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Cover Story: Idealistic Landlords

Are nonprofit agencies a solution or part of the problem?

By Tony Cook · May 26th, 2004 · Cover Story
The city's housing policies seem designed to drive out the poor, according to Rev. Damon Lynch III.
Jymi Bolden

The city's housing policies seem designed to drive out the poor, according to Rev. Damon Lynch III.

Churches and nonprofit organizations aren't the most serious contributors to blight, but they do own more than 50 unsafe or unsanitary vacant properties in Cincinnati.

The Race Street Tenant Organization Cooperative (ReStoc) and New Prospect Baptist Church own a combined 23 vacant properties in Over-the-Rhine. The city has condemned or ordered vacant 15 of them.

ReStoc, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, has owned most of its 17 vacant buildings and 12 vacant lots for at least five years, in some cases 10 to 20 years. This is an outrage to some, but ReStoc Director Andy Hutzel has another name for it: foresight.

Buddy Gray, who founded the Drop Inn Center and ReStoc, began aggressively purchasing property in the late 1970s with the intention of turning abandoned buildings into low-income housing.

"He could really look down the road and see things were going to change in terms of private investment in the neighborhood," Hutzel says. "That's all happening now."

Hutzel refers to the increase during the past year in private investment in Over-the-Rhine, often subsidized by the city.

Just north of Central Parkway on Vine Street, the city is donating $2.5 million toward a new condo project. Other buildings along Central Parkway have been renovated into market-rate and luxury lofts.

City council embraces the idea of mixed-income communities, which includes both market-rate and affordable housing. But Hutzel worries the affordable component will be overlooked.

"Who's going to be on the side of affordable housing?," he asks.

He stands in front of a vacant lot on Pleasant Street between 14th and 15th streets. A discarded stereo system pops up out of the knee-high weeds. ReStoc owns three buildings on the street. Several young men gather at the corner and become angry with a photographer and reporter.

"Put those cameras up," one man warns. "Quit recording shit!"

In these conditions and with a staff of eight, ReStoc has managed to renovate five buildings on Vine Street since 2003. But in that time, things have only become tougher for ReStoc, largely due to a shift in policy at City Hall, Hutzel says.

City Councilman Jim Tarbell, who often has clashed with ReStoc and questioned the organization's competency, says council is pushing for mixed-income developments.

"If there are city dollars, we will not use them in certain neighborhoods where there is a conspicuous over-concentration of poverty," he says.

The city is also pushing for homeownership instead of rental units. Dorian Development, a private development company that plans to revamp Inwood Village in Mount Auburn, originally planned to have both rental and homeownership units in its project. But the city, on which the developers are dependent for $3.9 million in capital improvements around the project, asked the plans be changed to include only homeownership units.

These policies make city funding hard to get, so ReStoc has shifted its focus, Hutzel says. Instead of providing rental units for the lower end of the low-income bracket, ReStoc plans to focus on several properties it can renovate and sell as affordable homeownership units.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), a development group entrusted by the city with up to $100 million in public money, is now eyeing Over-the-Rhine. Hutzel hopes some money is coming ReStoc's way so it can move forward on the homeownership units, but he's skeptical.

"We're kind of in the dark about what those plans are going to be, but we assume it's going to be market-rate," he says.

The Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church, sees the city's policies as a threat to the poor.

"The larger picture is this city is trying to get rid of poor people," he says.

His congregation has renovated two properties, turning one into a church annex and the other into Ollie's Cafe. New Prospect owns four other buildings on the city's vacant building list, all near Findlay Market. Lynch says the church intends to convert one building into a community center and another into housing for ex-convicts.

"I think if there's going to be a land grab, the people who represent and advocate for the poor ought to be part of that land grab," he says.

But Tarbell says affordable housing "has been way overdone historically. The neighborhood needs the importing of people with higher incomes to help develop an economy."

Tarbell says private, market-rate developments will naturally provide housing for varied income levels, including low-income. He likes ReStoc's decision to sell four of its vacant properties.

"I think ReStoc is moving in the right direction," he says.

But Hutzel sees a need for ReStoc to protect affordable housing.

"Market-rate forces are here and buying property," he says. "Why should we compete with them?" ©



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