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Stranger Than Fiction

Locally filmed reality show Rowhouse Showdown is a hot mess. But will it help Price Hill?

By Jac Kern and Nick Swartsell · September 3rd, 2014 · Cover Story
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"Oh my god, this place smells like cat pee.”

That’s “designer” Krystal’s reaction to the property she and her house-flipping boyfriend Ted were assigned to renovate on the premiere episode of FYI’s Cincinnati-filmed Rowhouse Showdown.

“It’s so awful, honey,” Krystal says, taking in the destruction inside the 1873-built East Price Hill home.

The camera zooms in on a door in the living room emblazoned with the words “smells bad” in squiggly, green spray-painted letters. In another room, someone spray painted a colorful body outline on the carpet — complete with Xs for eyes — as if the building were a crime scene depiction created by the world’s worst street artist.

Ted and Krystal continue to tour their new digs as the scene flashes to a stained mattress, ripped up carpet, collapsing stairway banisters and more odd graffiti. The camera catches glimpses of the duo through holes in interior walls as they explore the space.

“What is this?” Krystal asks, examining an area by the living room’s bay windows.

“A dead cat,” Ted replies.

“Ew!” Krystal shrieks, backing away. “No, no, no, no, no!”

The brainchild of A&E’s new FYI network, Rowhouse Showdown filmed in Cincinnati between March and May, flying in three teams of two to renovate three East Price Hill homes, room by room, in a competition-style reality show.

But, as with many representations of reality via reality TV, things aren’t exactly how they seem in FYI’s version of East Price Hill.

In fact, the house at the center of this grotesque spectacle was purchased for a considerable sum — $132,000 — in 2006 and housed tenants just six months ago. The living room back then was not accented with spray paint, the kitchen fully intact with cabinets and major appliances. As for the cat that lived there with a couple of young renters?

Still alive today.

Twenty-two-year-old Catie Viox lived with her boyfriend Danny Meeks in this home at 783 Summit Ave., from 2011-2014. Although they were frustrated by having to abruptly move so TV crews could do their thing, Viox and Meeks today are more annoyed with how their recent former residence was portrayed to a national audience.

“They just made us look really gross,” Viox says. “It’s so rude. That was my home for three years.”

The novice graffiti and alleged cat carcass weren’t the only questionable representations of reality viewers have seen since the show debuted on July 9. By the time the season finale comes around Sept. 10, Rowhouse Showdown will have featured what appears to be plenty more staged property damage, a mysterious design duo disappearing from the show and the renovation of two additional houses owned by a developer whose various properties have been cited dozens of times for having lead paint, rodents and sewage problems.

Obviously, one reality TV show can’t actually ramp up the reversal of the myriad challenges facing Price Hill — the neighborhood has seen a big increase in poverty in recent years, a problem exacerbated by the housing crisis. But Rowhouse Showdown touts itself as a testament to the potential of rundown, historical neighborhoods and the power of old-fashioned elbow grease. 

Which begs the question: Could all the resources poured into the Rowhouse properties really help Price Hill’s residents as a whole?

“You guys know that a great bathroom can drastically improve the price of a home,” host Carter Oosterhouse tells the teams while directing them to renovate their homes’ master bathrooms.

Cincinnati’s stunning skyline unfolds behind him. 

“And one great house can raise the value of every home in the neighborhood.”

The camera cuts to shots of vacant lots full of brown grass, a chain-link fence in front of an out-of-focus building and other go-to depictions of “the bad part of town.”

Maybe isolated renovations can add value to the surrounding area. But as Cincinnatians have seen during the decade-plus of revitalization efforts in Over-the-Rhine, bringing a long-neglected historical neighborhood back to life is more complicated than it may seem on TV. 

FANTASY VS. REALITY

Viox, a recent graduate of the Art Academy of Cincinnati, first saw her trashed former home in an online preview of Rowhouse Showdown in July. She had actually been the liaison between a nonprofit development company called Price Hill Will, which helped lure FYI to the neighborhood, and her landlords, Michael and Elisha Herrmann. (Full disclosure: Viox is a former CityBeat intern who still takes on freelance photo assignments.)

