Monday, June 04, 2001

Hamilton County losing two ways

Population, tax revenues dropped in 1990s

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Susan Zaeh thought her criteria for a new neighborhood were relatively easy to fulfill — a good school district and a choice of affordable, newer homes. But the Blue Ash native couldn't find anything in Hamilton County to meet those two goals when she returned to the Tristate after 10 years in Tennessee. So she did what thousands of other Hamilton County residents did during the 1990s — she joined the exodus to Butler, Clermont and Warren counties.

Where Hamilton County residents went
        Hamilton County's population dropped 2.4 percent in the past decade, but Census 2000 figures don't indicate where the people moved. An Enquirer analysis of Internal Revenue Service data shows migration to Butler, Warren and Clermont counties ballooned, perhaps the biggest reason why Hamilton County lost more people during the decade than any other county in Ohio.

        The Enquirer analysis also shows poorer people are moving to Hamilton County as wealthier people leave — with the county losing more than $2.5 billion in annual income during the 1990s. What's more, Cincinnati's recent riots could exacerbate the exodus of people and money, experts warn.

        The loss of middle-income and affluent residents will trickle down to city halls, police departments and social-service providers throughout the county as leaders grapple with the job of providing adequate service with dwindling resources, experts say.

        “It's a major problem,” said Curt Paddock, executive director of the Hamilton County Municipal League. “When the figures come out, it crystallizes a problem we know more than intuitively.”
       Hamilton County's population is falling because “everybody wants better schools and newer homes,” said Dennis King, a Realtor specializing in Warren and Butler counties. “Regardless of whether it's right or wrong, it's what's happening.”

        Ms. Zaeh is one of thousands of Hamilton County expatriates who have found new homes north or east of Cincinnati in recent years, a disappearing middle class scared away by low school-test scores or lack of housing choices.

  The Enquirer's analysis was based on Internal Revenue Service migration statistics. The most recent data available is for 1999, so taxpayers had to submit returns by April 2000, unless filing for an extension. We examined more than 8,800 records spanning 10 years (1990-1999).
  Because the data is based on individual tax returns, it doesn't include everybody. Tax cheats and people who do not earn income, for instance, frequently don't file returns.
  Our analysis used the number of exemptions that a person claimed on a return as the number of people leaving or arriving to Hamilton County. This method, while not perfect, is generally regarded as the best gauge for tracking migration trends.
        By the time she returned from Tennessee, Ms. Zaeh's childhood home had become a mecca of high-priced real estate, and the county's affordable homes were in school districts she wouldn't consider. So she settled a few miles north along Interstate 71 in Warren County's bustling Deerfield Township.

        “I know there are a lot of people out here that I graduated with,” Ms. Zaeh, 40, said. “They came here because of the affordability of homes.”

        Yet despite Hamilton County's efforts to shore up population, the flight to the suburbs accelerated at the end of the decade as people left to buy bigger homes or take better jobs.

        The IRS data — plucked from individual tax returns — showed 175,987 people packed up and left Hamilton County for the suburbs from April 1990 through April 2000, the latest figures available. That's an astonishing rate of one of every five Hamilton County residents leaving for the suburbs.

        And the trend only strengthened toward the end of the decade. The data show 19,571 people fled to the suburbs in the year ended April 2000, compared with 15,490 leaving during the year ended April 1991 — a 26.3 percent increase.

Metro area gaining

        During the same period, the number of Hamilton County residents ditching Greater Cincinnati's 13-county reach actually declined 6.5 percent.

        That's an indication that the suburbs are pulling more people out of Hamilton County than Sunbelt states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona, and other U.S. destinations.

Schools cited as reason for moves
        The trend could be devastating for Hamilton County governments, since the people who are left here and are moving here are poorer than those who are exiting. Those who left Hamilton County earned $2.5 billion more than people who moved to Hamilton County over the past decade.

        In other words, the difference between the amount of money earned by former Hamilton County residents and newcomers is enough to pay the public's bill twice for the massive Banks riverfront development — including a football stadium, a baseball park and new streets—- and still have an extra $500 million.

        The problem of this redistributed wealth is apparent in:

        • Cincinnati, where City Manager John Shirey faces a $7.5 million shortfall in the city's budget.

        • The suburbs ringing the city, where leaders try to figure out how to repair aging sewer systems.

        • Warren County, where the Tristate's well-off are moving but the costs are mounting for new roads, schools and police protection.

        Realtor Kevin Hildebrand sees and hears the reason every day. He sold more than 200 homes each of the past three years, primarily in Warren County.

        People want better schools and newer, more affordable homes.

        “People tend to move in herds,” Mr. Hildebrand said. “They can get affordable new (homes here). In Hamilton County, to get anything less than 10 years old, you're going to pay a small fortune.”

        Butler County was the favorite destination for Hamilton County expatriates. A total of 59,462 people moved to Butler County from 1990 through April 2000. That was followed by Clermont County (51,731) and Warren County (21,487).

