Updated: Jul 14
By Communities Act Now
Jenn Arens and Joele Newman work at Peaslee Neighborhood Center; Michelle Dillingham works for the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers; Marche Gendrew is the Coordinator for the Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition; Mona Jenkins and Amanda Lynne Barker work at the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition; Mona also represents Mass Action for Black Liberation. They are all founding members of the “Communities Act NOW (CAN)” coalition.
As we witness righteous unrest in our streets and budget hearings, we are called to expose and dismantle oppressive structures. In this moment, we must specifically uproot anti-Black racism manifest in egregious police violence; and we must do so much more. A major portion of the work lies in fundamentally changing how, and for whom, our City is built. Cincinnati, alongside other US cities, lives with a legacy of place-based racism and classism that has excluded whole communities from its economic prosperity. Our history of discriminatory lending, predatory real estate practices, systematic disinvestment, biased criminalization, social exclusion, and reckless displacement has done, and continues to do, violence to our neighbors of humble means and to our neighbors of color. This reality was born by design, and so it must be righted by design.
Cincinnati will never succeed unless benefits for our most marginalized communities are intentionally prioritized in our public policies and practices. To wait for resources to trickle down from the most powerful is neither a real nor a just solution, especially while lives are threatened by our morally inexcusable inequalities in poverty, employment, infant mortality, education, life expectancy, health care, and incarceration.
Representatives across key, in-motion, action initiatives aimed at equitable development in Cincinnati have been meeting over the last year. United in a shared vision for justice in our communities, we wanted to make it easier for residents to understand and advocate for equitable development policy solutions and for local decision makers to implement these solutions. We brought together various parts of our work, and the result is the “Communities Act Now (CAN) Action Platform”. The four initiatives in the Platform provide a necessary foundation and road map to improve equitable development in Cincinnati and are designed to address the equity problems that have already been established by multiple studies and assessments in our city. Further, they are anchored in best practices learned from other cities across the country.
First, we must adequately fund our city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund; a critical resource needed to address our deep, decades-long affordable housing crisis. Local trust funds for affordable housing are common across a wide swath of local municipalities, including Indianapolis, Louisville, and St. Louis. These funds provide critical resources to supplement the dramatically inadequate state and federal dollars for affordable housing. Cincinnati has been late to the game, establishing our fund in 2018, and failing thus far to dedicate a significant, ongoing source of revenue.
In response, local advocates have created Cincinnati Action for Housing Now, a ballot initiative campaign to require the City to annually allocate millions of dollars into affordable housing investments. If passed, it will provide roughly 500 homes each year to households in the two lowest income tiers identified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This would constitute a major a step toward a long-term solution for our widening housing crisis, which has been well-documented in study after study showing shelters overcapacity and a shortage of tens of thousands of housing units at price points needed by Cincinnati families.
In the face of Covid-19 challenges, this effort is aiming for the May 2021 ballot, and is up and running with signature collection and various outreach strategies. It will take a massive, collaborative, grassroots effort, and the campaign is excited to expand support and welcome folks across the greater Cincinnati community into the work. Visit actionforhousingnow.com to find out how to get involved. We also need to leverage our public assets more wisely with the Equitable Development Rubric. At the heart of this initiative is an evaluation tool built to assess a given development project’s contribution to equity across class and race, primarily in housing affordability, jobs and labor, community input, and local assets. This tool was developed from research on Inclusionary Housing policies and Community Benefits Agreements in other cities, expertise from various Cincinnati professionals, and input from Cincinnati residents through a serious of open public sessions. The Rubric generates an overall score, and the accompanying policy framework would require large development projects to meet minimum scores in order to receive significant public subsidies like tax abatements, zoning, or public land from the city. This will ensure that our taxpayer-owned assets are used to realize benefits that include our whole Cincinnati community, and not only the wealthiest among us.
The effort behind the Rubric is focused on a grassroots strategy to equip our neighborhood community councils with tools to put this framework into action, while advocating for city-wide adoption into policy. Walnut Hills Area Council has endorsed the Rubric, and a number of other councils are in process or engaging with it. The Rubric has also been endorsed by various social justice-oriented organizations including Affordable Housing Advocates; Applied Information Resources, Inc.; Cincinnati Educational Justice Coalition; Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center; Co-Op Cincy; Community Matters; Gen H; Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless; Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center; Marianist Social Justice Collaborative; Mass Action for Black Liberation; MUSE Cincinnati Women’s Choir; Praxis Matters; and Youth at the Center. To find out how your organization can endorse, or how your community council can use the Rubric, visit peasleecenter.org/rubric, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, we need tax reforms that equitably fund public services like our public schools. Cincinnati gives out enormous tax abatements to developers, diverting critically needed funding away from our public schools and other public services like our libraries and senior services. While property tax exemptions are allowed by state law, there is a significant opportunity to change how these exemptions are allocated.
The public was sold on the idea that business and investment would not come to our city unless developers and corporations were offered commercial and residential tax abatements. While this may have been the case twenty years ago, in recent years the City of Cincinnati has enjoyed population growth and significant development. The argument can be made that the tax abatement program worked, and achieved its goal. However, the data shows this program has wandered far of course, no longer encouraging investment in the poorest neighborhoods but rather enriching the wealthiest. The data also shows our school district losing millions of dollars meant to provide an adequate and free public education for Cincinnati families. We must prioritize equity and transparency in the tax abatement process. This effort calls for a moratorium on TIF districts; a full, public accounting of all development subsidies; and significantly increased oversight and enforcement of regulations within tax abatement policies. These changes will prioritize the needs of our schools and communities over private profit.
To round out the platform, we need a “Good Cause Eviction” ordinance, which would require a landlord to have and show a justifiable cause in order to terminate a tenant’s residency (or refuse a lease renewal). Though some level of cause is currently required of landlords filing legal evictions, the standards grant landlords vast and unreasonable powers over tenants; also, these standards do not apply to informal or de facto evictions in which a landlord ends a tenancy without a legal procedure. A Good Cause Eviction ordinance would offer expanded and desperately needed protections in Cincinnati, a city with abysmal eviction rates that eclipse the already awful national averages. With this legislation, a landlord’s power to terminate tenancy would be limited to the following reasons:
Tenant fails to pay rent
Tenant materially violates the rental agreement or legal obligations regarding the residence
The residence will be occupied by the landlord or a family member
To perform repairs necessary to make the rental residence safe and habitable and the performance of the work will make the residence temporarily uninhabitable while the work is being done
To comply with city orders to vacate the property
A lease provision that waives a tenant’s rights under the ordinance would be void and unenforceable.
Until this ordinance is passed, this initiative also calls for a moratorium on the city’s use of property tax abatement, tax increment financing, or any other city financial incentive or pass-through funding on properties from which tenants were required to move without good cause (as outlined above) within the past 24 months. As various neighborhoods are forced to confront the looming threat of speculation and gentrification, this legislation will help to offer some protection to Cincinnatians vulnerable to unjust displacement with new profit-driven development.
If we are serious about building a fair and inclusive Cincinnati, we must make a change in the area of equitable development now. We do not need any more studies or consultants before putting each of these pieces in motion. We offer the CAN Action Platform as a path to equity. For more information and further details on how to take action, visit the CAN website at cincycan.org.