But when Viox in February connected Price Hill Will with her landlords, she had no idea that having her place chosen for renovation would mean she’d end up booted out of the house she and her boyfriend had once hoped to purchase.  

“It was a bit outdated but it was remodeled,” Viox says of her former place on Summit Avenue. “I loved living there. We were planning on signing a rent-to-own contract in May so we could keep living there and redo it ourselves, but we didn’t get that chance.”

After initially considering speaking with CityBeat for this story, Michael and Elisha Herrmann did not return multiple follow-up voicemails asking to set up an interview.

Viox says she met with her landlord, Elisha, once the Herrmanns knew their house was seriously being considered for the show. If the TV show got the green light, the Herrmanns told Viox, the house would have to be empty in less than a month for production to begin, she says. Which is how Viox says she ended up with only 12 days to vacate the property once everything was settled.  

The Herrmanns asked Viox to terminate her lease early, she says, and a document she provided CityBeat — signed by Viox, Meeks and Michael Herrmann on March 4 — states that Viox’s rent for the month of March would be waived and the property needed to be vacant by March 16. The original deposit was to be returned and the Herrmanns agreed to pay for a storage unit for 90 days (they failed to follow through with the storage unit, Viox says). When Viox asked if there was another option, she says the Herrmanns threatened to evict her and Meeks.

“I was like, ‘I’m not going to deal with all this — I’ll just agree,’ ” Viox says.

After moving to Prospect Hill in March, Viox and Meeks thought they had moved on from the situation — until they caught a glimpse of their old digs on the show.

On TV, nearly every wall in their former home had a hole in it or spray paint across it — random phrases like “watch yo step,” “free lovin,” “frosty” and “k thx bye” covered the walls in bright colors. Cabinets and doors had been torn down since they left, flooring and carpet ripped up.

Viox admittedly did not complete the perfect move-out — she says she didn’t have time to clean the carpets or remove all her items or trash. In the rush to finish school and move out by her deadline, she left behind a cushion-less couch, a desk and some art supplies. But the space she saw on the show was nothing like she left it. And she says the Herrmanns returned her entire security deposit, meaning between the time she moved out and designers came in, someone did some real bad stuff to that house.

“All of the spray paint was added after we moved,” Viox says. “I noticed holes in the wall that were never there when we moved. It looked like the cabinets had been beaten up. There was a mattress we never even owned — general disgustingness.”

Coincidentally, Viox’s reaction to the TV version of her former place matched those of the design teams being introduced to their pre-renovated spaces.

“Oh dear,” says Ted after first opening the front door to Viox’s former home. Krystal frequently screams after entering various rooms for the first time. 

During the premiere episode, designer Josh inspects another row house renovated on the show, this one at 775 Summit Ave.

“This is nasty,” Josh says. “This is like a crack house.”

He continues: “This house needs more than a few coats of paint — this house needs to be torn down!”

Perhaps the story of a renovated home — or neighborhood — is more affecting if it begins at rock bottom. One wouldn’t blame American TV audiences for being less than intrigued by the idea of revamping a completely livable, if outdated, rowhouse surrounded by dozens of properties much more in need.

“Some of these places look like they’ve been boarded up for a long time,” Josh says as he and partner Geoff drive through Price Hill on their way to meet the other teams and Oosterhouse to kick off the Showdown.

The renovation competition is overseen by the veteran Oosterhouse, a master carpenter whose resume includes Trading Spaces and various HGTV shows. Rowhouse Showdown’s premise involves assigning one house each to three pairs of designers. Every week, the teams are given a budget, carpenter and a deadline to completely revamp a particular room in their house and then face a judges’ panel. On the season finale Sept. 10, the three rehabbed homes — 783 Summit Ave., 775 Summit Ave. and 741 Hawthorne Ave. — will be evaluated, and the design duo that “increases the appeal of their home to the max” will win $50,000 and a spread on interior design site dwell.com.

Part of the debut lineup from FYI, A&E’s new network that replaced the Bio channel, Rowhouse Showdown joins other original programming like Married at First Sight (which, just like it sounds, sets couples up blind-date style for a walk down the aisle) and Red Hot Design (centered on a “hot” redhead who repurposes vintage scraps with her team of “grease monkeys” to create industrial home goods).

