There was a time when, despite cramped living conditions, living in a city housing project may have had its advantages.
They could be best described by the song “Living For the City,” a hit single from Stevie Wonder’s 1973 album Innervisions. The song explored systemic racism in America and how African Americans faced poverty and harsh living conditions with the presence of families that helped many survive and transcend poverty.
Now, we are living in a different age. Inadequate funding for public housing developments coupled with soaring operating costs have put massive public housing projects into a state of emergency.
Today, residents complain about the lack of activities for children and teenagers and facility problems that have been hard to fix.
In Covington, the aging City Heights housing development is an example of public housing that at one time might have been described by the Stevie Wonder tune but today is in danger of being eliminated.
City Heights was formerly named Ida Spence Homes for the wife of former Congressman Brent Spence. Despite being a large housing project at 366 units, it is a mystery to many, a shadow community within the city of Covington, out of sight and mind.
The future of these homes is uncertain. Some have suggested that, like other cities, the Housing Authority of Covington (HAC), the entity that owns and operates the development, should consider demolishing or privatizing it. Others counter that it would only make the area’s affordable housing crisis worse and force thousands of lower-income Covingtonians out of the city.
Paranoia runs deep in City Heights, but nothing brings the fear out more than the idea that the neighborhood would be sold to private developers who will throw everyone out to put up luxury homes. Some assume it's already a done deal. The pressure to increase private home ownership and put to good use the unbelievable views the neighborhood has to offer is paramount.
One of the most unique aspects of City Heights is its location. City Heights was built in the early 1950s on a lone hilltop overlooking Cincinnati and Newport. Originally, the area was the site of a Benedictine monastery and vineyard. This hilltop also served as the base for Fort Henry during the American Civil War.
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the crack era, whole families in City Heights were addicted, with parents suffering behind closed doors, kids in front, dealing with the repercussions.
The housing development has continued to hold the stigma of years past of being crime-ridden and unsafe. In November 2019, the City of Covington estimated $51 million would be needed to bring the aging development to a “safe, decent and sanitary” standard.
In late 2018, after years of chronic underfunding, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted the Housing Authority of Covington $2,203,270 for its Jobs Plus Initiative specifically to be used in City Heights. The Housing Authority said the purpose of the grant was to develop locally-based, job-driven approaches to increase earnings and employment among low-income residents.
Life in City Heights goes on. People get up and go to work to scrape together a living. Even before COVID-19 precautions changed lives, neighborhood kids still got up and attended classes at local schools. Disability and public-assistance checks keep coming. Why the projects were built here in such numbers and continue to house as many people as they do, is an important question that is not unique to Covington.
Many who live here know the good that goes on in the neighborhood and are still trying to make a difference.
“I’m not originally from Covington,” City Heights Neighborhood Council President J.B. Burress says. “But I moved to City Heights to help make a difference. Not completely taking away our community is fundamental to making our city work and ensuring that so many people can succeed. I have known many who have used living here in City Heights as a stepping stone to get out of poverty. One woman I know completed her college degree and now has a good paying job at Fidelity.”
He suggested a mixed-use redevelopment. “Redeveloping the property and creating both market-rate and low-income residential options could be a key to success,” he says.
You could say that City Heights’ most compelling attribute is the fact that it exists at all. Across the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area, public housing has largely disappeared. Covington knocked down the Jacob Price Housing Development in its Eastside neighborhood. Cincinnati imploded many of its housing projects like in its West End and Bond Hill neighborhoods, while attempting to rebrand others like The Villages at Roll Hill.
This is a useful history to keep in mind while speaking to Tasha Harris, safety monitor for City Heights. "It's still my community," she says, rightly proud of her neighborhood.
“And a lot that we do here in City Heights,” she says, “is for the kids. We listen to what they ask for and we try to make it happen. Just recently, we had scheduled a video game day, where companies would bring in all types of games for the kids to play. But with the coronavirus, we had to put all those plans on hold.”
There are reasons why American public housing was so prevalent in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and reasons why the housing developments became problems and why the poor rarely moved out.
Whatever the reasons, change appears certain for City Heights.
Still, residents express optimism. “City Heights has been here since the 1950's,” Burress says. “It plays a vital role helping people get back on their feet. And it’s going to continue to do so.”
The On The Ground: Covington feature series is made possible by a grant from
The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.