acts as a vehicle to further remove people from their homes.”

Largely citing the national “Right to the City” movement, the group touts a few ideas for what could be done to remedy the situation: more policies that create truly affordable housing, protections for renters’ rights across the city, new forms of rent control and the formation of tenants’ unions, which could take on various issues by organizing against landlords and would-be buyers of residential properties.

Although examples of direct displacement remain a concern for the group, its members point to what’s indirectly happening to residents in Over-the-Rhine: As many of the neighborhood’s vacant buildings are rehabilitated and turned into apartments, condos and restaurants that largely appeal to wealthier young professionals, the development is effectively pricing out the area’s former residents in terms of jobs and housing.

“The reality is that historically gentrification, its functions and its lifeblood are on removing the economically unwanted … not necessarily by any means of their own but because of their inability to relate to the labor market in a manner which is useful to them,” Gruber claims.

TPCEJ’s concerns currently focus on a low-income, working-class population. But they claim that the current trend could affect higher levels of income as well.

“This concept of a gentrified neighborhood won’t work, either.

It’s a temporary gap to figure out who can afford the most expensive housing,” says Steve Sunderland, TPCEJ member and University of Cincinnati professor of peace and education. “Once that’s figured out, that means the middle class has got to move out as well. It’s going to become another east-side New York kind of phenomenon.”

The other concern for TPCEJ is the direct displacement of residents from downtown and Over-the-Rhine. When asked for examples, the group readily points to high-profile cases like the Anna Louise Inn and Metropole building. 

At the Anna Louise Inn, financial giant Western & Southern successfully used legal attrition to get Cincinnati Union Bethel to agree to move low-income women out of the building that housed them since 1909. Once the former residents move to another facility, Western & Southern will be able to force its full development vision on the Lytle Park neighborhood. 

In the case of the Metropole, 3CDC (Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation) displaced hundreds of subsidized rental housing tenants downtown to build a boutique hotel — a move that eventually landed 3CDC in court before the agency agreed to an $80,000 settlement with former tenants.

Most of TPCEJ’s messaging takes aim at 3CDC, the private-public agency involved in much of the development in Over-the-Rhine and downtown. Members of TPCEJ make no attempt to mask their contempt for 3CDC — Gruber proudly wore a button reading, “fuck 3CDC,” to TPCEJ’s meeting with CityBeat — and the agency’s involvement in southern Over-the-Rhine.

Anastasia Mileham, spokesperson for 3CDC, claims critics overlook the context that drove 3CDC’s early mission, such as southern Over-the-Rhine’s higher levels of crime and poverty prior to the neighborhood’s revitalization. 

“I think people tend to over-romanticize what this neighborhood was,” Mileham says. “We started doing what development groups around the country do to bring back distressed neighborhoods affecting the rest of the city.” 

In 3CDC’s view, that meant creating new living and commercial spaces that increased the neighborhood’s market rates, brought in residents and businesses and drove out “criminal elements.”

And when 3CDC attempted to find more avenues for affordable housing, Mileham claims the agency struggled to convince state officials that southern Over-the-Rhine, an area already saturated with affordable housing, actually needed more.

“When the state looks at this neighborhood and they see the over-saturation of the low-income tax credits, and then they see the number of vacant buildings, they ask, ‘Well, why do we need to put more into this neighborhood?’” Mileham says. “It took many, many years to convince them to invest in another affordable housing project in Over-the-Rhine.” 

Given the constraints, Mileham argues 3CDC accomplished what it could. For examples, she points to the agency’s partnership with Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, which helped renovate the Jimmy Heath House, and 30 under-construction affordable housing units in the Mercer Commons development on Vine Street between 13th and 14th streets.

But Josh Spring, TPCEJ member and executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, takes issue with 3CDC’s definition of affordable.

In Spring’s view, the Mercer units will be affordable to someone who makes $25,000 or more a year. That, he says, is a far cry from the low-income residents of the Jimmy Heath House and other units operated by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, where the average tenant makes $10,000 or less a year. (Cincinnati’s median household income was $33,708 between 2008 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

“It is affordable to an extent,” Spring argues.

Outside of 3CDC and TPCEJ, some Over-the-Rhine residents provide more mixed takes than either group.

Jenny Kessler, an Over-the-Rhine resident and treasurer of Cincinnatians for Progress, says TPCEJ’s claims of displacement are exaggerated. She emphasizes that much of 3CDC’s work involves rehabilitated buildings that were already vacant.

But Kessler concedes some of the latest development is unaffordable to most.

“Being a middle-income resident, I can’t afford some of the rents on these new places that are popping up,” she says. “I got lucky that I got in early.”

Kessler also says more could be done to protect historic properties and encourage proper building management. Some of TPCEJ’s suggestions, such as protecting renters’ rights, could help in that respect, she acknowledges.

Regardless of what 3CDC and its supporters say, TPCEJ claims support for its group is growing following the failed battle to save the Anna Louise Inn. With its first public meeting scheduled this week, the group hopes to tap into solutions to prevent concerns from boiling over.

“There’s a ticking bomb in the city,” Sunderland says. “The urban pot is being stirred right now in a way that’s openly confrontational.”

