By Dr. Mark Mussman
Increasing density does not automatically create affordable housing, it requires regulations, or else housing prices will remain controlled by the "invisible hand" of the market. In the mid-nineteenth century, cities like Cincinnati were seeing vast demographic changes due to the mass migration of Black Americans out of the south, seeking opportunity. Black and white Appalachians were forced to leave their homelands due to the increased mechanization of coal mining. Locally, white families, enabled by the federal government's homeownership program, were creating all-white suburbs, outside of city limits.
But for most of Black Cincinnatians, home was overcrowded, mainly due to anti-Black racism in policies and practice. For example, it wasn't until after 1910 that there was a home available to Black families that was up to the standards of the day — a bathtub and a private entrance. This was up in Walnut Hills, but down in the basin, in what is now the West End, families were crowded into old, small spaces, often without electricity or running water. It was these conditions that were called "slums" and when the federal government began building the Mill Creek Expressway, white businessmen persuaded the government to move the highway closer to downtown through Kenyon Barr.
In less than two years, over 26,000 people were displaced from Kenyon Barr, the vast majority of them were Black. This process of displacement occurred over and over in what is now known as Urban Renewal. Black families lost their social structure, their homes, land, and were pushed further from needed services, which increased their dependency on transportation, even as they were legally excluded from the white suburbs. Urban Renewal and Redlining forced generations of Black Cincinnatians into similar over-crowded and low-quality housing conditions as the slums.
Part of the push to remove the slum conditions resulted in new zoning laws, many of them restricting multi-family housing to main roads and certain neighborhoods. Zoning should provide enough room for each family to live safely. Unfortunately, as we know, many families today are doubled-up, or are couch-surfing, creating the same sort of overcrowding that we saw in the last century, living in segregated neighborhoods.
Zoning laws in multi-family properties require a certain amount of square footage per unit. This is the type of density that we are focusing on today — how many people live on a single piece of land. We can also think about density for a neighborhood, city, or region as a whole, but when we talk about zoning, we just mean on a certain property.
Affordability can also be seen in similar terms: what is affordable to a household, and what is affordable to the wider community. While it's true that housing is only considered affordable if paying 30% or less of income on housing, housing affordability can also be defined as housing that is affordable for people making up to 60% of the area median income (AMI). This is the true definition of affordable housing in Cincinnati: housing costs do not exceed 30% of a household's income who makes around $35,000 per year. To put this in perspective, including utilities, a family that makes $35,000 can afford around $850 per month in housing costs. Any amount over that threshold of around $850 is considered market-rate, even if it's called "workforce housing."
City staff has been floating the idea of removing multi-family density regulations, meaning that instead of having a square-foot requirement for each unit, that developers would be able to create a greater number of smaller units on the same property. Their justification for the claim that more density on a property will lead to more affordable housing hinges on the idea that with more units, the costs would be shared by more people, so the owner wouldn't need to charge so much. The example they give is a property with one unit costs $10K per month, but with four units, each pays $2.5k, but with 9 units, each unit only pays $1.1k.
Unfortunately, even in their example, there is no affordable housing, as the housing costs would need to be no more than $850, including utilities. The reality is that removing these density regulations would simply allow developers to create smaller units that would still be offered at market-rate. For example, in Over-the-Rhine, new build market-rate for a studio apartment is $1400, far outside of the reach of a family making the AMI. The zone change immediately increases the value of the property, which is why so many developers seek, and receive, a density variance — it's simply more profitable.
The city manager's plan relies on the theory of supply and demand, which does not take into account anti-Black racism and housing discrimination. The city manager makes the case for removing legislative barriers to affordable housing but also talks about the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF) which requires a Board to facilitate the spending of the money and create the Affordable Housing Priorities. Just this week, the Mayor appointed the heads of 3CDC, the Port, CMHA, Model Group, and the Shelterhouse to the Housing Advisory Board (HAB). This board will determine if any of the money in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund is spent on 0-60% AMI, or if it will go for other uses.
Finally, a city council member put together a proposal to remove density restrictions from most zones except single-family. This legislation would remove the minimum square footage needed for each unit in the building. Using CAGIS, I was able to create a map of the zones that would be affected by this change which matches up almost directly with a population map of Cincinnati showing the locations of Black residents. This fact is likely due to the continued redlining of Black residents, but has not been mentioned by the city. What's most glaring is that the city is not focused on where the need for affordable housing exists, 0-60% AMI, and the city manager even said that making deeply affordable units wasn't likely going to happen.
Unfortunately, the proposed zoning changes will reduce the voice of community councils, who currently weigh in on zoning variances. This change, coupled with the city manager's memo on community engagement, means that developers will have more control and communities will have less say. Finally, the zoning change will likely see a reduction in family housing, as two plus bedroom units will be converted to several smaller units.
Removing the density requirement alone does not create affordable housing. Specific regulations are needed to ensure 0-60% AMI units are created and sustained. Density itself does not address housing discrimination and segregation. And, ultimately, with a need in the tens of thousands of units, until the gap in affordable housing is addressed, density on its own doesn't even stop the rapid loss of affordable housing that we are experiencing.
There is a better approach: utilize Peaslee's Equitable Development Rubric; gain community control of the HAB; require affordability contracts for developments receiving a public good; enact housing protections, including a housing court staffed by tenants and landlords who mediate before going to eviction court; enact Pay-to-Stay protections and rent control; ensure a livable and prevailing wage, and more.
In the end, we must be deliberate about the impact of zoning changes on Black residents, most of which are renters paying more than 30% of their income towards their housing. We must consider low-income, fixed-income, elderly, and homeowners, who are negatively impacted by the influx of white generational wealth investing in the city. Displacement is occurring rapidly, and the proposed changes in zoning don't address this, and without regulations to ensure affordable housing is built and sustained, the city's claims that density will result in affordable housing are misguided and likely harmful.