The midseason conflict on Rowhouse Showdown proved to be as dramatic as one might expect from such predictable entertainment — designers Ted and Krystal were kicked out of the competition for taking a day off, leaving written instructions for their contractors and, thus, producing a poor-quality kitchen.

Cast off the show during a judges’ panel, the duo was replaced by a pair of designers seemingly waiting in the wings.

Ted and Krystal weren’t the only source of drama, of course. Take, for instance, Josh — a man clearly set on becoming a TV personality, frequently stirring up drama with the other teams and making cocky declarations of his talent. And in a preview for the Sept. 3 episode, it appears one or more of the teams might have gone over budget — which may or may not result in disqualification. Quel scandale!

Most people realize that reality TV at times can be anything but — events are regularly staged, conversations added voice-over style, scenes edited to create continuity, drama and interest. Storylines follow familiar dramatic arcs, and only the most gullible expect to find out which contestant is going to burst into tears before the next commercial break.

And while tears, screaming and flippant remarks may all be part of the entertainment factor, the topic of revitalization is no joke for the Price Hill residents who weren’t lucky enough to have television producers swing into town and swiftly increase the value of their homes before viewers’ eyes.

CityBeat asked to speak with Rowhouse Showdown about the show’s vetting and staging processes and how Cincinnati and Price Hill were selected. A representative for A&E said she would set up an interview with a show producer but three days later said no one would be available prior to the deadline for this story due to vacations. 

THE TRIALS OF DEVELOPER JOSEPH TEPE

In addition to giving the design contestants the chance to strut their stuff, Rowhouse Showdown has an altruistic motive: helping Price Hill get back on its feet.

Host Oosterhouse deems Price Hill “a Cincinnati neighborhood just waiting to be reimagined” in the show’s intro, just before the camera cuts to designer Josh calling the house he’s renovating “the biggest crap hole we’ve ever stepped foot in.”

But no matter what level of crap-hole a house is, revitalizing a distressed neighborhood is a bit more complicated than renovating a bathroom.

Price Hill has seen its share of challenges with poverty in the past two decades. Those problems were accelerated by the 2006 foreclosure crisis that saw banks repossessing a huge swath of houses in the neighborhood, sitting on them for months or years without doing maintenance and then selling them in bulk for four-figure discount prices to real estate developers — often out-of-towners who further neglected the properties.

One of the local folks buying up lots of property in Price Hill during the foreclosure crisis was Joseph Tepe, the owner of the two homes renovated on Rowhouse Showdown that did not contain amateur graffiti and dead cats. Tepe, an Elder High School grad who got started in real estate after a career in the Marines, says he’s owned “hundreds” of properties in Price Hill over the past 20 years. Between 2007 and 2009, Tepe bought 54 properties in the area through his real estate business, Infinity Ventures LLC, according to statements he made in a 2009 Cincinnati Enquirer article.

Joseph Tepe discusses development in Price Hill in a kitchen recently renovated by designers on Rowhouse Showdown.

He’s also relatively unenthusiastic about Section 8 tenants, and his thoughts on welfare demonstrate a markedly Reaganesque bent.

“I’m not saying there’s bad people up here renting, but you need a new influx of capital and new faces,” he says. “As good people in society, we have to take care of the poor, but we don’t have to give away the farm. I think if you keep giving and giving, they’ll keep taking and taking.”

Records from a 2011 Green Township Public Forum have him commenting on his Section 8 renters in the neighborhood, saying they “have bad habits” and that “crime seems to follow in their path.”

Tepe has renovated a number of properties in recent years but has also run into some rough spots as a developer and landlord. City records reveal he’s had property code violations on 26 of his properties in East Price Hill since 2009, including violations at seven of his properties since the beginning of 2014. These range from fairly benign warnings reissued by the city when Tepe bought the properties about crumbling steps and litter to more serious ongoing citations for the presence of lead, mold, sewage leaks, rodents and roaches.

