Pride of ownership, diverse housing stock keys to welcoming Covington influx

“The success of our mission depends largely on people wanting to live here,” says Jill Morenz of the Catalytic Fund, whose Beyond the Curb urban living tour continued April 30 and featured more than a dozen eclectic Covington residences. “The tour showcases the variety of housing options and the amenities, so that people can see there is a place for them in the river cities.”

More than 500 people turned out for the event, which is held twice per year, rotating between the NKY cities of Bellevue, Dayton, Newport, Covington and Ludlow. It will return to Covington in 2019.

The April tour spanned middle- to high-end residences, many of them brand-new to the community. The Catalytic Fund has facilitated projects like Pike Star and Boone Block, while others, such as the Banklick infill project in Seminary Square, are being managed by another Covington group, the Center for Great Neighborhoods. Still more development projects in Covington are being overseen by private owners and developers.

Though residential development projects like these represent only a small piece of the city, they serve to illustrate a growing theme: Covington is a place anyone can call home.

Who is the “average” Covingtonian?

With a mix of everything from second- and third-generation Appalachian migrants to recent college grads — and plenty of empty-nesters and young families tossed in for good measure — Covington’s residents can’t be lumped into any one description or demographic.

Growth stalled over the past 15 years, but Covington leaders are preparing for a major boost in the coming years, as the city experiences an economic renaissance. Now, the challenge for public and private entities will be to introduce living options that can accommodate incoming residents from diverse walks of life.

Prospective homebuyers won’t be left wanting. Some of Covington’s most stable housing markets include the Licking Riverside Historic District, with its impressive collection of stately 19th century homes, and the middle-class enclave of Wallace Woods, located about two miles south of the Ohio River.

In other neighborhoods near the river, such as Mainstrasse, Mutter Gottes, Eastside, Westside and Seminary Square, single-family homes are interspersed with both market rate and low-income rentals.

Many of Covington’s historic districts remain intact — thanks in part to the city’s historic preservation guidelines — with 19th century Italianate and Queen Anne homes, as well as Craftsman-style bungalows lining entire city blocks. Many properties have been updated or renovated by individual owners and small-scale developers.

But not everything in Covington is old; new homes are on their way to the city, as well.

The past few years have seen higher-density residential development projects by groups like Orleans Development who brought the adaptive-reuse Boone Block Lofts and Market Lofts to the city’s central business core.

In Mainstrasse, the mixed-use John R. Green Lofts and 501 Main developments are underway, as are two Catalytic Fund-assisted projects: the much-anticipated Duveneck Square (by Cincinnati’s NorthPointe Group) and renovation of the historic Bradford Building at Fourth Street and Scott Boulevard.

These large-scale projects are the work of partnerships between investors, developers and architects and require a lot of city and community support to — literally — get off the ground.

Hub & Weber Architects have been involved in many of Covington’s large-scale residential projects — Market Lofts, Boone Block and a mixed-use renovation of the historic Mutual Building on Madison Avenue.

The firm also works on smaller creative projects, like those unfolding in Mainstrasse with the help of civic-minded entrepreneurs Paul and Emily Weckman. Hub & Weber also helped design a small “container house” project in the Westside that is set to begin construction in July.

Jim Guthrie, a principle architect at Hub & Weber, has enjoyed watching Covington grow in the over 25 years he’s worked in the city. He would like to see the city embrace its diverse housing as an asset to attract and retain residents through various stages of life — childhood, college age, young families, retirees, etc.

“In all cities, the issue is always how to keep up with the needs of your residents so you don’t have that population shift,” Guthrie says. “And, also, have a diversity of population in culture and income that helps support the city.”

A livable city has a place for everyone. But this vision for a truly livable city is about more than housing, Guthrie says; it requires investing in education, greenspace and entertainment. The developments in these areas will all feed off of each other.

“It happens through the markets,” he says. “Businesses will see the opportunity for growth when you build 100 units of apartments next door.”

Making room for everyone

But while the city experiences rapid, large-scale growth in some areas, its market-rate units remain out of reach for many Covington residents. Some wonder if the city will be able to maintain its diversity amid this new higher-priced wave of development.

