Backstory: Housing Crisis

Editor’s Note: This was originally published in the April 2010 issue.

I looked at this and said, ‘You know, the name of this is “scattered housing.” It’s not, “Let’s build another ghetto,”’” says Arnold Barnett.

Barnett is a board member of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority who served as chairman for about half of 2009, leaving in the midst of a controversy that has cast him as a 21st-century Archie Bunker. The 71-year-old Barnett has spent much of his career in advertising and likes to tell acquaintances that he’s the only Jewish member of the Western Hills Country Club. A Green Township resident, Barnett was talking to a neighbor a few years ago who expressed concern about the amount of subsidized housing moving into the area. Barnett latched on to the issue and soon was appointed to the CMHA by judges of the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court. (In an unusual arrangement, the City Manager appoints two members of the five-member CMHA board to five-year terms; the probate court, the common pleas court, and the Hamilton County commissioners each appoint one person to the remaining positions.)

For decades, subsidized housing in Cincinnati (as in other U.S. cities) was concentrated largely in vast complexes—such as the Lincoln Court and Laurel Homes developments in the West End—where poverty, poor design, and neglect exacerbated social ills. As research began to suggest that poor residents fared better in mixed-income neighborhoods, policies evolved that encouraged residents to move to places with lower levels of poverty. The hulking, crowded Lincoln Court and Laurel Homes were torn down in the spring of 2000 and replaced by the chic new townhomes and mixed-income rentals of the City West development. The residents who were displaced by the demolitions often moved to “scattered-site” rentals in neighborhoods that hadn’t seen much subsidized housing before.

Barnett’s arrival on the CMHA board created a three-member majority of west side residents; the others were Don Driehaus (the former chairman, who left last year after John Rosenberg was appointed to the board) and Pete Witte, both of whom are from Price Hill. It had been a common complaint among west-siders that in previous years, when CMHA’s board was dominated by east side businessmen, a lot of subsidized housing had been directed to the west side. So a west side majority on the board was a sign of change at the agency. And while the west side takeover might appear to have been carefully orchestrated, the politics of those involved—Barnett is an ardent Republican, while Driehaus comes from a prominent Democratic family—suggest that it was more likely a common concern among vastly different pockets of the west side.

Subsidized housing includes properties owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and CMHA, which run the gamut from large-scale developments such as Winton Terrace to smaller buildings scattered around town. It also includes apartments owned by private landlords that are leased to low-income residents through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8 housing.

All told, CMHA serves 16,000 local families in need of rental units or rent assistance. However, numbers from HUD paint a picture of a shifting landscape. From 1994 to 2009, the West End—where Laurel Homes and Lincoln Court were razed—lost 1,621 units of subsidized housing, while Westwood gained 384, Price Hill gained 347, and Green Township 78. North Fairmount lost 491 units and Over-the-Rhine lost 876, while Springfield Township gained 500—more units than any other Hamilton County community. There were significant increases in Forest Park, Mt. Airy, and Colerain Township, too.

Neighborhood homeowners began to complain about crime, noise, and nuisances associated with the subsidized housing in their communities, and the board’s new majority was sympathetic to their concerns. Under Driehaus’s leadership, there was an increased emphasis on enforcing rules. The agency, which has a waiting list of 10,000 people hoping for subsidized apartments, also began giving preference to applicants with jobs.

“There are two things the board should do,” Barnett says. “The first is to help people who need help. We have some awfully nice people on Section 8. Ninety-nine percent of them aren’t deadbeats; they’re people who need a break. At the same time, we should make sure it really is scattered housing. That’s the way to make sure that people who have worked hard all their lives can keep their way of life.”

Barnett took over as chairman when Driehaus stepped down last spring, and he opened his first meeting as chairman by saying, “There’s a new sheriff in town, and we’re not going to take loud music or disturbing the neighbors.” Which would seem like a common-sensical thing to declare. But it didn’t take long for infighting, insults, a lawsuit, and a federal investigation to ensue.

