How Price Hill is Updating Its Image While Keeping Its Community Spirit

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Viewed from the street, the Perez house on Maryland Avenue is unremarkable: a white box with vinyl siding perched on a small hill. But its drab exterior deceives. Color is everywhere—well, one color is everywhere. Front door? Teal. Living room? Teal. Kitchen? Teal. Bedrooms? A slightly-bluer teal.

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Illustration by Spencer Flock

“He just wanted it bright,” says Valerie, nodding to her husband. “I like the color,” says Noé, shrugging, as if he never gave it a second thought.

Color aside, their East Price Hill home beats the hell out of their old place: a maggot-infested, three-bedroom apartment they shared with their three kids. They got out thanks to a homesteading program offered by Price Hill Will, the neighborhood’s community development corporation. Both Valerie and Noé are transplants to the area—she moved from Madisonville, he emigrated from Guatemala at age 17—but they’re eager to sink roots into their adopted community. “There’s a lot of effort to make Price Hill thrive, and I want to be part of it,” says Valerie.

The Perezes are part of a growing movement of people and families choosing to settle in Price Hill, an umbrella name for three neighborhoods that have seen more physical, economic, and demographic change in recent years than perhaps any other part of Cincinnati. The redevelopment has been largely successful, yet outsiders still have negative impressions, says H.A. Musser, CEO of Santa Maria Community Services, which helps Price Hill families attain their educational, financial, and health goals. “We’ve had people who come to Price Hill and say they’ve never been before, and we say, ‘Have you been to the Incline Public House?’ ‘Yeah! I love that place,’ ” says Musser, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1986. “People are not yet connecting Price Hill with these good things.”

They’re likely hung up on the Price Hill of yesteryear: a white, working-class community with a penchant for insularity, where citizenship required five generations of residency and where once Price Hill (Chili) enters your body it never leaves. That stereotype was accurate until the early aughts, when a spike in crime and the foreclosure crisis scared off residents and decimated the housing stock. Just a decade later, though, it’s a hot neighborhood
(according to Cutler Real Estate rankings) with rising property values, new restaurants, and one of the city’s most diverse populations. The trademark civic pride is intact, too—nearly everyone I interviewed used the collective “we” to describe the redevelopment.

Why, then, does the narrative of blight, crime, and segregation persist? The simple answer is that those things still exist. Shootings are up, eviction rates rank among the highest in the city, vacant homes still pepper the streetscape, and property owners keep luring buyers into predatory land installment contracts. The less obvious answer is that, unlike similar redevelopments in Over-the-Rhine and the West End, Price Hill’s rebirth has been mostly homegrown. Longtime residents and the organizations supporting them work tirelessly to save the area’s high-profile single-family housing and, by extension, its narrative.

“People are not yet connecting Price Hill with good things,” says H.A. Musser, CEO of Santa Maria Community Services, and a Price Hill resident since 1986.

Lodged in the nexus of these tangled vines is Price Hill Will, which officially incorporated in 2004 but had already existed under the umbrella of IMAGO, the ecological education organization. Those early years were hectic, until the organization zeroed in on its first project: a squat, two-story house at the intersection of Seton and St. Lawrence avenues. “It’s a tiny little thing, but it was a start,” says Ken Smith, who was executive director of Price Hill Will for 11 years. That corner property wound up being the inaugural home in the Buy-Improve-Sell program, which, as of May 2018, had turned around 73 houses mostly in the Cedar Grove neighborhood around Seton and Elder high schools, where West and East Price Hill meet.

Physically rebuilding Cedar Grove mattered, but so did the fact that the rehab was in a well-trafficked area. “The kids are out in the neighborhood, so we want this to be a stable area where people feel safe,” says Smith. “Elder football games bring in thousands and thousands of people on a Friday night, so it’s the thing people see.”

Rewriting the neighborhood’s narrative quickly became part of Price Hill Will’s duties. After a 2004 Enquirer story portrayed the area as seedy, crime-infested, and run-down, the team vowed to take an active role in how the media characterized Price Hill. “When we worked across from [Cincinnati Police Department] District 3, part of my job was to see if TV cameras rolled up and, if so, run across and get in front of them,” says Matt Strauss, one of the nonprofit’s first employees. “Any time a reporter wrote an inaccurate story about Price Hill, I got in touch.”

That was a tall order, considering the foreclosure crisis was decimating Price Hill. From 2006 to 2014, only Westwood—Cincinnati’s largest neighborhood by population and housing units—had more foreclosure sales (1,166) than East (789) and West Price Hill (1,025) in Cincinnati. More than 10 percent of those area’s units were foreclosed upon; Lower Price Hill, which is primarily rental properties, was largely spared.

Bobby Stevenson Jr. had a front row seat to the foreclosure crisis as an independent contractor banks hired to renovate or prepare a home to be sold. “The houses were all over,” he says. “We had streets that might have three, maybe four foreclosed homes at one time. We would see that house, and me and my fellas would say, ‘Oh, we’re gonna end up with that house right there.’ ” Mold and missing copper piping were common, but the biggest nuisance were the neighbors, who sometimes called the police to report a “break-in” by Stevenson, who is black.

Sister Sally Duffy, who moved to Price Hill from Chicago in 2001, is clear-eyed about the neighborhood’s racial problems. “We were, quite candidly, learning how to be inclusive as a neighborhood,” says Duffy, the former president of SC Ministry Foundation, a public grant-making organization that often works with Price Hill Will. Like many inner-ring Cincinnati neighborhoods, Price Hill was crippled by white flight, but that moved more slowly than in other places because the neighborhood worked hard to maintain its white, working-class reputation—emphasis on white.

