As an era in public housing nears an end, what's next for City Heights?

City Heights is an anachronism, a relic from another era.

A housing project built nearly 70 years ago on an isolated hilltop in Covington, it was created in the days when public housing meant concentrating the poor in one location.

There’s one way in to City Heights, through a now-abandoned gatehouse, and one way out. It’s a warren of cul-de-sacs, populated with identical, two-story, brick apartment buildings. Its barracks-style buildings have suffered from decades of neglect.

But it is home to about 750 people. Most are people of color, many are single mothers, many are children, all of them are of limited means.

Now they need to find new homes. Federal housing officials have given the OK to close the complex of 366 apartments, a community that also includes a convenience store and a church. It’s a decision Covington city and housing leaders have sought for a long time. But it comes at a time when the region is in the midst of a long-term shortage of housing that is available and affordable to low-income families.

It’s not at all clear yet where City Heights residents will go. How local city and housing officials handle that could point the direction to the future of affordable housing in Northern Kentucky.

The process will take at least three years, says Steve Arlinghaus, executive director of the Housing Authority of Covington.
There’s already a backlog of 800 people waiting to get into public housing in the city, he says. City Heights residents will be able to jump to the front of that line. But with a long waiting list already, and a dwindling supply of public housing, it’s unclear how long the wait will be, even for those at the front of the line.

“There’s not nearly enough affordable housing out there to start with,” Arlinghaus says. “That’s a whole separate issue that a lot of community leaders should be talking about, and unfortunately I don’t see that happening very much.”

Affordable housing should also be safe, clean, and comfortable. After he was appointed director of the housing agency three years ago, Arlinghaus and his board commissioned an architecture, planning, and consulting firm to do a detailed assessment of the project’s condition.

The report estimated that it would cost almost $51 million to restore the complex to “safe, decent, and sanitary” standards, with the cost of a more complete modernization estimated at more than $84 million.

The problems were everywhere: Gravity had taken its toll over the decades, as the hillside had slipped, foundations were cracked, sewage lines were deteriorated, natural gas and heating pipes were failing, electrical systems were inadequate and obsolete, electric meter bases and conductor lines had deteriorated, and mold was festering.

The complex had not had a comprehensive makeover since it was built in 1953, Arlinghaus says. The maintenance staff had decreased to a quarter of the federal government’s recommended guidelines, work on serious maintenance issues had been deferred for years, and residents’ complaints were frequent.

Covington’s city commissioners supported the housing authority’s request to close City Heights in a July letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “City Heights is not integrated into the rest of the city, its fundamental flaws are simply not fixable, and no one would consent to build such a project today,” the letter said.

The physical problems of the structures are compounded by the fact that the community is isolated. There are few job opportunities nearby, it suffers from poor access to health care, groceries, and schools, and the community had become a haven for drugs, crime, and gun violence.

“Every family deserves to live in a place they’re proud to call home,” says Covington Mayor Joe Meyer, who also chairs the housing authority board. “Tragically, City Heights is not such a place and will never be, no matter how much money is thrown at it. It’s isolated, run down, unsafe, and founded on a long-failed model for public housing.”

But it is home to 750 people, many of whom are already living on the edge.

“It’s scary to someone who wants stabilization,” says resident Cathy McCants.

“I really hate the fact that we have to get up and go so fast,” says resident Penny Blevins. “A lot of anxiety.”

The residents will receive vouchers that they can use to help pay for housing anywhere in the country. They’re called tenant protection vouchers, and differ from standard Section 8 vouchers that must be used in the county where they were issued, Arlinghaus says.

He says a survey of residents found that one-third originated in Cincinnati. “The majority of them want to go back to Cincinnati,” he says.

But Cincinnati has its own shortage of affordable housing, as a 2017 report on Hamilton County found a shortfall of 40,000 housing units.

And the state of Kentucky has a shortfall of 78,000 housing units for people of extremely low incomes, says Adrienne Bush, executive director of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky.

Complicating matters is the reluctance of private landlords to accept housing vouchers. “It’s kind of wild, wild west,” Bush says. “There’s no statewide law that prohibits discrimination against voucher holders.”

“When you have a significant portion of the private rental market saying, no, you can’t live here, it makes the vouchers harder to use, and it prolongs people’s housing insecurity,” she says.

The new vouchers will start to be issued in December or January, and only at the pace of 10 a month, Arlinghaus says.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he says. “We can’t hand out all these vouchers all at one time, it would flood the market.”

A relocation specialist will be hired to help. Senior citizens – there’s 15-20 living there – will be first on the voucher list. The last on the list will be the 240 or so who are enrolled in a program called Jobs Plus. That’s a $2.2 million program that was awarded to the Housing Authority in 2018 specifically for City Heights residents to help them gain job skills, get a GED, improve their employment opportunities, and increase their incomes. That program is funded through the end of next year, so placing the recipients last on the list allows them to earn all the benefits of it.

How the rest of the residents will be prioritized hasn’t been figured out yet. Housing vouchers usually expire after a certain period of time, somewhere between 30 and 90 days, Bush says.

“It’s important that the community holds them accountable to make sure people are able to use the vouchers elsewhere, and they’re not just cut off after a certain time frame,” she says.

The property – it’s 76 acres – will eventually be put up for sale. An appraisal put its value at $6 million, which accounted for $3 million in demolition costs.

It’s not much of a stretch to envision upscale homes being built there some day, as they have on many of the region’s hillsides. “There’s some awesome views from up there,” Arlinghaus says.

The end of City Heights is another milestone in the denouement of an era in public housing in Covington. The 169 apartments that made up the Depression-era Jacob Price Homes were demolished gradually beginning in 2006. They were replaced years later by a mixed-use development called Rivers Edge at Eastside Pointe, which combines market-rate housing with public housing. Only 40 of the units are public housing.

Arlinghaus says part of the answer must come from other cities in the county accepting the development of affordable housing in their neighborhoods. Its concentration in Covington and neighboring Newport comes from outdated federal regulations that required public housing to be located where the population centers were. But the population has shifted.

The closing of City Heights “is an opportunity for public housing to be integrated into the broader community,” Arlinghaus says. “Northern Kentucky as a collective whole needs to recognize that the challenge of providing affordable housing is a regional issue, and not just one for the river cities to solve.”

That long-term goal is something housing officials and elected leaders will need to focus sustained attention on. In the meantime, hundreds of households in City Heights will need help finding safe housing, peace of mind, and dignity. That too is an opportunity.

As Mayor Meyer says, “If we do it right, our families will be much better off.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.