Often, when it comes to government policy, whether municipal or federal, what looks like “enforcing the rules” to some people looks an awful lot like harassment to others. Nearly everyone contacted for this story recounted how Driehaus, when he was CMHA chairman, went alone one night to the English Woods complex to look into a nuisance complaint and ended up with a broken jaw, slugged by an irate tenant. Some told the story as evidence of the rough nature of CMHA renters; others blamed Driehaus for trying such an irrational, cowboy stunt. Besides, they say, he went to the wrong address. (Driehaus did not return calls for comment.)

Housing advocates are also upset that CMHA now makes available a list of the addresses of all its housing online, which means that neighbors can easily find out which buildings in their area are subsidized. As a result, some low-income tenants find themselves less than welcome even before they’ve met the neighbors. “People are excited to move to a neighborhood and they get there and they are harassed to the point that they’re afraid of letting their children out,” says Elizabeth Brown, who directs the advocacy group Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME). Brown details a list of nightmares faced by her clients in subsidized housing: landlords who demand sexual favors from their tenants, neighbors who fabricate claims against them, buildings that are dirty and unsafe.

As a civic issue, subsidized housing has always been fraught with controversy, pretty much no matter what metropolitan area in the United States you’re talking about. Cincinnati, home to the country’s 17th largest public housing agency, is no different. Managing such an agency requires a high level of political savvy; the ability to control a nuanced dance between the housing authority board, its staff, and housing advocates; and the strength to confront the divisions that routinely cloud issues in Cincinnati: race, poverty, and—perhaps toughest of them all—geography.

The first volley in a very public battle that crisscrossed all three of these formidable divisions was fired last summer, when civil-rights attorney Robert Newman filed a complaint with HUD on behalf of three low-income residents, accusing CMHA of racial discrimination in the operation of the Section 8 program. Newman’s complaint triggered a cascade of recriminations that became a full-blown political spectacle: Barnett allegedly threatened to move Section 8 residents to Newman’s Hyde Park neighborhood; Newman filed a retaliation complaint and he wrote a letter to HUD calling for Barnett’s removal as board chair; Barnett sued Newman for defamation; and Barnett called new board member John Rosenberg a “kike” in an argument, then explained the word was not an insult when used by one Jew to describe another. (Rosenberg, a real-estate executive from Montgomery, was appointed by City Manager Milton Dohoney last year after neighborhood activists and a majority of City Council lobbied fiercely to keep Driehaus for a second term. The other CMHA board members elected Barnett chairman after Driehaus left.)

The controversy touched off weeks of headlines, debates, and comments on blogs and news sites. The board—which consisted of Witte, Rosenberg, Lamont Taylor, and tenant representative Lacretia Johnson—took action to reprimand Barnett, and Taylor stepped up as chairman, serving as such until a special election officially appointed him to the position. In response to Barnett’s comments, HUD filed a retaliation complaint similar to Newman’s and began investigating whether Barnett broke a federal law that protects anyone helping “any other person in the exercise of his or her fair housing rights.”

Housing advocates like Elizabeth Brown point out that while subsidized housing has increased in some west side neighborhoods, they still have levels equal to or below average levels. For example: About 7 percent of the housing in Westwood is subsidized, which is just under the combined average of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (7.16 percent), and well below the Cincinnati average of 13 percent. Less than one-half of one percent of the housing in Green Township is subsidized, compared to nearly 3 percent of Hamilton County outside the city limits. Advocates say that the increase in subsidized housing on the west side has largely been a matter of market economics: Properties there cost less than in places like Hyde Park and Montgomery, so they are a better deal both for CMHA and private landlords looking to rent to Section 8 tenants.