He adds, “I’m a peace person. So what can we do to prevent violence and mayhem and unhappiness? One of the things we can do is inclusion.” ©

The People’s Coalition for Equality and Justice will hold a public meeting 6 p.m. Jan. 24 at Buddy’s Place, 1300 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine.



01.22.2014 at 12:46 Reply

Until anti gentrification groups can prove  statistically significant displacement in these neighbirhoods, I don't buy it. Yes, some have been displaced but some have also gained from gentrification as well. I do have concern about the rent on some of the new apartments, it is critical that OTR has a diverse mix of socioeconomic citizens. But in order for that to happen there is going to be an influx of wealthier residents, that's something these groups are going to have to get used to. 


On a final not the median income for the city of Cincinnati is well below the national average. To bring this number up, either more wealthy people are going to have to move to the city or the lower income class is going to have to move up in socierty, something that cannot be done in a blighted neighborhood. So at the end of the day everyone stands to gain from this gentrification. 


01.22.2014 at 04:02

(Cross posted from facebook) I'm just going to put things this way regarding this debate, its either the neighborhoods get gentrified or torn down. There are so many neighborhoods in Cincy that are on the verge of being completely obliterated from neglect that something has to be done to save them otherwise they will be gone forever. Will there be some displacement, unfortunately yes, but in the long run it will be better for all. Also keep in mind that OTR is nearly entirely empty - 50,000 people inhabited it in 1900, by 2005ish there were only like 3,000 people left in total! Most of those buildings were just completely abandoned rotting away shells.


At the very least if they are gentrified the development patterns will be less spread out and at least allow for more opportunities for poor people who cannot afford cars/lots of gas miles to find jobs. If these neighborhoods are destroyed then it will be harder to get jobs in a region that is severely undeserved by transit.


Finally this is not San Francisco we are talking about, this is a dying city full of empty neighborhoods, there is no shortage of oversupply of housing that is on the verge of being lost. When Cincy gets to that point we can have this debate - which btw it took San Fran a high growth region 30 years to get to - I'm sure it would take even longer for Cincy to get to that level given its level of growth and not being in a warmish weather climate.



Finally a point too many Cincinnatians ignore, the neighborhoods that are falling down are some of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the whole country. These neighborhoods could be a showpiece for a thriving heritage tourism industry, one that would involve many low wage jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities which would also improve the economic lot of the people whom this article is talking about.


One more thing I hope to heck Cranley can stand up to this if it represents an ugly return to the politics that held Cincinnati back in the 70s 80s and 90s, sadly he also represents the leadership of said era - I don't have much confidence.  National trends may help improve things however.


01.22.2014 at 03:01 Reply

A good article, and timely subject.  In fact so timely that NPR just had a piece relevant today 


This companion piece describes a recent study that suggests that "gentrification" may actually improve living conditions for long time residents (if done well).

As a recent "wealthy" (by any usual definition) transplant to OTR, I would say emphatically that I wish to live in an inclusive and diverse community.  If I did not, I would have stayed in the overwhelmingly white, wealthy neighborhood from which I came.

So, the real question for all of us in, and coming to, OTR and the urban core is how do we maintain and encourage diversity, inclusion and community for everyone?  I look forward to concrete suggestions from this group, as well as long standing leaders such as OTRCH to help us create a richly diverse neighborhood.


01.22.2014 at 04:18 Reply

I've been saying for years that if you want affordable housing in OTR, NOW is the time to build it.  There is still plenty of rotting, empty housing stock available for cheap or for FREE to anyone who wants it.  Freestore/Foodbank wants to demolish two large apartment buildings on Walnut and Liberty for a parking lot.  Why not turn them into affordable housing instead?  Opportunities abound for any organized group who wants to actually DO something besides complain.


01.22.2014 at 07:45

Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH) is doing that exact thing and doing it well. They've been around for a long time in OTR.  The issue is that there is very little funding going toward affordable housing, including OTRCH, while lots of city funding given to 3CDC and similar establishments is going toward development intended for higher income people. I I think there's a place for organizations like OTRCH, but there's also a place for organizations like TPCEJ that work to make it easier for organizations like OTRCH to do what they do by advocating better policies that support their constituents.


01.24.2014 at 04:21 Reply

Real accurate reporting showing a completely unrelated march photo in association with this article... 

There need to be actual statistics showing that displacement is happening at all. The number of vacant/ problem properties was staggering. 3CDC could redevelop OTR for another 20 years and not run out of vacant buildings to rehab. The only properties that have involved displacement were problems. Drugs, crime, unsafe conditions, etc. Also those that were displaced were displaced within the neighborhood. 

The majority of units in the neighborhood are still affordable.



01.26.2014 at 03:45 Reply

“If you look up and down the street, who are working at these new restaurants?"  Since the majority of staff at my restaurant on vine live within 2 miles of the restaurant itself adn have people like me working there (a 6 year resident of Over-The-Rhine) I would say a vast part of the talent pool does come from the neighborhood.  The same is true of many places on vine and main.  To characterize a staff based on appearance & perception in this manner is pretty much idiotic.  Until you have a grasp of how the service industry works and the dedicated people who pour their hearts adn souls into the business you should probably refrain from such uninformed comments.