What We Talk About When We Talk About Gentrification

Who’s lost, what’s gained, and why it matters—seeing the conflicts through my own experience as a Pendleton landlord.

Illustration by Masha Foya

In 2014, I purchased and renovated a vacant four-unit apartment building in Pendleton, the urban neighborhood bordering Over-the-Rhine, after renting across the street for eight years. My husband, an artist, and I, a journalist, were thrilled to become first-time homeowners in a neighborhood we loved. We moved into one unit and began renting the other three.

Over time, I noticed a group of Black tween and teenage girls sitting on the building’s front steps. I asked them not to sit just outside my tenant’s front door and leave trash, smear gum, or let ice cream melt on the steps, acts I’d witnessed from my third-story windows above. They generally responded by denying responsibility, ignoring me, or, sometimes, vacating the stoop.

One day, dog tired after a long workday, I saw the girls occupying the steps but decided not to engage. As I approached the front gate, one of the girls stood suddenly and yelled at the top of her lungs, “And we ain’t movin’! We don’t like you!” Seeing red, I shot back, “Well, I don’t really like you!” and stormed into my breezeway.

Years later, the incident remains fresh in my mind. Were something similar to happen today, I’d like to think I would approach the teens with more compassion and maturity. What I didn’t understand, but can clearly see now, is that to those girls I was the problem. I was the interloper, the outsider, even though I care deeply about my neighborhood and my neighbors. I’ve been called a gentrifier, and in some ways I am.

I’m part of the influx of white people into what had been a predominantly Black neighborhood. Back in 2000, 77 percent of OTR’s population was Black and 20.3 percent was white, according to the U.S. Census. Twenty years later, 42 percent were Black and 47 percent were white. In that time, he neighborhood saw a 464 percent increase of owner-occupied units (including mine) and a 33 percent decrease in rental units. Rents are soaring; in fact, Cincinnati topped a recent list of the fastest rising rents in America’s 50 largest cities.

The dictionary defines gentrification as a process in which an economically disadvantaged area of a city experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses, often resulting in an increase in property values and the displacement of earlier, usually poorer, residents. Every community is trying to increase owner-occupied housing, property values, income and racial diversity, and small business activity, and many would see those as positive results for the larger population. The sticking point, however, is that existing residents, especially low-income ones, rarely benefit from these outcomes. They find themselves priced out or driven out, displaced, and further marginalized, all in the name of progress.

Philenthia Robinson, 50, and Willie Mimes, 43, see “the good and the bad” in the changes they’ve witnessed. They grew up and lived in Over-the-Rhine and the West End until the early 2000s, when they say living conditions became untenable. The neighborhood had become overrun with drug dealers and violence, Robinson says, and racial tensions with the Cincinnati police were palpable. She didn’t want to raise her children in a place where safe community services and spaces were disappearing.

The couple lives in Blue Ash today but visits Over-the-Rhine and downtown often, like on a sunny September afternoon in Washington Park, where they’re enjoying sandwiches picked up at the new Kroger store on Central Parkway. They’re planning to see some live music in the evening. “They always have something going on here, whether it’s live entertainment or a movie,” says Robinson. “There’s always all kinds of people here. We come to the city for the noise and the atmosphere.”

Still, she’s frustrated that “when this was a predominantly Black neighborhood, we asked for the same things they’re doing now.”

Georgia Keith and Bonnie Neumeier have lived in Over-the-Rhine for 50 years each, but these days they feel like strangers in their neighborhood. Up until about 15 years ago, they were surrounded by people like themselves: large working-class families getting by on low to middle incomes. Many more of their neighbors were Black or poor whites of Appalachian descent.

Neighborhood businesses like laundromats and corner stores are mostly gone now, replaced with high-end retail and expensive bars and restaurants. The church where Keith’s daughter was baptized is now a million-dollar home.

Over-the-Rhine resident Georgia Keith.

Photograph by Oussmane Fall

The old neighborhood might not have been as trendy or glitzy as Over-the-Rhine is today, but everyone knew and watched out for each other. The community, the women say, was built on respect. “I have always said it isn’t where you live, but how you live,” says Keith. “Treat people fairly, the way you would like to be treated. You never know when it might be you that needs a glass of water.”

Neumeier is founder or cofounder of neighborhood organizations such as Peaslee Neighborhood Center, the Drop Inn Center, and Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, where she serves as board secretary; Keith is the board’s vice president. “Some people say they move here because they value the diversity, but we’re losing it,” says Neumeier. “People probably get tired of me saying it, but the faces of our people are more important than the facades of buildings.”

Josh Spring, director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, says he’s seen too many tenants forced from their homes because landlords decided to raise rents above what they could afford. “The truth is, in all the instances where we’ve organized with people, there’s almost no legal protections for tenants,” he says. “It’s very difficult to stop your own displacement.”