“As much as I’d like to see Section 8 in Hyde Park—and there are some possibilities—there aren’t many options there, and there are no options in other, wealthier neighborhoods,” Newman says. As for the places where subsidized housing has caused tension, he adds, “there are difficulties between some tenants and some neighbors, and there are some difficulties with the inability of some Caucasians to live with African-Americans.”

Brown puts it even more plainly: “People have a right to choose where they want to live, and people began freaking out when people they weren’t used to starting moving to their neighborhoods.”

Barnett stepped down as board chair last fall, but remains a board member. As the new head of the housing authority’s leadership, Lamont Taylor, a Frisch’s executive who has been on the board for two years, seems better suited to lead its transformation than any of his predecessors. An African-American whose family was on welfare for a time when he was a child, Taylor has worked his way up the corporate ladder and served as chairman of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority board, which also serves many low-income residents. And he lives in Kennedy Heights, a centrally located neighborhood that lacks the baggage of both the west side and the east side.

Not long after becoming chairman, Taylor contacted HOME, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Legal Aid Society, and other advocacy groups and asked them to serve on an advisory panel. Housing advocates were encouraged by his overture, though one noted that the group has yet to meet. Yet while his style differs markedly from his immediate predecessors, Taylor’s philosophy doesn’t stray far from theirs. He favors strict enforcement of rules, thorough screening of applicants, and limits on how long people can live in subsidized housing.

“I want people off Section 8,” he says. “The board believes you should use this as a stepping stone and not a way of life, and if you see it as a way of life you’re doing people a disservice.” Taylor also seems sympathetic to neighborhood complaints about levels of subsidized housing that have grown excessive. “I don’t want more people on Section 8 in neighborhoods that already have high concentrations of Section 8,” he says. “We have to spread it out in a way that stays within the law.”

Taylor concedes that the drama of recent months has hurt the housing authority’s image; two years without a permanent leader and the federal investigations haven’t helped either. While longtime general counsel Richard Rust has acted as interim director, the board has aborted two searches for a new director, most recently in response to the kerfuffle between Barnett and Newman. And while Taylor took action to reprimand Barnett for his comments last summer, he defends him and wants him to stay on the board. “Personally, I don’t think he has a racist bone in his body,” says Taylor, who considers Barnett a friend and counsels him on how to spin things. “He’s a beautiful person, but he’s old-school. I tell him, ‘Arnie, you can’t say we’re going to make people work. What you need to say is, “We want to help people become self-sufficient.”’”

Taylor has high aspirations for CMHA and innovations he’d like to implement. He hopes that eventually Cincinnati will be chosen to participate in HUD’s Moving to Work program, which grants agencies the freedom to test different strategies for helping low-income families become self-sufficient. For example, contractors are required to hire a percentage of qualified tenants; he’d like to hold them accountable to that stipulation, so that the businesses that benefit from CMHA dollars give back by employing residents.

But to move forward Taylor and the board need a new director, so earlier this year they launched a third executive search. They received nearly 200 applications—from housing executives and those outside the field—and spent the winter narrowing down the list. Taylor hopes to have a new director start May 1, and he realizes there’s a long to-do list waiting, for both the director and his fellow board members. After roughly two years without a permanent leader, an exodus of many top managers, and plenty of board tumult, it’s hard to imagine a tougher municipal job to step into.

“The new director is charged with being a turnaround agent,” says Taylor. “We’ve had some very strong personalities on this board, and when it gets too personal you make bad decisions. We have to be better than we were before, and more creative.” In Taylor’s view, previous boards have not done a good job of building relationships with community groups, housing activists, and other stakeholders. “We need to make our friends before we need them.”

As for Barnett, though he resigned as chairman he has no plans to leave the board, and he doesn’t sound ready to surrender the mission that brought him to the board either. “The first thing we have to do is get an executive director, and we need somebody who can lead CMHA and follow all the rules,” he says. Any rules in particular? “When it says scattered housing, do scattered housing. Don’t buy a complex with 40 units in it and call that scattered housing.”

Facebook Comments