Homeless Camps and Urban Revival: The Privatization of an American City and an Ongoing Affordable Housing Crisis

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report found for the second consecutive year an increase in the unsheltered homeless population of Hamilton County, OH; 16,518 more people slept on the streets in 2017 than 2016, a 9% jump. Municipal governments routinely compound such crises by enacting cruel and inhumane legislation to criminalize and conceal homelessness, rather than resolve the structural issues that create the problem in the first place. Recently, however, the homeless residents of Cincinnati—the Hamilton County seat—made themselves visible by setting up camps in the city center.

In response, the city government initially made limited attempts to provide services for the residents of the camps. For example, in the case of the Third Street camp underneath the I-71 overpass, the city arranged spots for occupants at local shelters, and the Cincinnati Health Department’s Mobile Unit visited the site to offer care to anyone seeking it. While such efforts are seemingly well-intentioned, they are in fact an empty gesture. In one instance, police told camp occupants to go to Prince of Peace, a Lutheran church in the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, for temporary housing. When asked for comment, Prince of Peace Pastor John Suguitan said no official plan to house the homeless had been made. Moreover, soon after their establishment, the government used public health concerns as a pretext for dismantling the encampments. Camp residents resisted these efforts, often reestablishing disbanded camps soon after city officials left the area or moving to another nearby location. This dynamic of forced dismantling and subsequent reestablishment lasted about a month, with the first notice to vacate the camps posted on July 16, and the last site disbanded on August 20, 2018.

Local government representatives also took an antagonistic public stance toward the camps. For example, on August 7, County Prosecutor Joe Deters went on a local news program and described the homeless as a “disruption” and a “nuisance” to the city. The day before, Judge Robert Ruehlman issued the first ban on homeless encampments throughout the downtown area and expanded the order to all of Hamilton County on August 9. The ban represents another measure in a long list of policy decisions that effectively criminalize poverty. The judge stipulated that shelter space must be available as an alternative to encampments but, according to a recent story by WCPO, the two largest shelters in the city are consistently over-capacity. For example, 196 men slept at the 150-bed David and Rebecca Baron Center for Men on August 8, 2018.

These actions by Cincinnati’s government are a Band-Aid; neither the limited provision of services nor the dismantling of the camps addresses the complex, underlying factors that create homelessness. Long-term disinvestment has plagued the city with high levels of unemployment and poverty for decades. CityData found that nearly 33% of Cincinnati residents were living below the poverty line in 2016. Perhaps even more startling, recent findings published in the Enquirer found 13,000 more people were living in poverty in 2017 than in 2007—the third highest increase in the country amongst cities with more than 250,000 residents. Coupled with increased housing costs and stagnant wages, the city’s inequalities are stark.

News coverage of the events surrounding the camps has largely failed to address the lack of affordable housing in downtown Cincinnati. Unlike New York or San Francisco, the city does not have a reputation for exorbitant rents. However, property values have drastically increased in recent years. Like many other cities across the nation, Cincinnati has been going through the euphemistically named process of “urban revival.” Although this term appears to signify widely shared restoration and renewal, such processes are racially and economically coded, leading to displacement and erosion of neighborhood character in pursuit of profit.

From the year 2002 to 2015, the availability of affordable housing units decreased by 73 percent throughout Cincinnati’s downtown Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. This is due in large part to the elimination of the city’s planning department and the creation of the non-profit development corporation 3CDC (Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation) in 2003. 3CDC’s mission is ostensibly to revitalize Cincinnati’s urban core. Financed primarily by large corporate contributions and management fees, 3CDC has invested more than $1.3 billion into the redevelopment of the city’s Central Business District and Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. This flood of money, however, is not intended for long-time, often poor, neighborhood residents but, rather, for the construction of million dollar development projects catering to the city’s wealthy elite. 3CDC has also tried to privatize public goods. In 2017, 3CDC attempted to broker a deal to sell off the downtown library’s north building for potential real estate development. The deal was eventually scrapped due in no small part to mounting pressure from the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter. However, this was a rare instance of pushback against the development corporation. Most of 3CDC’s projects are approved without criticism from city officials or local media. In fact, on September 12, 3CDC secured funding and the city council votes necessary to move forward with a $116 million development project with Indianapolis based developer Flaherty & Collins. The planned 14-story tower will cover 22,000 square feet of street-level, commercial space, a 584 space-parking garage and 264 luxury apartments, which Flaherty & Collins will lease directly to tenants upon completion.