One series of complaints for a house on Ross Avenue lists a leaking roof, kitchen cabinets falling apart and the house’s front door nailed shut, restricting access to only the back door, all in 2014. The complaints against Infinity at the property go back to 2008, when two different complaints a week apart state in bold letters, “CITIZEN HAS NO HEAT OR WATER.” That house tested positive for lead, an April citation shows, as have a few other Infinity Ventures houses.

CityBeat asked Tepe about the violations during a recent visit to the properties featured on Rowhouse. Standing in the kitchen at 741 Hawthorne Ave. — freshly refurbished by the TV show — Tepe was upfront about the citations but waved them off as challenges inherent in owning and rehabilitating properties in Price Hill.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Tepe says of his efforts to develop in the neighborhood. He says he’s had to renovate houses two or three times because people break in and vandalize them or strip the plumbing for scrap metal.

Tepe also blames the city, calling his citations “a witchhunt” and saying the city has gotten in the way as much as it’s helped.

“They’re saying, ‘We want you here, we want you to renovate,’ and then, boom, every day you turn around you have a new fine,” he says. “The litter patrol, the Board of Health. It’s a lose-lose.”

Tepe has occasionally fallen prey to the very economic forces that allowed him to buy up so many properties during the foreclosure crisis. And he says buying foreclosures from the banks was probably not a good choice.

“Oh yeah, I was affected by that,” he says of the crisis. “I’ve lost millions because of it.”

Depending on how you look at it, Rowhouse may or may not have done a whole lot for the show’s property owners. 

The show will have poured $100,000 into each of the houses by the time it is over. Michael Herrmann bought his house at 783 Summit Ave. for $132,000 in 2006 and recently sold it for $135,000 — just a $3,000 profit. But the Herrmanns bought the house right before the real estate crisis plunged home values in Price Hill, and the renovations may very well have been the deciding factor in the couple getting their money back.

Meanwhile, Tepe’s houses are still on the market, but he says he’s had a lot of interest in the properties. The one at 775 Summit Ave. is pending sale for $140,000.

Tepe's recently renovated home at 741 Hawthorne Ave. is currently listed for $140,000, while several houses on the street sit in various states of disrepair.

East Price Hill and surrounding neighborhoods, including Lower Price Hill, West Price Hill and North Fairmont have experienced drastic changes in the past few decades. Poverty in the area has risen more than other parts of Cincinnati, and so has the crime rate, at least in part thanks to the increase in empty buildings. The percentage of vacant houses in Price Hill rose from 7 percent in 1980 to 20 percent in 2010, according to Census data, while home ownership dropped 7 percent in that same amount of time. 

Much of the shift in Price Hill has to do with a shift in the availability of affordable housing in the city. The elimination of public housing projects in the West End and elsewhere shifted thousands of low-income residents to Section 8 programs. Many of these tenants were subsequently attracted to Price Hill by its relative affordability and a recent increase in the number of Section 8 vouchers available in the neighborhood. These forces, along with the ongoing redevelopment of once low-income areas like Over-the-Rhine, combined to change Price Hill’s socioeconomic makeup considerably. 

That shift has caused controversy in the area, especially among developers and property owners who say low-income renters lower their property values. 

In 2010, former Chairman of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority Arnold Barnett resigned during an investigation into charges that he tried to keep more affordable housing vouchers out of Green Township, where he lived. And last year, protesters picketed the homes of two members of the Green Township Board of Trustees after they approved a 32-unit affordable housing development in the area. 

A LONG ROAD AHEAD FOR "THE NEXT OTR"

Low-income residents alone don’t necessarily mean blight, but the socioeconomic shift set up Price Hill to take a huge hit during the nation’s Great Recession and real estate crisis beginning in 2006. Price Hill had more than its fair share of homeowners and landlords in over their heads on mortgages.

Studies by nonprofit Working in Neighborhoods show that East and West Price Hill sustained a huge number of foreclosures by major banks from 2006 to 2012. Combined, the neighborhoods had more than 1,500 foreclosures during that time period, second only to neighboring Westwood in the city.

When Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan Chase, U.S. Bank and other huge financial institutions repossessed those properties in Price Hill, they often sat on them for months or years, letting them crumble before selling them quick and cheap to real estate investors, either out-of-town speculators or local folks like Tepe.

