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Why the Hurry to Repeal Housing Retention Law?

By Doug Trapp · February 8th, 2001 · Burning Questions
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Two city councilmen want to make it easier for Over-the-Rhine landlords to raze dilapidated buildings, possibly creating more parking lots for residents and businesses in other buildings.

But why not wait a few months for the Over-the-Rhine Steering Committee, a coalition of residents, city staffers, landlords and business owners, to finish a long-awaited comprehensive plan?

Nearly 20 years ago, as Over-the-Rhine buildings were being torn down for parking lots, the city passed the Neighborhood Housing Retention Law, assessing anyone who wants to level a building $4 per square foot for a housing rehabilitation fund. The law aims to prevent demolitions and generate rehab dollars.

The ordinance slowed demolitions, but in 20 years only two people paid the fee, generating just $34,000. Many landlords have allowed buildings to deteriorate to the point of public hazards; then they can be demolished without the rehab fee.

Two decades ago Jim Tarbell, now a member of city council, thought the law would help save and renovate buildings. Now Tarbell and Councilman Pat DeWine call for abolishing the housing-rehab fee and giving the city's Historic Conservation Board power to decide which buildings can be razed. The law, renewed every five years, expires May 15.

The Conservation Board reviews construction and demolition in the city's historic districts, including the triangular part of Over-the-Rhine between Liberty Street, Central Parkway and Reading Road. The district doesn't include the northwest half of Over-the-Rhine, between Central Parkway and Mt.

Auburn, home to some of the city's former breweries. The proposal would give the board authority over demolitions across the neighborhood.

DeWine and Tarbell believe the board can determine the buildings that need to be razed, speeding redevelopment of remaining structures. Vacant buildings attract crime and are a blight that should to be rehabbed or destroyed, they say.

But historic preservation isn't just about individual buildings, according to Conservation Board Chair John Senhauser; it's about the overall character of the neighborhood, including its density.

"The way you re-attract the people to the city from the suburbs is not to make (the city) look like a suburb," Senhauser says. "Over-the-Rhine's character is much more about the space of the street than the individual buildings."

Senhauser says a better idea might be to create a second historic district in northern Over-the-Rhine. That would give the board established standards to judge buildings. Otherwise the board will essentially be judging whether or not buildings are safe, and will have to rely heavily on the city's Buildings and Inspections Department for advice.

Some low-income housing advocates say the Over-the-Rhine Steering Committee needs more time to do its job before council begins changing laws that affect the neighborhood. The committee is in the early stages of writing a land-use plan to bridge the ongoing dispute between low-income housing advocates and market-rate developers. The plan is expected by the fall.

Tarbell sees his proposal as a separate issue from the comprehensive plan, because the steering committee is dealing with land use, and this proposal does not.

"This is pure and simple a public safety issue," Tarbell says.

But Thomas Dutton, a member of the steering committee and the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network, disagrees. Doesn't "comprehensive plan" mean everything, including housing-retention laws?

Dutton agrees the retention law didn't do everything it was designed to. But that doesn't mean it needs to be changed right now, he says. Why not renew the ordinance for a year while the committee crafts a total package of reforms for Over-the-Rhine?

"I guess I get the sense they're trying to throw the baby out with the bath water," Dutton says.

Jennifer Summers, coordinator for ReStoc, which rehabs housing for low-income residents, asks why Tarbell believes it's OK to change this law just seven months after arguing a ReStoc project on Vine Street should wait for the comprehensive plan.

Tarbell says he opposes any more low-income housing on Vine Street, no matter the timing; and there have been plenty of Over-the-Rhine plans, but not enough action.

Tom Denhart of Hart Realty, the largest owner of low-income housing in Over-the-Rhine, says he doesn't think the Conservation Board would allow any demolitions. Denhart would rather allow city planning or another department to have a say in which buildings are demolished.



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