While some outlets and publications like Cincinnati Refined (owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group) make the argument that 3CDC has “renovated” parts of the urban core, their development comes at the price of 37,800 evictions between the years 2014 and 2016, turning large swaths of the city into a private playground for the upper class. There is perhaps no greater illustration of this dynamic than in the case of the 21C Museum Hotel, formerly the Metropole Apartment complex. 3CDC purchased the 230-unit building back in 2009, evicted its tenants, and subsequently converted the only affordable housing complex in downtown into luxury hotel complete with a rooftop bar. A year later, former tenants of the Metropole complex filed a lawsuit against 3CDC and its partners (The Model Group, Inc. Azeotropic Partners LLC. and Brickstone Properties LLC), claiming intimidation and discrimination. A settlement was eventually reached after a year and a half of litigation with 3CDC agreeing to pay out a total of $80,000 to displaced residents. While the outcome was certainly a victory for some of the city’s vulnerable residents, the payout roughly equated to only $480 per tenant, far less than one month’s rent.

A recent report published in May of 2017 by the Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCFDN) found that the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood has roughly 1,200 vacant housing units. Citywide, there were more than 31,000 empty units. Clearly, individuals in Cincinnati are not homeless due to a scarcity of housing resources; they are homeless because it is more profitable to let units sit empty than allow those who need shelter to use those resources. Another report also published in 2017 found that “for every 100 of the lowest income households in Hamilton County [Cincinnati], there are only 28 units of housing that are both affordable and available. This equates to an approximate gap of 40,000 units for those households making $14,678 or less (30% of Hamilton County’s median income).” 3CDC and private developers like the Model Group claim to be strong supporters of affordable housing, yet their most recent affordable housing project only contains 50 units for low-income individuals. Furthermore, these supposed affordable units cost 35% to 50% of area median income, which does not meet HUD standards.

The homeless camps and the rapid decline of affordable housing in Cincinnati underscore a larger issue: Housing under a capitalist system serves private profit rather than human needs. Municipalities like Cincinnati exacerbate this problem when they turn over control of a resource such as housing to private corporations. This is especially clear when you look at who sits on the board of 3CDC: CEOs and high-ranking officials from companies like the Western & Southern Financial Group, Procter & Gamble, Fifth Third Bank and General Electric (GE). Capitalist enterprises like 3CDC’s partners will always put a profit margin over the public’s well-being. In a 2008 study titled “Who Rules Cincinnati,” activist and author Dan La Botz wrote, “With the Cincinnati’s Planning Department abolished, citizens had no democratic control over the city’s future development.” He went on to argue that local activists in the Over-the-Rhine People’s Movement view 3CDC as a “domestic imperialist operation that restricts the neighborhood’s right to self-determination by controlling its territory, by chauvinistically assuming that the neighborhood can’t govern itself, and by concentrating decision-making power in entities outside of the community.” Capitalist interests, in short, have taken precedence over residents’ needs.

The situation, at times, seems insurmountable, but there are concrete ways we can reverse these current trends. In the short term, we have to stand with Cincinnati’s homeless community and push back against development organizations like 3CDC and their capitalist partners wherever we can. Local activists have drawn attention to the issues by holding a number of rallies and protests, which at the very least pressure city officials to delay or abandon policies that harm Cincinnati’s most vulnerable residents. While it is true that the city has disbanded the downtown camps, their presence raised significant awareness regarding Cincinnati’s issues of inequality and homelessness.

In the long-term—which will be much more difficult—Cincinnati’s government must rein in the scope of 3CDC. Concerned residents must work to dismantle the relationship between private developers and government commissioned, tax-exempt organizations. To do this, residents and local organizations must hold their elected officials accountable and demand they refuse corporate contributions. Current Democratic Mayor John Cranley, for instance, heavily outraised his main opponent, Yvette Simpson, in the 2017 primary, receiving massive contributions from construction and real estate companies looking to secure development deals. This dynamic has to change, as it allows corporations to exert tremendous political influence through organizations like 3CDC. They have too much unchecked purchasing power, and their interests are fundamentally misaligned with the long-term health of the city and its communities. Next and inextricably linked to the previous measure, Cincinnati needs to reverse the current squeeze on affordable and subsidized housing in the city center, which means supporting candidates who align themselves with civic organizations like the Over-the-Rhine Community Council instead of pursuing corporate PAC money. The city needs to prioritize its residents over private profits and strengthen tenant’s rights, implement rent control policies, and improve shelters and human services. Additionally, the city can impose vacancy taxes and hold developers accountable to meet subsidized housing requirements.

Finally, we need to change fundamentally our viewpoint when it comes to housing and homelessness in this country. Homelessness neither is an immutable fact of human life nor is it solved by criminalization and privatization. It is the inevitable byproduct of capitalist profit-seeking. Cities like Cincinnati need to stop stigmatizing poverty and implement policies that meet the needs of their residents.

By Iain McDavid 
Edited by Jake Keyel
Iain's bio:
Initially from the DC metro area, Iain received his BA in Literary in Cultural Studies from the University of Cincinnati in 2014. He briefly interned with a local independent publication as an editor and currently writes his own stories and articles. 

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