Such was the case for Aliah Englemon, who lived in a Burnet Avenue apartment building in Mt. Auburn from 2012 to 2020. She received a letter in December 2019 saying her building had been sold. She and her boyfriend were given a month to leave, along with the other tenants in the 17-unit property. “Thirty days is truly not enough time to find someplace to go,” says Englemon. They’d been paying $300 a month in rent, and every one-bedroom apartment they looked at was $700 or more. The Homeless Coalition was able to get the residents more time by lobbying Cincinnati City Council members and putting pressure on the landlord, but in the end the tenants were forced out.

Englemon and her boyfriend did find a nearby apartment for $475, and she is grateful to stay in the neighborhood she loves, which is near the hospital where her boyfriend is being treated for prostate cancer and near reliable bus routes for work. But their rent recently went up to $675, more than twice what she was paying two years ago. “We’re struggling to make ends meet,” Englemon says. “I look at the women’s shelter right down the street, and it’s the last place I want to go. And last winter, when it was really cold, I noticed people living under the bridge, making rock igloos to keep themselves from the cold. I think about that a lot.”

Gentrification can also be indirect, Spring says. People might not be forced from their homes, but suddenly their neighborhood has changed, the culture has changed, and they don’t feel welcome there anymore. People move in from the suburbs and bring their suburban mentalities, he says—as I had.

Over-the-Rhine resident Bonnie Neumeier.

Photograph by Oussmane Fall

Spring describes a recent Over-the-Rhine Community Council meeting where a white resident in a market-rate condo came to ask for more police presence because his Black neighbors hung outside his building listening to loud music late into the night. “I interjected and other people did, too, and asked the question: Have you walked down your stairs and gone outside and said, Hey, I can’t sleep. Could you turn it down? The answer was, Of course not. Instead of just talking to your neighbor, you want armed people to show up with guns on their hips. That doesn’t make any sense.”

To add insult to injury, gentrifying city neighborhoods are some of the region’s highest opportunity neighborhoods—meaning they have good access to jobs, healthcare, education, cultural and recreational resources, and public transportation—but are most at risk of losing affordable housing for existing residents. “Real estate values are changing, populations are changing, and the character of the housing stock is changing,” says Liz Blume, director of the Community Building Institute (CBI) at Xavier University, which tracks regional housing. “All of those things are markers of gentrification.”

The CBI’s 2019 Fair Housing Assessment showed a significant shortage of affordable housing in Cincinnati, stressing low- to moderate-income households. Areas in the center city—including downtown and the West End—are particularly vulnerable to losing affordable housing, but other city neighborhoods like Avondale, Corryville, Evanston, Mt. Auburn, Northside, and Walnut Hills show signs of gentrification as well. All but the West End experienced double-digit percentage increases of white residents and double-digit losses of Black residents from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Census data. Meanwhile, Hartwell, Lower Price Hill, Mt. Washington, Riverside, and West Price Hill had double digit percentage increases in Black residents in that time frame.

The Fair Housing Assessment is required of jurisdictions receiving Community Development Block Grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, says Blume, and it showed a significant shortage of affordable housing options in Cincinnati. “We know we need to be producing more housing units,” she adds. “At best we are replacing what we have. There isn’t a magic thing you’re supposed to do and then everything is better, but it’s clear we must support low-income families who have been in historic neighborhoods for a long time. We have to do that.”

In response to a request to talk about the issue, Mayor Aftab Pureval says in a statement the city is “refocusing our policies to have equity at the center of the frame” when it comes to housing priorities. “After years of exciting but too often uneven growth, we are working hard to double down on more equitable outcomes for our city.”

Inevitably, in a conversation about gentrification, the question of blame comes up. Is it the fault of big landlords and developers? Small landlords like me? Affluent and influential not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) residents and business owners? Young professionals who can pay the higher rents? Earlier trends, like the well-documented white flight to the suburbs, disinvestment in minority neighborhoods, and city policies that created concentrated areas of poverty? The simple answer to a complex problem is: all of the above.

Housing discrimination and racial bias in lending can add to the spread of gentrification, Blume says. The Fair Housing Assessment included a survey of local housing professionals, and 67 percent of those who worked in placement, community development, or government jobs said they’ve witnessed housing discrimination. Data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, released in 2016, showed that Black applicants in Cincinnati were almost 20 percent less likely to be approved for mortgage, refinance, and home improvement loans than white applicants.

Cincinnati voters turned down an affordable housing ballot issue 3–1 last year that would have required city government to invest $50 million a year in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Pureval says his administration is working on other solutions and reports that, as of late August, the trust fund totaled $57 million. “After years of discussion and planning, the trust fund is now accepting applications for new affordable housing projects,” he notes.