Today, the streets are full of black and Hispanic kids. Census data shows that the black population throughout all three neighborhoods rose from 2,153 in 1990 to 10,207 in 2010. Hispanics saw similar growth, from 222 to 1,897, a number that likely excludes undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, the white population plummeted from 38,241 to 20,660, with many folks fleeing to nearby Covedale or Cheviot. The foreclosure crisis merely accelerated the disinvestment that white flight started. The result? “Housing became more affordable across the board, and that presented a lot of opportunity for the immigrant population, for the African-American population that had previously not considered it as a neighborhood where they were welcome,” says Stephanie Moes, a lawyer working and living in the neighborhood since 2006.

Still, many incoming residents had vacant lots and blighted homes for neighbors, and crime remained a problem. “You heard gunshots all the time,” says Stevenson, who moved to East Price Hill in 2005. “Warsaw Avenue never slept. All the druggies and prostitutes hung out on Warsaw. It wasn’t hidden at all.”

For lifelong residents like Patti Hogan, this new reality didn’t square with the safe, sleepy suburb of her youth. “A neighbor of mine, he and his son were out painting and a car drove by and fired off some bullets and just missed the son while he was out on the ladder,” she says. “Before that we never had that around here.”

Price Hill Will was instrumental in forming several “community action teams,” or CATs. Hogan was a founding member of the Safety CAT—now independent from Price Hill Will—and today heads a team that organizes litter pickups, a youth program, and “sit-ins,” posting up in folding chairs on corners where criminal activity often happens. “I don’t care what you look like, I don’t care what god you believe in, what I do care about is your behavior and how it affects other people in this city, in this community,” she says. I ask her why do it if criminals likely will just go to another corner. “To let people know that we’re not giving up on this street,” says Hogan, who has lived in her current home near Cincinnati Christian University since 1989. “We’re not going to abandon it.”

She says crime and decay left an indelible mark on the community, almost as if it were branded. “Our image is still negative,” Hogan says. “Trying to change a negative image is really difficult. It’s all about perceptions, and people’s perceptions still go back to when it was bad.”

For years, one of the most obvious symbols of the neighborhood’s decay was one of its most visible: the sprawling, sagging apartment building at the intersection of Elberon and West Eighth. Ken Smith hated it. “I would sit at the light and think, ‘Jesus, that building’s beautiful and is falling apart, and I can’t wrap my head around why nobody’s doing something with it,’” he says. “What does that say about a community when arguably the most beautiful building in the neighborhood can’t be salvaged?”

That’s why, in 2012, with the help of Model Group, Price Hill Will turned the boarded-up eyesore into apartments for low-income seniors. Other large-scale successes like Incline Public House and Warsaw Federal Incline Theater followed soon afterward, which proved pivotal. “I could fix every house in the neighborhood,” says Strauss, “but if there’s nothing to eat, if I don’t feel safe, if there’s nowhere to hang out, you’re not going to buy that house.”

The development paid off. According to Dan Morena, a real estate agent in the neighborhood for more than 20 years, houses in Cedar Grove once scheduled for demolition are now selling for up to $175,000. Smith isn’t concerned with the rise in property values—large swaths of Price Hill are still reeling—but he’s clear about the future.
“We don’t want to continue the forest fire, we want a gentle simmer,” he says. “We want all kinds of people and income levels to come to Price Hill. If the end result is that all people of lower income levels in Price Hill were displaced, it might be some people’s idea of perfect but it’s not my idea of perfect.”

Homeowners have less to fear from rent-induced displacement, but Price Hill’s rental stock has been increasing for years, thanks to out-of-state developers buying foreclosed homes in bulk. In the late 1990s, the home ownership rate topped 50 percent. Today, that number has dwindled to 31 percent, close to the city’s overall rate. To reverse the trend, Price Hill Will started a homesteading project in 2015 to engage and empower renters who have the skills and will to renovate a home but lack the credit to secure a traditional bank loan.

“I could fix every house in the neighborhood,” says Strauss, “but if there’s nothing to eat, if there’s nowhere to hang out, you’re not going to buy that house.”

The project brings together several local organizations—including Santa Maria, Working in Neighborhoods, and Hamilton County Redevelopment Authority—to purchase homes, vet the candidates, and write non-predatory loans. Clients pay off the home in monthly installments over five years and complete certain renovations. “It’s not necessarily a pretty house, but it’s up to code and it’s livable,” says Jay Kratz, director of real estate development for Price Hill Will. “They’ve got a house that they can move their family into, and they’ve got a little more sweat equity in the game. Their ownership is more inspired, and they’re more invested in the neighborhood.”

Lots of candidates are from the neighborhood’s Hispanic community, many of whom shy away from traditional banking. Neither Valerie nor Noé Perez had the credit or cash to buy a traditional home. “We don’t have Nikes or Air Force Ones,” she says. “We have Walmart shoes.” The total cost of their house was $23,000, including repairs, which they’ve paid off early. Still, the house is a work in progress. Repurposed tires serve as flower beds, and their frenetic Boston Terrier has jumped through the wire screen on the back door so many times they’ve decided to leave it permanently cocked open.

Not that Valerie cares. She isn’t one to paper over shortcomings or her own personal struggles, and her house reflects that sincerity. “It’s not perfect, but we did it,” she says, staring out at the neighborhood from her porch. “We did all of it.”

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