More than 60 people crammed into a small conference room at Xavier University the evening of May 27 to witness a presentation by Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority on its five-year strategic plan, but many weren’t there to hear CMHA Director Gregory Johnson discuss mission statements and rebranding.
Current residents of various public housing projects across the city had seen a news story explaining how CMHA was considering elimination of 1,400 units of public housing, and some showed up equipped with signs imploring CMHA to save it.
Although a separate annual plan released earlier laid out the possible future demolition or sale of one-fifth of CMHA’s 5,200 units, Johnson’s presentation didn’t mention any potential demolitions. Among the proposed tear-downs were 200 of Winton Terrace and Findlater Gardens’ 1,200 units in Winton Hills and all of the 477 units at Stanley Rowe Towers and nearby rowhouses in the West End.
As one might expect, the news alarmed folks living in those developments.
“It’s B.S.,” said Nikki Steele, who serves as vice president of the Winton Terrace Resident Council. In a conversation after the meeting, Steele said she had knowledge of only one previous CMHA meeting about its plans, though the agency says it has held 35 throughout the city.
Some at the meeting thought CMHA was planning to bulldoze the entirety of the Winton Hills sites. And there were a lot of questions about the Rowe developments in West End. Where would people go?
CMHA officials say the controversial annual plan is just a list of possibilities and that it is adjusting to feedback.
The tension between the crowd and CMHA officials that night illustrates the tough position public housing faces. Even as Congress cuts funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds CMHA, the costs to maintain its many housing projects nationwide continue to rise. Meanwhile, demand for affordable housing increases.
More than $26 billion in repairs are needed on HUD-affiliated housing across the country.
CMHA alone spends more than $11 million a year on building maintenance.
As the aging buildings crumble, more people need them. Data from the Urban Institute shows that for every 37 available units of affordable housing, there are 100 tenants in need in Hamilton County.
And the gap is getting wider.
In this landscape, CMHA says it has to find ways to modernize and make its services sustainable. Sometimes that means selling or demolishing buildings and expanding voucher programs like Section 8.
But that idea doesn’t always sit well with residents.
“I defend Winton Terrace,” said Steele, who has lived there for four years. “It’s a community.” She said despite what people think about public housing projects and Winton Terrace’s rough reputation, many residents value their home there.
Steele fears those whose units were eliminated will have to navigate CMHA’s voucher program, which “isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” she says. She noted it can be hard to find landlords willing to accept Section 8 vouchers or who won’t discriminate when they see a rental application with tenants’ 45232 area code, where the Winton Hills developments are located.
Though he answered few questions during the presentation, Johnson circulated after the meeting ended, talking to residents, giving out his contact information and trying to clear up misconceptions.
Elizabeth Brown is a long-time affordable housing advocate who works as executive director for Cincinnati’s Housing Opportunities Made Equal. She says she understands why residents were alarmed by CMHA’s annual plan.
“It was not a normal amount,” she says of the number of units highlighted for possible elimination in the annual plan. “I think that’s why people reacted the way they did. But I think everyone knows the funding is being squeezed and some things have to give. It just has to be a thoughtful decision.”
Nationally, HUD is looking for ways to reduce its stock of large public housing complexes and transition to more voucher-based affordable housing. It’s a controversial move, in part due to concerns like those Steele raises about the difficulty of finding landlords who will take vouchers.
But HUD says the shift is needed so it can stay sustainable and avoid concentrating low-income tenants in a few poor neighborhoods.
Johnson says the plan for the Stanley Rowe units was to demolish them and rebuild using a new HUD program called Rental Assistance Demonstration. RAD would allow the agency to transition from owning units to subsidizing rent on new affordable housing built with private funding in the same location.
He says CMHA has now decided it will not apply to that program due to public feedback and that the Rowe units will stay put for now.
“I think people thought it is getting ready to happen now,” Johnson says of the demolition of Rowe, which wasn’t slated until 2024. “I don’t want people to be thinking we’re going to tear their house down. But we have to think in some other ways about how to provide quality housing.”
Standing in the conference room as residents and advocates slowly filed out, Johnson insisted that those affected by changes won’t be left out in the cold.
But many concerns are still hanging in the air about the future of public housing in Cincinnati.
This fiscal year, about 89 units are slated to be torn down or sold, including 52 in the Millvale development in South Cumminsville.
Johnson says any tenants who lose their place due to demolition or sale will be put in another unit, with all efforts made to keep them in the same community if possible.
“Anything we do, we can’t just say ‘you gotta get out,’ ” he said. “We have to make sure you have a quality place to stay.” ©