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Rent to Own

By Stephanie Dunlap · July 20th, 2005 · All The News That Fits
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In the middle of the urban wasteland that is this part of Over-the-Rhine is a gated community where the working poor can earn up to $10,000 in equity just by renting.

St. Anthony Village is a cluster of seven greenish-yellow rehabbed buildings tucked between Republic, Liberty, Race and Pleasant streets where carefully tended rose plants grow in simple but immaculate courtyards.

Though the 22 families living there earn an average salary of $17,000 a year, residents take good care not only of their rented apartments but also the common areas, laundry rooms and surrounding grounds.

They do it partly because performing basic maintenance duties -- in addition to attending monthly meetings, serving on a governing committee and paying rent on time -- earns residents monthly credits that after five years add up to a cash payment.

They also care for the small village because they have a communal stake in it.

"I always tell everybody I'm living in heaven," says resident John Clark.

He loves St. Anthony's Village's ceiling fans and air conditioning, its laundry facilities and especially its locking gates.

Security is a big issue for Clark, 60, who is retired after a career with the city of Cincinnati's Public Services Department. He and his wife moved to St. Anthony's Village from City West, the new mixed-income development that Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority built in place of the Laurel Homes housing project.

Clark says he feels much safer here than in City West, largely because the neighbors behave themselves and he knows who's coming in and out.

"Although things go on around here, they don't bother inside this gate," he says.

Creating a "defensible space" that residents have a stake in respecting and protecting was one of Margery Spinney's goals when she developed the renters' equity program.

"The basic principle is that the residents really do have something to contribute that has value and deserves a return," she says.

Spinney, director of the Cornerstone Community Loan Fund, says the program is the first of its kind in the country or even the world.

Since 1986, the Cornerstone Community Loan Fund had allowed socially conscious investors to spur low-income housing development by offering flexible, low-interest loans.

The loan fund, which right now has about $800,000 thanks to 60 investors, has supported projects such as ReStoc, the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network and Joseph House, which serves homeless alcoholic veterans in long-term treatment.

But Spinney and the loan fund's investors saw that the money was still only being leveraged to create rental housing, so Cornerstone's focus shifted to renters' equity. In the three years since St. Anthony Village opened, residents paying from $335 to $480 a month in rent have collectively amassed $25,000 in equity.

The Helen Steiner Rice Foundation funds St. Anthony Village's equity, but Spinney thinks that the renters' equity program could support itself.

"Our image is, with renters' equity, we could do this all over Over-the-Rhine," Spinney says.

The idea is that building owners would pay Cornerstone for renters' equity management, in exchange for occupancy rates of nearly 100 percent in a neighborhood where vacancy rates soar. Building owners would also benefit because renters' equity teaches residents to care for their housing as if they own it.

Cornerstone would only require additional funding to cover the administrative costs of organizing the residents.

Turnover has been extremely low. Only four residents have left St. Anthony's Village in three years. Spinney, who calls the program's first few years an "amazing success," believes the model will also work with mixed-income housing.

In fact, three St. Anthony Village's units aren't strictly low-income, and one man happily living there draws in $40,000 a year.

There's a waiting list to live in St. Anthony Village, but the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network -- which completes the first of five renters' equity houses next month -- is still recruiting residents for its renters' equity housing. For more information, contact Margery Spinney at 513-369-0114.



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