We Are Here: The 100% Housing Coalition
"We are here." It's a phrase that's been echoed by single moms and in city chambers and around encampments, and we couldn't get it out of our heads.
These are the stories of those experiencing and fighting housing insecurity here in Cincinnati. We believe telling stories changes things. We believe listening changes things. We promised the community that we would tell their stories. It's up to you to listen. Visit womenofcincy.org/housing for the full series.
What if the vacant houses dotting Hamilton County neighborhoods were transformed into affordable housing?
Families would have homes that didn’t eat up a majority of their income. Neighborhoods wouldn’t have empty, deteriorating houses. Neighbors would fill in the spaces on the block that were once dark windows and boarded up doors.
Is it even possible?
The 100% Housing Coalition, a wide-ranging collection of players in greater Cincinnati’s housing market and neighborhood development efforts, began work this spring to answer that question. L.I.S.C. of Greater Cincinnati and Urban Land Institute of Cincinnati are spearheading the effort.
“The initiative brings together a huge, diverse group of stakeholders – builders, finance people, architects, community development groups, social workers – to really think about how we can house our most vulnerable population,” says L.I.S.C. Executive Director Kathy Schwab. “There’s now a community-wide focus on tackling the problem of repurposing our vacant housing to provide affordable housing.”
How it Began
In 2017, a study of greater Cincinnati’s housing market, commissioned by L.I.S.C. and conducted by the Community Building Institute at Xavier University, found Hamilton County lacks 40,000 units of housing affordable to the lowest income households. The same study estimated Hamilton County also had more than 40,000 vacant housing units.
The numbers were estimates, coincidentally the same. But they made Schwab and others, including U.L.I. Executive Director Lydia Jacobs-Horton ask: What if? What if those vacant units could be matched up with families struggling to find and pay for housing?
“For those of us who do not have daily worries about housing, having enough food or clothing, we still think about the waste that we create and the possibility of sharing excess with those in need. We are hearing a lot about Zero Waste programs in food service industries. Why not 100% Housing programs in real estate?” Jacobs-Horton says.
“Creating scale is powerful. U.L.I.'s partnership with L.I.S.C. is uniting individual efforts around a single vision and create something bigger,” Jacobs-Horton adds. “We are reducing overhead and using all of our scarce resources more efficiently.”
L.I.S.C. and U.L.I. began pulling in stakeholders – nonprofit organizations leading community development efforts or working with families facing housing insecurity; banks; city and county leaders; the Greater Cincinnati Redevelopment Authority – and posing to them the question of how vacant houses might help the region’s housing affordability problem.
No single solution will be the answer to the question of housing affordability, Schwab says. It’s a complicated issue caused by everything from systemic racism to wage stagnation.
Many neighborhood-level initiatives for affordable housing are happening in L.I.S.C.’s PlaceMatters communities. PlaceMatters is a resident-led partnership to improve quality of life in communities in an equitable, holistic way, which began in 2007 with a core group of funding organizations, including the United Way, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, and S.C. Ministry Foundation, along with bank partners J.P.Morgan Chase, U.S. Bank, and P.N.C. Bank. Most of these organizations also are sitting at the table for 100% Housing.
Step 1: Confirm the Numbers
The first thing the 100% Housing Coalition wanted to do was confirm the estimate of vacant properties and assess the condition of vacancies across Hamilton County. They contracted with Loveland Technologies, a Detroit-based firm that uses data and mapping to arm communities to fight blight.
In 2015, Loveland surveyed Cleveland’s entire housing stock – about 150,000 units. And while they worked in Cincinnati this summer with the 100% Housing project, Loveland also was in the process of resurveying nine priority neighborhoods in Cleveland to get updated information on about 60,000 housing units. The survey provides assessments and images that are more up-to-date than even Google Earth, and that can be used by community leaders to better understand how their neighborhoods are changing.
“It’s become data that people sort of rely on,” says Nick Downer, Loveland’s Ohio project manager.
In Cincinnati, Loveland and the 100% Housing team used anonymized data from the U.S. Postal Service, water shutoffs, and a vacancy list maintained by city officials to rank and map every potentially vacant property in Hamilton County. Properties that showed up as vacant on all three lists were marked “3”; properties that didn’t show up on any list were “0” – and likely not vacant.
“How accurate are those lists? Well, the answer tends to be ‘somewhat.’ It’s not bullseye accurate, which is why we need a boots-on-the-ground approach, too,” Downer says.
Loveland trained five University of Cincinnati students and sent them into the community to take a physical inventory of each vacant building. They took a photo of every housing unit and assessed it based on Loveland’s criteria.
“It’s like turning on lights in a dark room,” says Loveland co-founder and CEO Jerry Paffendorf. “Some of it is common sense. Before you make a plan, there’s just some basic stuff to know, like: How big is the problem? … We’ve gone from knowing there’s a lot [of vacancies] to knowing not only a solid number, but where are they located, who’s the owner, what’s the condition.”
While Loveland’s surveyors were snapping pictures of vacant houses this summer, other 100% Housing partners were working to identify innovative, scalable funding mechanisms for transforming these vacancies into affordable homes and assessing the need for affordable housing across greater Cincinnati neighborhoods. Coalition partners are also looking at what programs already were in place to help families and trying to figure out if any of those could be scaled up.
Meanwhile, Loveland, U.L.I., and L.I.S.C. are analyzing the survey data. Initial findings show that there are many fewer vacant units than originally estimated. One of the things to be determined, in addition to the feasibility of rehabilitating vacant units, is if the neighborhoods with the most vacancies have a similar need for affordable housing – and how to get people into the neighborhoods with the most supply.
No single solution will be the answer to the question of housing affordability, Schwab says. It’s a complicated issue caused by everything from systemic racism to wage stagnation. But having so many partners at the table, working together toward solutions, is a good start.
“The market is not equitable on its own,” says Celia Smoot, director of housing for L.I.S.C. National. “All these partners coalescing around a strategy can create more equitable outcomes.”