By Dr. Mark Mussman
Have you noticed a lot of empty buildings in your neighborhood? Maybe uptown? In Mt. Auburn, near Christ Hospital, you might notice several empty housing complexes. Having lived in Mt. Auburn for several years, I vividly remember the neighbors who lived in these now empty buildings, so it is an eerie feeling to see them so lifeless. It's almost as if their bodies have been snatched and forced from these now empty homes. Over the past few years, we have seen the acceleration of displacement in the urban basin and the hillsides surrounding downtown. This massive displacement is clearly impacting our Black neighbors the most, as Cincinnati loses more than 1000 Black residents every year. This is by design.
The historic and contemporary apartment buildings along Auburn Avenue were purchased by an international investment firm. Real estate investment requires profitability for shareholders, who are promised high quarterly returns over a period of time. This particular investment firm's model is to find "distressed," or below-market housing, and flip it into luxury and market-rate housing. The increased rent charged will provide profits for shareholders, possibly forever.
As I discussed in a previous article, this same real estate investment firm who is flipping apartments in Mt. Auburn is also pushing residents out of their homes on Court Street. Vision and Beyond has purchased at least 1200 units of rental housing in Cincinnati, and their website details their plans to convert the units from affordable housing into luxury apartments, explicitly to create maximum income for their shareholders. A recent youtube video showed the co-founder of Vision and Beyond declare that Cincinnati is eviction-friendly, and that the ability for the owner to control the property was a reason why this region was chosen. Simply put, due to a lack of housing protections, property owners can kick out residents, do some updates, and significantly raise the rents. We're talking about rents doubling, plus some.
The investors and the City of Cincinnati are both on the same page. The city routinely explicitly states that we rely on our earnings tax, and creating more luxury housing will increase the city's life-blood tax. Years ago, the city decided that outside investment was necessary, so we created an abatement program, which allows property owners to make repairs on their property and after an inspection, the city would give them 10 or more years of a break on the additional value those updates created. This abatement program has been derided as racist, and other critics have pointed out that the majority of the abatement has gone to wealthy communities, often for million dollar homes. Eventually, these abatements will expire, allowing the city to take in its share of the property taxes. Ideally, since Cincinnati has adopted a fixed-amount model, meaning they only take in a certain amount of property taxes total (approximately 29 million a year), when these abatements end, everyone else will pay less, reducing the burden on low-income homeowners and housing providers.
However, that can change. The abatement program is a piece of legislation that can be modified, and in fact, has been modified, even recently. A cap to the amount of property value that can be abated was added, to discourage investors from tearing down historic homes in places like Mt. Lookout, and subdividing into McMansions. Ultimately, the abatement program could be changed to only apply to affordable housing. We must put our effort where the need is greatest, not where the city can be most profitable.
City subsidies often lead to displacement. When TQL Stadium was announced in the West End, council members vowed to put all the resources of the city behind the effort. We will never know how much the stadium will cost the city in the long run, but through income tax deals, infrastructure costs, bonds, hotel tax, TIF, and other subsidies, the cost of this stadium will be millions each year. Estimates have put the debt payments and other costs to the city in over $200 million for the first 20 years. The announcement also promised no displacement, which of course, did not happen, as businesses, churches, and families alike have already been removed for the stadium.
The struggle for residents to stay at Court View is also a direct result of the millions of dollars of public investment into both the streetscaping and building rehabilitation along Court Street, in the shadow of Kroger headquarters. Millions of public dollars to create 1 and 2 bedroom condos, starting upwards of $250,000, and with a tax abatement for the next 15 years, at least. For example, a one-bedroom condo sold for $278,000, but because they have an abatement for 15 years, they are paying city taxes on the property as if it was worth $61,000, saving the owner more than $4000 each year in property taxes. Allowing people who are qualified by banks to buy expensive properties duck out of their fair share of taxes is morally wrong, as the property tax is a set fixed-amount, because people with less means are paying more to help subsidize the wealthy.
We are seeing the result of both types of gentrification on Court Street: direct and indirect. Several years ago, 3CDC started to buy up buildings on Court Street, some of the same buildings receiving public funding for luxury condos, and they started to figure out a way to rebrand the area. Some even called it "Under-the-Rhine" due to its proximity to Over-the-Rhine and the former canal. People started to lose their homes, and the Court View fight is emblematic of that. Even though the owners are foreign investors, they are keen enough to understand that where millions of dollars of investment is going in, their investment is safe.
Even amidst corruption scandals, corporate welfare continues on like a broken record, spreading wealth upward while gambling on our future. We recently saw this with Elm & Liberty, which received every public subsidy imaginable for above market-rate apartments, directly across the street from the new $350+ million investment, TQL Stadium. Elm & Liberty isn't a risky investment simply because it is so close to hundreds of millions of dollars in investment. The developers could have done the project without city incentives, regardless of what the city or developers claim.
At city hall, we consistently hear claims from developers that corporate welfare is necessary for market-rate development (which should give us all pause because that means the market is failing), and we even have reports coming from the city itself declaring the importance of corporate welfare. But catering to the rich and powerful will not help the disenfranchised, living in poverty, or the many families experiencing homelessness. Listening and privileging the voices of the few does not make our city stronger, more stable, or desirable. It makes it less livable, less inclusive, and less equitable. We are losing our culture, the fabric of our city, in the name of revitalization and greed. Unless we, as a city, fundamentally change our policies to include needed housing protections like Pay-to-Stay and Just Cause Eviction and utilize the Equitable Development Rubric to its fullest extent, we will continue to traumatize our Black and low-income citizens with displacement in order to benefit the rich and connected.