“Because property values declined, people who maybe weren’t able to afford a more expensive house moved into some of the properties,” says Pamela Taylor of Price Hill Will, which does nonprofit rehabilitation of blighted houses in the neighborhood in order to sell them at market rate. 

“So when the foreclosure crisis hit, obviously we were in a vulnerable area — as was much of the city of Cincinnati. Price Hill was particularly hit hard.”

Tepe himself has been involved in foreclosure proceedings with Deutsche Bank, U.S. Bank, JP Morgan Chase and other big financial institutions on at least three of his properties in 2013, Hamilton County Clerk of Courts records show.

Tepe says he short-sold the properties before the foreclosure proceedings finished, noting that it’s hard for him as a developer to compete with other short-sale houses in the neighborhood going for a few thousand bucks.

“Because the market was taking a dip, I had no other choice,” he says. “I was stuck. I just took my losses, took my lumps and I’m still here. It’s real difficult.”

Taylor is excited about the attention Rowhouse Showdown will bring, which is why Price Hill Will lobbied hard to lure it to the neighborhood.

“The more private investment we have, the better the neighborhood will be in the long run,” Taylor says, “whether that means a person who wants to fix up a home, or whether that means Price Hill Will fixing up some homes, or whether it means something like Rowhouse Showdown coming and they fix up these homes and they invest approximately $300,000 into the neighborhood over the course of the show. That’s obviously the kind of investment we need because not everybody’s going to be able to afford to buy a new home or fix up the home they’re currently living in.”

Tepe is bullish on the effect the show will have as well. Driving from the house on Hawthorne to his other property appearing on Rowhouse at 775 Summit Ave., a leafy dead-end street with stately brick houses in various stages of renovation or disrepair, he anticipates an Over-the-Rhine-style resurgence and the new, wealthier residents it could bring to this part of town.

“I think by bringing back some of these old houses in the area, it’ll help the neighborhood,” he says. “By bringing these houses back, you’ll bring back the new yuppies.”

But besides “the new yuppies,” who else will gain from the transformation developers hope to start in Price Hill?

“I think the question of who benefits is a huge central question in any kind of urban development,” says Professor Thomas A. Dutton, director of the Miami University Center for Community Engagement, which is located in Over-the-Rhine. “Almost everyone agrees what’s become a mantra now — that neighborhoods should be mixed income. But then the question becomes, where or how do you secure the tenure of people who are on low and moderate incomes?”

Dutton makes a distinction between gentrification, or the displacement of low-income people due to development, and upscale development itself. He says development aimed at market-rate housing and upscale customers isn’t bad by itself, necessarily, but solely focusing on those in middle- and high-income brackets won’t solve problems facing low-income neighborhoods like Price Hill.

“There’s an assumption that if you do market rate development, then everybody will benefit. And I don’t think that’s the case,” he says. “If all the new investment is for a higher-income crowd that’s coming in, if all the new establishments and new housing is for that class, that doesn’t mean it will trickle down to those of lower incomes. I doubt it. You’ll have people pushed out.”

There has been controversy over issues of gentrification in Over-the-Rhine, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to rehabilitate historic buildings, revitalize Washington Park and open upscale restaurants, shops and other amenities. 

Nevertheless, Over-the-Rhine’s resurgence is building support for re-urbanization of other “diamond in the rough” neighborhoods in Cincinnati, including Price Hill, whose supporters have taken to calling it “the next OTR.” With hip new restaurants like the Incline Public House, developers like Tepe rehabbing houses and apartment buildings and an incoming arts theater, many are promoting it as a place on the rise. 

WCPO on Aug. 27 published a story titled, “Is Price Hill poised for a renaissance the likes of Over-the-Rhine, or even Mt. Adams?,” detailing a new economic study commissioned by the Cincinnati Port Authority on development in Price Hill. 

The story quotes experts on the possibility that the neighborhood could see the next wave of outside investors “looking for the next community to get a return on investment” in the mold of OTR. 

RETURNING TO REALITY

Dedicated Rowhouse Showdown viewers know something never felt right about erstwhile design duo Ted and Krystal, from their clearly unwise decision to skip out on a work day to Krystal’s self-proclaimed lack of professional design experience to the odd nature in which they were removed from and immediately replaced on the show midseason.

