By Dr. Mark Mussman
I recently attended a college reunion where a couple people used the same term to describe Cincinnati today: wholly unrecognizable. I listened to them say that Over-the-Rhine has changed so much that they couldn’t even believe it was the same place when we graduated school nearly 20 years ago, in 2001. I heard them talk about restaurants and bars that they uncritically visited while on vacation or with family. I realized then that the optics of the City had changed so much, but nothing else substantial has changed, especially when it comes to poverty, homelessness, and civil rights.
Recent reports put the ethnic diversity of Cincinnati around 1950’s United States. We are mostly just Black and white, with a sprinkle of other ethnic identities. And by a sprinkle, I mean less than 5%. African American people are routinely denied healthcare, education, transportation, housing, and other basic necessities. Redlining continues to this day. Schools are more segregated now than ever, as more than half of our schools are 90% (or more) one ethnicity. Most students in public schools (82%) are economically disadvantaged. Home ownership rates among Black families (34%) are less than half of that for white families (74%).
Other objective measures show that Black and white Cincinnatians live in two separate cities. Median household income comparisons show a stark reality: Black median household income at $24,272, compared to white median household income at $57,481. When applied to housing standards of affordability, it becomes clear that Black families are being priced out of their own neighborhoods. For example, a recent developer received preferred developer status on a Vine Street property in Over-the-Rhine through a City RFP process. This developer came to the Over-the-Rhine Community Council meeting in January seeking a letter of approval. Since the Community Council has prioritized affordable housing, the developer claims that 1 of 4 units will be affordable at 60% AMI. At 60% AMI, this means that most people in Cincinnati (59.99%) cannot afford this apartment. And when you take in the great disparity between Black and white resident income, this essentially removes any likelihood that a Black person or family would be able to move into this apartment.
I often hear claims that crime has decreased due to investment in Over-the-Rhine and other inner core neighborhoods. But the reality is that crime may actually increase throughout the region due to instability. When people are forced from their neighborhood into other neighborhoods, there are turf issues and issues of representation. According to Census data, at least 25% of all people in Cincinnati moved within the last year, but certainly for some groups this number is higher. Cincinnati crime stats mimic national trends of decreasing incidents of violent crime; however, in 2002 Cincinnati saw 64 murders, and in 2017 there were 70. This is a slight increase, but meaningful when thinking about how things have or haven’t changed. Overall, Cincinnati is classified as having more crime than 95% of American cities. Larger looming issues, such as representation in the police force, have remained unchanged. 68.1% of sworn police officers in Cincinnati are white, while the white population in Cincinnati is less than 50%. One police officer as the LGBTQAI liason. One police officer as the Homelessness liaison. Shouldn’t all officers be trained to deal with LGBTQAI and individuals who are experiencing homelessness?
Also deeply concerning is the disparate way African Americans are treated within the criminal justice system. While African Americans only represent 12.5% of Ohio’s population, they are 45% of incarcerated Ohioans. While Justice is purportedly Blind, people of color are more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a while person than killing a person of color in Ohio. A white body is seen as infinitely more valuable than a person of color. Your zip code affects your sentencing as well. And neighborhoods in Cincinnati remain so segregated, that our region is #5 in racial segregation. Economic segregation in our region is also near the top of the charts. And your zip code could add, or remove, 20 years to your life expectancy.
In terms of homelessness, we know that systemic and interpersonal racism continue to decrease the housing stability of people of color. African Americans are overrepresented among those experiencing homelessness because of Slavery, Jim Crow, Redlining, Urban Renewal, Mass Incarceration, and Gentrification. Without the generational wealth that white people were handed by the federal government, people of color have no level playing field. Areas that were once deemed “white only” continue to be almost all white. Inner city neighborhoods that were economically neglected since the 1930s, where Black families were forced to live for many generations (because they were legally denied entry to other neighborhoods until the Fair Housing Act in 1968) are now being displaced by white generational wealth. Black families cannot compete with that. African American wealth is predicted to be $0 by 2050, meaning that generational wealth is still exclusively a white policy benefit.
Today, the shelters are still full. We are still short 40,000 units of affordable housing in Hamilton County (35,000 in Cincinnati). While obvious visual changes may have occurred, structurally we are still the same Cincinnati. We continue to criminalize homelessness while privatizing public resources. Our education, transportation, healthcare, public services, etc., are still segregated. Some things have changed: neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine, Mt. Auburn, and Walnut Hills have each lost thousands of Black residents since 2001. Between 2000 and 2010 the City of Cincinnati as a whole lost more than 9,000 Black residents. Our neighbors are being forced out by white generational wealth, and we have no mechanism focused on equity. The wealth and income gap between Black and white Cincinnatians has grown, and without a determined focus on affordable housing, living wages, and housing protections, we will continue to see two separate Cincinnatis: one for Black people, and one for white people.