Pureval says the city has also undertaken a comprehensive review of its tax incentives to ensure it’s giving only what is needed and is targeting larger incentives to mixed-income and affordable projects “to build the diverse housing stock we know our city needs and our residents deserve.” He’d also like to change the city’s underlying zoning code, which dictates what can and can’t be built and has restricted more than 70 percent of the city to just one type of housing product.

Other housing efforts are both completed and underway. OTR Community Housing has developed more than 725 units of affordable housing and currently manages approximately 420 units. The Port Authority of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority and Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati are currently working in the West End to ensure balanced growth and protection of current residents after the opening of FC Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium, which displaced several residents.

Blume and others cheer mixed-use, mixed-income projects like Willkommen, which consists of 16 historic rehabs and four new infill buildings scattered around four sites in Over-the-Rhine. Out of 163 housing units across the Willkommen project, 88 were considered affordable, according to information provided by 3CDC, a project partner.

Efficiencies were rented for as low as $480 per month, with one-bedroom units starting at $586 per month and two-bedrooms starting at $727 per month. The market rate units were nearly all $1,275 per month and under, with just a couple of higher rent exceptions, according to 3CDC. “It was a very complicated project, multiple buildings, multiple funding streams,” Blume says. “We have to stop pitting community revitalization as an objective and effort against affordable housing—they are not in of themselves conflicting. The answer to avoiding gentrification can’t be to fight investment in my neighborhood.”

For Crystal Andrews, the move to her new apartment in Willkommen has been nothing but “a blessing.” The 38-year-old mother of five moved into her renovated apartment on Race Street near Findlay Market in November 2021. “It is so modern, so extravagant,” says Andrews, who pays $407 a month. “It has changed my whole life.” A Section 8 voucher covers the remainder of her $1,000 monthly rent.

Andrews grew up in Over-the-Rhine and had been living in Evanston. She never expected to be accepted when she submitted her rental application online. “I cried,” she says. “It was an amazing feeling, a new start.” It led her to a job with the 3CDC, where she is now a play attendant at Washington Park.

As of August, 3CDC and its partners had developed 593 apartments in OTR, 436 (or 74 percent) of which are affordable to those making 50 to 80 percent of the Area Median Income. But Spring, from the Homeless Coalition, takes issue with the private nonprofit corporation’s definition of affordable. “The AMI is based on the Metropolitan Statistical Area, which is like an 11-county area, and most of those counties are nothing like Cincinnati’s urban core,” he says. “So the Area Median Income is around $81,000, but Hamilton County’s median income is closer to $59,000. And Over-the-Rhine’s is far less. For whom is this affordable?”

According to the Over-the-Rhine Census Data Housing Study, the largest percentage of Black households there (62.8 percent) earned less than $24,390—below 30 percent of AMI.

AMI is determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, says Joe Rudemiller, 3CDC’s vice president for marketing and communications. While 3CDC is required to provide a specific amount of units at the regional AMI for projects where it receives certain government funds and tax credits, the organization tries to reduce rents even further on many projects, he says, adding that the Willkommen rates are below HUD’s minimum requirement.

“We believe, and have believed from the start, that having a mixed-income neighborhood is the best way to build a neighborhood,” says Rudemiller. “If you only have low-income housing, we don’t think that creates a strong neighborhood. We think there should be low-income housing and market-rate housing.”

Creating a diverse tenant mix is a top priority as well at 3CDC, he says, when the company leases commercial spaces for restaurants, retailers, and service-based businesses. Looking specifically at OTR, 29 percent of 3CDC’s 80 leased first-floor commercial spaces are minority-owned businesses, says Rudemiller. “I understand that things have changed, but I actually think Over-the-Rhine is more reflective of the city as a whole,” he says, noting that the city of Cincinnati is about 45 percent Black and 43 percent white. “This is an area where people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds can live together and enjoy.”

Pendleton resident Cholly Moses, 23, is pushing his son in a stroller in Washington Park, one of a number of civic spaces that 3CDC redeveloped in partnership with the city. He says watching change take place in the neighborhood where he’s lived since he was 13 has been “weird.” “Things look nice, and bringing more parks and things to the community is nice,” he says. “But so many people have been pushed out. So have places that people liked, too.”

Keith and Neumeier say they’re reminded of the haves and have nots every day in Over-the-Rhine. They see wealthy people getting wealthier, and the playing field remains uneven. “We all have a right to live in dignity and have quality of life in our neighborhoods,” says Neumeier.

Longtime residents’ opinions don’t get considered like others at the negotiating table and often fall on deaf ears, the pair say. Until political power and financial power is shared with existing residents living in gentrifying neighborhoods, Spring says, their spaces will always be at risk of being overtaken by more wealthy newcomers. “Start with the people who are there,” he says. “Many have good ideas about how to improve their communities. If other people from other areas like what they see and would like to live there, too, great! Those people can move in and live there without attempting to change the place.”

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