When judge Kathy Kuo asked Krystal to define their “lumberjack sexy” design aesthetic during their first panel, Krystal said, “We are the kind of people that like to go to a farmers market and pick out fresh fruits and vegetables and then bring it home and make a lovely meal and drink a bottle of wine and then make love.”

It’s easy to find other Rowhouse contestants by perusing the show’s IMDB cast list or seeing them using social media to promote the show or doing interviews with hometown media about their experiences. 

Ted and Krystal? Not so much.  

Searching for Ted + real estate + Los Angeles is pretty much the equivalent of Googling needle + haystack. But if you spend enough time getting real meta on Krystal, you end up in a place that — depending on your disposition — just might feel worth it.

Krystal Marshall didn’t boast much design experience on the show, which makes sense because she doesn’t appear to be pursuing that line of work at all, judging by her profiles on Twitter and Instagram. And while she might have been an “artist” on the show, she’s actually a self-proclaimed and working actress in L.A. If you were watching the Emmys, you might have caught a glimpse of her in a new Audi commercial, delivering the line, “I love kale.” Or maybe you noticed her in one-off episodes of Dads, Touch or Criminal Minds. Krystal played one of Lily’s bridesmaids in an episode of How I Met Your Mother and, perhaps most notably, she starred in Lesbian Cops, a 2011 crime flick featuring copious crass language and the intriguing tagline, “They’re lesbians. And they’re cops.”

Krystal Marshall, one-half of the design duo that worked on the property at 783 Summit Ave. Her resume includes starring in the low-budget crime flick Lesbian Cops.

Ted Dolan does appear to have years of actual real estate work experience, but his association with the show’s only novice who is pursuing an acting career certainly doesn’t help his credibility.

Though Krystal’s Rowhouse character demonstrated a distinct lack of credentials as a designer/real person, her personal observations on neighborhood redevelopment offer food for thought.    

Before her banishment from the show, Krystal had written things about hanging out in Over-the-Rhine on social media. At one point an Instagram friend and former Cincinnati resident commented in disbelief: “Really? Over-the-Rhine was a super scary area when I lived there… It’s cute now? That’s where they filmed most of Traffic.”

Krystal responded: “Yea gurl! Over-the-Rhine is now high-end hipsterville. Like silverlake/Los feliz. They pushed out all the black folks and put in some coffee shops. :-P”

Krystal posts a selfie with Ted on Instagram from their hotel at the Hampton Inn & Suites near the University of Cincinnati. In her comments, she shares some observations on the changing demographics of Over-the-Rhine.

In some ways, Krystal is right — the slow train of redevelopment doesn’t always include everyone. During its widely celebrated renaissance, Over-the-Rhine has witnessed the removal of social service agencies that overwhelmingly served impoverished black residents. The neighborhood has seen the leasing of its central public space to a private development company and rental rates skyrocket, forcing longtime residents to leave.

OTR is a financial success. Whether its redevelopment helped address problems with poverty the neighborhood has faced or merely shifted them to places like Price Hill is a question up for debate.

As Rowhouse Showdown’s depiction of Price Hill winds down and hype around the neighborhood’s potential revitalization heats up, another reality show is set to begin filming in Cincinnati, this one documenting the final tages of urban redevelopment — celebrities opening cool new bars.

Locals and 98 Degrees alumni Nick and Drew Lachey this fall will open a sports bar in the heart of Over-the-Rhine. Tentatively titled Lachey’s Bar and set for a 2015 premiere, the series will follow the Lachey brothers as they traverse the sure-to-be rough waters of starting a business with little experience but plenty of TV cameras. 

“Despite their lack of knowledge about running a business, these determined brothers are ready to roll up their sleeves and learn the ins and outs of running a place where everybody knows your name,” states an A&E press release. “Unfortunately, drinking experience doesn’t necessarily translate into drink-making experience… but they’re ready to learn.”


Watch the final two episodes of ROWHOUSE SHOWDOWN 8 p.m. Sept. 3 and 10 on FYI. For more information, visit fyi.tv.



 
 
 
 

 

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