By Bill Woods
AHA ( Affordable Housing Advocates) held its annual meeting over lunch at the United Way on June 28th. The theme of this event was the new Affordable Housing Trust Fund established by Cincinnati City Council and how to effectively organize to insure adequate funding for it. Besides reviewing AHA's work to date on the Fund, the lunch featured a presentation by Amanda DeStefano, a Baltimore community organizer who helped lead a successful campaign to insure financing for a Housing Trust Fund in that city.
AHA, a diverse coalition of organizations and individuals concerned about the lack of affordable housing in Greater Cincinnati, has been working for a number of years to improve this situation. Despite its efforts, the number of units available for low-income residents has steadily shrunk, and a recent LISC study found that Cincinnati and Hamilton County collectively had a 40,000 unit shortfall in affordable housing. The Trust Fund offers a potentially effective way to respond to this crisis, and AHA has spent the last year and a half both developing a trust fund model and championing this concept to local government officials.
Josh Spring, Executive Director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, who co-chairs the AHA committee working on the Trust Fund, brought the lunch attendees up to date on the Fund's current status. Although City Council did establish a Fund several months ago, it still lacks an adequate funding base to do much to increase the supply of affordable housing. Spring noted the City has earmarked to the Fund approximately $600,000 from existing revenue from the Cincinnati Rail Road, but this entire amount would only finance a small number of units. What is needed to make a real dent, declared Spring, is between fifty and one-hundred million dollars annually.
Where is such a large pot of money to be found? Spring explained that Trust Fund proponents have always advocated for multiple sources of funding, and he expects the County will allocate revenue to the new entity. He listed some other sources such as a tax on large housing developments that would then go to the Fund. Nevertheless, in order to produce the amount of money that would actually start to change the affordable housing equation, a major public initiative such as an entertainment tax will be required. If City Council isn't ready to accept this fact, noted Spring, then a grassroots ballot campaign led by AHA may have to be launched. "That is why," he continued, "we are looking at examples such as the successful campaign in Baltimore."
Via Skype, Amanda DeStefano talked to AHA lunch attendees about the Baltimore experience. DeStefano was a key community organizer in the recent campaign to create a steady and sufficient revenue source for Baltimore's Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Established by a voter approved ballot initiative in 2016, the Fund languished when City Government failed to properly fund it. DeStefano then helped organize a grassroots campaign in 2018 that finally persuaded City Council to pass legislation establishing a $20-million annual resource for the Fund.
DeStefano described the nuts and bolts organizing effort that led to City Council's action. An informal coalition of groups concerned about affordable housing provided the organizing base for championing funding for Baltimore's Trust Fund, and community organizers such as DeStefano worked to put together the actual grassroots campaign. Focusing on the city's faith community, sixty congregations became involved, and several Sundays were utilized to collect signatures for a ballot initiative.
The ballot initiative that went forward in 2018 featured a one percent surcharge on sales and other transfers of non-owner residential and commercial properties. Not only did this effort include a well-organized signature gathering process, but it emphasized obtaining steady news media coverage. By the summer, the coalition had collected the 10,000 plus signatures needed to qualify its proposal for the November ballot, and faced with what looked like a certain grassroots victory at the polls City Council decided to negotiate with activist leaders to adequately fund the trust fund.
Besides its focus on the Trust Fund, the annual meeting dealt with business such as the election of AHA’s board of trustees. AHA also gave its Affordable Housing Advocate Award of the Year to Elaina Johns-Wolfe, the lead author of the Cincinnati/Hamilton County Eviction Study, a project conducted under the auspices of the U.C Department of Sociology.