        Northern Kentucky attracted far fewer Hamilton residents, with Kenton (14,027) snaring the most, followed by Campbell (8,319) and Boone (5,478). Dearborn County picked up 10,629 Hamilton County residents.

Creating inequality

        The middle-income exodus from Hamilton County is creating grave inequalities, said Myron Orfield, an urban planning expert who is studying Cincinnati and the other top 24 metropolitan regions.

        Poorer people are moving to Cincinnati and many of the older suburbs ringing the city. The exceptions are affluent pockets such as Hyde Park, Indian Hills, Madeira, Clifton, Mariemont and Blue Ash.

        Mr. Orfield calls the inequality “dry tinder.”

        He believes that tinder was ignited in April when the police shooting of an unarmed, 19-year-old African-American touched off three days of rioting.

        One of the areas hardest hit — Over-the-Rhine — is a neighborhood where city leaders have the greatest hope for enticing people back to Cincinnati.

        The Main Street district of bars, art galleries, restaurants and lofts has prospered despite its surroundings of abject poverty. It was the first area outside downtown hit by rioters.

        Jim Moll recalls being trapped in his Over-the-Rhine apartment during the second night of the riots. Vandals tossed rocks through windows and terrorized motorists. A white truck driver passing through the neighborhood was pulled from his vehicle and beaten by a group of African-American youths.

        “Our residents felt very, very picked on” Mr. Moll said. “It was extremely frustrating.”

        A handful of tenants immediately notified Mr. Moll that they planned to leave, but some have since decided to stay, he said. Other downtown apartment managers concur that the unrest hasn't created an immediate, adverse impact.

        But Mr. Moll and others acknowledge that rioting could scare away some suburbanites considering a move downtown or to Over-the-Rhine. “Are people pausing and worrying? I'd say they are,” said Judith Spraul-Schmidt, an urban affairs historian and professor at the University of Cincinnati's Raymond Walters College.

Stemming the tide

        To stop the exodus of population, Hamilton County leaders say more housing choices are needed. Yet there is no consensus among them on how to achieve this.

        Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune has proposed leveraging the county's financial assets to provide low-interest, home-improvement loans to people in Cincinnati and older suburbs outside the city.

        Modeled after a similar program in Cuyahoga County, Hamilton County homeowners would be offered loans 3 percent below market rate. Of 2,700 loans completed in Cuyahoga, two-thirds of homeowners would have left the county if not for the offer.

        Mr. Portune's colleague, Commissioner John Dowlin, advocates developing new homes in western Hamilton County — a plan that's disturbed area residents who've moved to the largely rural stretches to escape the city and compact suburbs ringing Cincinnati.

        And Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken has made developing new homes—- along with improving race relations — his top goals.

        Following the riots, the two seem inextricably linked.

        Of the 1,000 new homes that Mr. Luken has pledged will be built in the city this year, hundreds are proposed downtown and in Over-the-Rhine. Some fear suburbanites considering a move back to the city will be scared off by the recent unrest.

        City leaders and others have embraced the “new urbanism” movement of young couples and empty nesters (adults with grown children no longer living with them) moving to the city as a chance to boost population. But if that trend is to continue, developers and city leaders must reassure newcomers such as Lisa Dwenger that the city is safe.

        Mrs. Dwenger, who recently sold her Cheviot home to move into the Emery Center apartment complex in Over-the-Rhine, is a typical urban housing consumer.

        She's a bailiff at the Hamilton County courthouse, and her husband works as a graphic artist at an office building near downtown. They rarely need to drive. They have no children.

        The unrest has made Mrs. Dwenger more aware of racial tensions in the neighborhood, but she hasn't second-guessed her decision.

        “I know I'm not in fear,” said Mrs. Dwenger, 35. “It's not going to (convince) me to look for a new home and move back to the suburbs.”

        Ms. Spraul-Schmidt doubts the riots will discourage professional couples and singles from returning to the city. But some families may be chased away.

        “I can guarantee some people will say, "This is it, the last straw,'” Ms. Spraul-Schmidt said. “Families with school-age children” are most likely to re-examine where they live.

        Indeed, census figures show communities that added school-age population did a better job of keeping overall population, especially areas with strong academic reputations, such as Wyoming and Symmes Township.

        Cincinnati's under-18 population sank 11.2 percent, even faster than its overall decline of 9 percent.

        Some observers question whether the city's effort to build homes will translate into corralling families unless school performance improves.

        A recent survey of county residents cited school performance as the chief culprit for Hamilton's population drop.

        Housing and property values ranked fourth on the Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission survey — behind changing demographics and lower taxes. (Although less than 1 percent of the county's population responded to the survey, it's the only poll that has gauged public opinion on reasons contributing to population loss.)

        The county planning group is in the midst of developing a comprehensive regional plan to guide growth. It aims to correct decisions that may have favored growth outside the city and county.

        The plan also seeks to point out where the county's more than four dozen municipalities can work together and gain efficiencies, said Ron Miller, Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission director.

        “You can't continue to lose people at this rate,” Mr. Miller said. “This trend will be pretty devastating if it's not reversed.”

        Sunday story: Schools cited as reason for moves

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