Making residents’ voices heard in the West End

A community development corporation, like Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses (SHNH) in Cincinnati's West End neighborhood, is an essential element of the low income housing movement, ensuring quality homes stay affordable while preserving diversity and community in traditionally marginalized areas.

With the recent popularity of living in neighboring Over-the-Rhine, housing prospects are moving westward, encroaching on the West End historic housing stock.

Historically, West End families have been far too accustomed to encroachment. A city development plan in 1948 forced many of the mostly African American neighborhood residents to resettle in adjacent neighborhoods to make way for I-75, splitting the neighborhood in two.

More recently, the destruction of the Laurel Homes Housing projects and new development, like the construction of FC Cincinnati's soccer stadium, threatens West End's affordability, again displacing more longtime residents and driving up the cost of living for those who remain.

The West End Housing Study, released in 2019 and led by The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority (The Port) and SHNH, was created with the aim to build upon what the two entities know about the neighborhood's housing stock, how likely current residents are to be displaced, and help develop a way forward so the aforementioned does not occur.

Most importantly, found in the study, there is a threat of displacement for some households in the West End. More specifically, the study found that 27% of households are extremely threatened, including renters on fixed incomes and renters that make less than $31,350 a year living in unsubsidized housing.

That’s why Alexis Kidd-Zaffer, the executive director of SHNH, talks about the neighborhood's affordable house stock being in a “fragile state.” Without the presence of organizations like hers, organizations committed to affordable housing, Kidd-Zaffer says the West End would look very different today.

“It doesn’t just happen,” she says of the continued presence of low income housing in an area beset by gentrification. “You have to make a push for what the residents want.”

Based on a settlement house model of service, over several years, SHNH merged with several other city neighborhood houses and, since the 1960s, has ensured that mindset continued. SHNH serves as not only an advocate for affordable housing, but also a social services resource and community gathering space.

However, that is not the extent of their mission. Rather, Kidd-Zaffer sees SHNH as the way in which the West End's low-income residents make their voices heard.

Kidd-Zaffer grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, and takes to heart how friendly folks in the West End were compared to the rest of Cincinnati when she came to the city in 1996. She credits this to her initial involvement with the neighborhood and to her becoming executive director of SHNH in 2015.

She thinks back on her initial reaction of the West End and correlates it to the fact that the 2019 study also discovered that there is a gap in housing stock for people across income levels calling for the need for more affordable housing, as well as market-rate housing.

“Just recently, The Port released one of the properties they owned and it went on the market for $300,000,” Kidd-Zaffer says. “We would have liked to have seen it set at a much more affordable price. We are trying to develop a framework where our organization can purchase a home, rehab it, and place it on the market for $150,000."

“We have to hold folks accountable,” says Tia Brown, SHNH's community engagement director. Brown is referring to a memorandum of understanding signed in 2018 by The Port and SHNH, which solidified the promise of an open channel of communication that will help guide the course of both organizations’ work with regard to development in the neighborhood.

“The more development that does take in consideration the residents, the more chance that those residents will not be priced out of home ownership. Working with The Port helps make this happen," says Brown.

By helping to spread affordable housing throughout the neighborhood, Brown believes SHNH can help against gentrification.

In addition to maintaining home affordability, SHNH tries to make sure their work extends into assisting renters become homeowners and has input on all things development to include sidewalk construction, bike lanes, and other infrastructural improvements that benefit all residents.

“We’re not just housing, we’re about the whole neighborhood,” says Brown.

Although gentrification has been slow in the West End, thanks in large part to The Port and SHNH, Kidd-Zaffer still recognizes its inevitability. More and more families will sell their homes or move out of the neighborhood, making it cost-prohibitive for SHNH to acquire the properties of those leaving the neighborhood.

“It is difficult for us to compete,” Kidd-Zaffer says.

But that doesn’t mean SHNH is only in the affordable housing business. Rather, it continues to help the neighborhood residents in other ways.

Staying true to its origin and development out of the city's Findlay Neighborhood House, SHNH continues to provide supportive services like emergency and social services, youth programs, assistance with victims of crime, and election prevention assistance.

As Kidd-Zaffer notes that increasing affordable housing is not the only answer to the neighborhood's development. "There is also a need to balance the incorporation of market-rate properties."

Brown echoes Kidd-Zaffers' commitment for SHNH to continue to ensure redevelopment in the West End remains equitable and mirrors the wants of those in the neighborhood.

"We strive to continue working to find grant opportunities to help with our housing efforts,” Brown says. “We want to help keep the community informed so they can participate in neighborhood development.”
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