The Center is doing its part to tackle that issue by developing real estate in a community-focused way.

The Center’s Shotgun Row is one great example of urban innovation — five 1,100-square-foot, one-bedroom, modestly appointed shotgun homes on the Westside’s Orchard Street. The houses were designed as artist live/work space, which is perfect for Covington's budding artist community. Upon completion, the homes were modestly priced as well: each sold for just over $90,000.

Adam Rockel, The Center’s real estate development manager, admits that the project was initially met with suspicion. The five buildings were bought in various stages of severe disrepair on a block that showed the scars of longtime vacancy and disinvestment.

“A lot of people had doubts about the viability of the project,” Rockel says. “They thought the homes wouldn’t be large enough, that there wouldn’t be demand.”

But the project was a great success, with all five homes selling immediately. Shotgun Row was completed in 2014, but Rockel still gets a few calls per month from people asking about similarly-scaled projects. It’s proof, he says, that smaller, more moderately-priced housing is in high demand in Covington, especially among older residents and empty-nesters who like the idea of downsizing to single-story living. And unlike a condo, homeowners can still be in their own space with their own yard or garden.

But while some Covington residents can shop around for housing, others are at the mercy of their circumstances.

Orchard Street resident Steven Huss lives in the sixth house on Shotgun Row. He is 70 years old and has lived in and around Covington his entire life. He bought the house on Orchard Street in 1983 for $13,000.

Huss and his wife Sue were essentially grandfathered into Shotgun Row. When The Center was preparing to launch the project, they offered to buy Huss’s house, too, but he didn’t want to leave.

“I didn’t really want to sell because we couldn’t buy much nowadays,” says Huss, who is on a fixed income. “I can’t afford a grand a month. I’m used to more or less cheap living. I’ve got a Social Security check, but it’s not much.”

The Center provided resources to restore the exterior of Huss’ home to match the newly renovated homes next door. As a result, he can now enjoy the improved neighborhood amenities and new neighbors, while his home value continues to increase. Rockel says this is a big part of The Center’s mission: To help residents of all income levels build equity through home ownership.

‘Hopefully I’ll be here forever’

The Center is not the only community agency working to sustain home ownership opportunities for Covington’s less affluent residents. Housing Opportunities of Northern Kentucky (HONK) was started in 1992 to facilitate home ownership by providing affordable housing options to those who qualify.

HONK is a nonprofit organization that functions as a Community Housing Development Organization. It was started in 1992 and is active in NKY’s three counties. Using mostly volunteer labor, HONK completes 2-3 rehab projects per year and one new build every 18 months.

To date, HONK has built 13 infill houses in Covington and completed 59 rehabs. Most of the homes are donated in severe disrepair or built on vacant lots.

To qualify to purchase a HONK home, residents must be below a certain income threshold but have the capacity to pay a small mortgage. While living in the home, they are enrolled in a lease-to-own program that includes education about home care and financial health. After about two years, they should be able to secure a conventional mortgage loan and complete the purchase of their home. HONK then provides up to $8,000 in down payment assistance and help with closing costs. The organization also helps make up the difference between the final market rate (selling price) of the home and what the resident can afford based on income.

In addition to private agencies like The Center and HONK, Covington relies on public Housing Development programs to maintain a diverse residential base. These programs include help with down payments and home repairs. Additionally, there are more than 2,000 rent-subsidized housing units across the city for those who cannot afford market rate.

Huss is thankful his home is now worth more than the $13,000 he spent on it 30 years ago, but he has no plans to cash in on this newfound equity anytime soon. He loves his home on Orchard Street.

“Before, it was sort of run-down. Now, it’s beautiful. I really like the home. Hopefully I’ll be here forever.”

The Northern Kentucky Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation is proud to underwrite Soapbox’s On the Ground: Covington series. The Northern Kentucky Fund believes that highlighting the successes and challenges in our community fosters effective dialog and action, creating communities where everyone can thrive. Other On the Ground partners include The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is working collaboratively toward community transformation with series sponsor Place Matters partners LISC and United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center.

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