By Dr. Mark Mussman
For years, the wave of gentrification in Over-the-Rhine has washed over, and washed out, Black and Appalachian residents. The wave, fueled by massive city, state, and federal investments, shows no signs of letting up, as the 2020 Census shows the neighborhood has become majority white for the first time since urban renewal provided the financial incentive to white residents to leave Over-the-Rhine to build generational wealth in segregated whites-only suburbs. Save for a few organizations dedicated to affordable housing, the push to create a so-called "mixed-income neighborhood" has only provided the structural mechanism for inserting white wealth into this historically disinvested neighborhood. This same structure that has brought inclusion to whiteness in Over-the-Rhine has simultaneously removed Blackness, and with it, Black belonging, in the neighborhood. The loss of more than half of the Black residents in the last 10 years alone, has permanently altered the cultural fabric of the neighborhood in a way that is built upon exclusion of Black voices, Black agency, and ultimately, Black people.
If you were to remember Over-the-Rhine 10 years ago, there were more places in the community for people to meet up with their neighbors, play games, and spend time together in a non-consumerist manner. You could be in the park and not be pressured to spend money at the flea market, or be forced to listen to pre-programmed music, or you could pick up a basketball game without a reservation or being surveilled. While Cincinnati's anti-Black racism's incubation of poverty continues to this day throughout the city, Over-the-Rhine has a particular history related to public and supportive housing. Certainly, being so close to downtown, and services, Over-the-Rhine is conveniently located, but also the buildings dating back to the 1850s provided the shell for high density housing. Capitalizing on the density, slum lords were able to own thousands of units, many taking subsidies and not maintaining properties for decades. Changes in federal housing programs lent to further privatization of public housing funds, and to further concentration of federal subsidies into a few developer and housing provider hands.
In Over-the-Rhine, we have a handful of housing organizations that maintain the less than 900 units of affordable housing left in the neighborhood. Since we lack tenant protections, these organizations are the dam holding the flood of market-rate housing and mixed-use development from fully removing all persons in poverty from the neighborhood. These organizations have different models and follow different ideals. From providing for our neighbors who are suffering mentally and physically, to creating a pathway to homeownership, there are many supportive services needed to simply maintain housing in the neighborhood. We all need help.
Unfortunately, they too are drowning in gentrification. Like the thousands of families that have lost their home in Over-the-Rhine or whose housing is threatened today, the organizations who provide affordable housing are also struggling to keep up with the changes in the neighborhood. From sharply rising property taxes to issues with neighboring properties, no one is untouched by the wave of gentrification. In addition to the every 3-year property value re-evaluation which recently resulted in massive increases to property taxes, the Over-the-Rhine South Special Improvement District (SID) has levied an additional proportional property tax to provide funding to 3CDC to provide "safe and clean" services. Considered a redundant service, the "safe and clean" model increases surveillance, cultural modification, and criminalization. The "safe and clean" model has been shown to be anti-Black and harmful to people who are experiencing homelessness. The Over-the-Rhine South SID is expected to bring in at least $750,000 each year to provide for sidewalk cleaning and shoveling and increased reporting to police, through an increase in street-level 3CDC ambassadors. By law, property owners themselves are responsible for maintaining the sidewalks abutting their properties, so a state-level SID, like the one we have in Over-the-Rhine South, uses the front footage of your each property to determine the tax - meaning that large property owners, such as those providing affordable housing, have seen a larger increase than the high-end condo owners, even though many affordable housing providers staff their own maintenance crew to maintain their sidewalks.
In addition to rising taxes, affordable housing providers are seeing an increase in neighborly disputes, mainly with bars and breweries popping up throughout the neighborhood. Rooftop decks, outdoor seating, street closures, removal of parking, alleyway access issues, etc., have become all-too-often the ire of long-term residents. Does it make sense to put a bar next door to a supportive housing-first home, or an outdoor bar next to a senior facility? What about next to a building where people are in recovery and NA and AA meetings are held? It's not to say that people don't have to live in the real world, and therefore be exposed to the pressure of addiction, but it is to say that as you add to the fabric of the neighborhood, it does make sense to be conscious, and indeed conscientious of your neighbors. Is there a way to limit the negative interaction between the old and new wave to create a harmonious community, or is that some idealistic gentrification propaganda that relies on a false model of neoliberal anti-regulation? Regardless of the case, it should be said that 3CDC intended to change the fabric of the neighborhood by removing corner stores that sold alcohol, and then replacing them with high-end bars. This is the model.
The wave of gentrification in Over-the-Rhine can be described as a tidal wave. People have lost their homes and their lives to displacement. Organizations too have been forced out, forced to sell their buildings for public projects or simply private development. Homelessness is being forced upon thousands of mainly Black residents in Cincinnati each year. Each month, buildings are being bought by local, out-of-state, and international investors whose primary goal is to turn a profit by evicting affordable housing residents to rehab units into market-rate housing. This real-estate investment model ultimately provides a funnel of wealth out of Cincinnati. It also makes things more difficult for those who are providing affordable housing because the increased investment brings increased property taxes to longstanding housing providers while new developments see long-term tax abatement. As the city only takes a specific amount, around $29 million per year, when wealthy developers don't pay their fair share, low-income and affordable housing providers shoulder a larger burden, forcing them out.
On the street level, the discomfort gentrification has created to Black residents is underplayed and often ignored completely. The dominant narrative repeated in the media and by local politicians for so long has demonized low-income Black residents, who have been made to be seen as a barrier to progress, rather than a part of the process. The proof is in the massive displacement of Black residents at the same time as the increase in white wealth generated in the neighborhood. This can also be seen in the community council's recent push for zero-tolerance policing and other white supremacist tactics, such as fencing off public alleyways, and calls for a neighborhood watch, at the same time they are pushing for market-rate housing and upscale commercial development. We have seen how aggressive policing has made the neighborhood unwelcome to its own Black residents, who have been harassed for "fitting the description," and we have also seen housing providers work in concert with gentrifiers to gain access to funding under the guise of public-private partnerships. Ultimately, the culture of exclusion incubated and nurtured by white supremacy, masked as "gentrification," forces Black residents out while creating a hostile environment for individuals and supportive organizations alike.