Thursday, January 9, 2003

'Burbs on plan to move poor: Not in my backyard

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority is aggressively buying and building homes in Hamilton County's suburbs as part of an ambitious plan to acquire 550 units that it says will give low-income residents more choices of where to live.

But some suburban politicians and residents question the push to spread low-income housing throughout the county.

Their objections echo those of city and state lawmakers who have lined up against CMHA's plan to demolish most of the English Woods public housing complex in western Cincinnati, relocate tenants and sell the land to a private developer.

Cincinnati City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee and Finance Committee tonight will discuss CMHA's plan to demolish much of the English Woods public housing complex in western Cincinnati. The meeting is at council chambers, 7 p.m.
Opponents of the English Woods proposal worry that former public housing tenants will bring blocks of concentrated poverty and crime to nearby city neighborhoods such as Price Hill and Westwood.

Eleven suburbs have even rejected federal dollars - grants typically coveted by communities to pay for popular projects such as parks, street repairs or commercial development - in an attempt to block CMHA from buying homes in their communities.

"For many years, large numbers of (low-income) citizens were forced to live in certain (Cincinnati) neighborhoods," said Donald Troendle, CMHA's executive director. The goal is to decrease the city's poverty and to give low-income residents more choices in suburbs where there are few options for the poor, he said.

More than 86 percent of Hamilton County's 21,359 housing units that receive some type of government subsidy for low-income, elderly or disabled residents are in the city of Cincinnati. That is a slight decrease since 1994, when 90 percent of all subsidized housing was within city limits.

In many ways, the housing authority is following the region's growth. As more and more jobs and residents gravitate toward the suburbs, many low-income residents can find better opportunities outside the city. Cincinnati lost 9 percent of its population in the 1990s. Just 16 percent of Greater Cincinnati's 2 million residents now live in the city.

CMHA and the federal government also have taken aggressive steps to reduce poverty in city neighborhoods, including razing and rebuilding the Lincoln Court and Laurel Homes housing projects in the West End with federal Hope VI grants. That's the same pot of federal dollars CMHA plans to use to demolish English Woods.

But some suburban leaders have objected to CMHA's most recent round of Hamilton County home acquisitions, which started in July.

"I do not feel it's the government's role to be buying up homes and subsidizing people's lives," said Ann Langdon, a Delhi Township trustee. "If government takes over housing, they are already taking away personal responsibility from people."

CMHA will spend $9.6 million to buy 100 units of affordable housing throughout the county. The units are either single-family homes or apartment buildings that CMHA will manage.

The housing authority also expects that it will cost another $45 million to acquire 450 public housing units throughout the suburbs under an agreement signed last summer with the Hamilton County commissioners.

The housing authority's program already has stirred resistance. The 11 townships, villages and cities have rejected community development block grants offered by the county because the grants have a powerful condition. If the municipalities take the money, they also must accept the housing authority's plans for low-income families.

"We feel Sycamore Township has more than its fair share" of low-income housing, said Michael Berens, the township administrator. CMHA records show that out of 6,000-plus homes and apartments in Sycamore Township, 20 units are subsidized by the housing authority or Hamilton County.

Most of the suburbs that rejected the $3.5 million in block grants - and the low-income housing that could come with it - are among the wealthiest in the Tristate.

The communities that rejected the grants are Amberley Village, Anderson Township, Deer Park, Evendale, Indian Hill, Terrace Park, Madeira, Mariemont, Milford, Sycamore Township and Symmes Township.

The housing authority says it still has the power to acquire homes in communities that refuse to participate in the program. And, so far, it's followed through with its plans.

Since July, the housing authority has spent $4.2 million under the public and affordable housing programs to buy 31 single-family homes, four apartment buildings and one vacant lot in 15 suburban communities. That includes five homes and a three-unit apartment in Anderson Township, a three-bedroom home in Deer Park and five homes (including one two-family) in Sycamore Township.

The housing authority purposely spreads out its suburban purchases to ensure that single-family homes or apartment buildings aren't clustered together.

It also offers the homes mainly to low-income residents who've had a good history of paying rent on time and caring for the property.

In many cases, Mr. Troendle said local government officials are hard-pressed to pick out the CMHA-owned homes in their communities. He said that's helped the housing authority to develop a good working relationship with some communities, such as Wyoming or Springdale, where it's building a 100-unit, $10.7 million apartment building for elderly residents.

"We don't get many complaints, and if we deal with a specific family's behavior, we deal with it," Mr. Troendle said.

Sometimes, one family can influence a community's feeling about subsidized housing.

In the tiny village of Newtown, the housing authority bought five homes in one subdivision. Four of the families caused no trouble. The fifth family didn't cut their lawn and used sheets in a window instead of curtains.

"It was really one family," said Newtown Mayor John Hammon, who called the housing authority to relay neighbor complaints.

"It was too much (low-income) housing for one subdivision."


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