Reported ArticleAffordability

Strength in Diversity: Crafting an Affordable Housing Coalition in Cincinnati

The city’s longtime champions of housing for low-income residents joined forces with an array of allies to establish a sustainable source of funding for affordable housing.

Advocates led by Cincinnati Action for Housing Now rally at Cincinnati City Hall on Aug. 2, 2023, demanding that a housing measure to fund affordable housing be put on the November ballot. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Action for Housing Now

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A women’s club. A choir. A bus coalition.

Near the city hall steps, a woman holds a sign that reads "Rent is too damn high." She is dark-skinned and has copper-colored hair and wears a multicolored top and blue jeans. Behind her is a partially visible large banner for Cincinnati Action for Housing Now.
A rally-goer at the August 2023 mass gathering at Cincinnati City Hall sums it up with her sign. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Action for Housing Now

Those aren’t the types of groups you’d immediately think of as housing advocates, but in Cincinnati, they’re part of a diverse movement that’s fighting to make genuinely affordable housing widely available for the city’s lowest-income households.

More than three dozen community and social services organizations, congregations, housing advocacy groups, and others have signed on to participate in a grassroots ballot campaign called Cincinnati Action for Housing Now. Since the campaign’s start in 2017, the groups have worked together to fight for the creation of (and funding for) Cincinnati’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which was designed to help address the dire affordable housing needs in the city.

Cincinnati faces a shortfall of tens of thousands of housing units for households making 30 percent or less of area median income (AMI)—which is about $31,450 for a family of four. In Over-the-Rhine, one of Cincinnati’s 52 distinct neighborhoods, disinvestment and redevelopment have displaced half of the Black population, and the neighborhood has lost thousands of dwellings affordable to the residents whose need for that housing is greatest, according to Josh Spring, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition.

How did the campaign get so many disparate groups involved? Is it helping with Cincinnati’s housing crisis? And what lessons can the campaign offer to housing advocates who want to engage with community stakeholders who aren’t focused on housing justice?

The Birth of a Campaign

“These are my cousins, my relatives, my neighbors, the people I grew up with, the communities that I know and love,” says Robin Wright-Pierce, director of discipleship at Beloved Community Church in Cincinnati’s Mt. Airy neighborhood. She’s talking about people experiencing homelessness and housing instability, and her words articulate the passion that’s driven scores of individuals and groups like her congregation to get involved in Cincinnati’s fight for housing justice.

How did it all start? Late in 2016, two local housing coalitions—the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and Affordable Housing Advocates—wanted to establish an affordable housing trust fund in the city. Housing advocates there had long believed that Cincinnati was in desperate need of housing for its poorest residents, and an early 2017 report by Xavier University’s Community Building Institute confirmed that belief and quantified the need.

The report, Housing Affordability in Hamilton County, documented a shortfall of about 40,000 units for Hamilton County households earning 30 percent or less of AMI. In the county’s urban areas (Cincinnati is the principal one) the gap between supply and demand was over 25,000 units, with affordable units available to just 28 percent of the lowest-income households. The data gave the two well-established organizations the impetus they needed to establish the Cincinnati Action for Housing Now campaign and begin organizing for change.

The campaign quickly gained support. Some supporters joined the campaign after they learned about the city’s housing shortage. “We were able to use [the report] . . . to further galvanize people,” says Spring, who also serves as the campaign’s spokesperson.

But much of the support was a result of the founding organizations’ connection to scores of individuals and organizations that understand the importance of affordable housing in the city. For instance, the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, founded in 1984, includes close to 60 organizations that have interests in advocacy, political action, children’s services, living in faith, supportive services, transportation, education, and more. Collectively, the members have been “interested in creating, or funding, an affordable housing trust fund for a long time,” says Spring.

Affordable Housing Advocates comprises just under two dozen individuals and organizations working to ensure adequate housing throughout southwest Ohio, with a focus on the needs of very-low-, low-, and moderate-income households.

For any city, the better off more of their citizens are, the better off the city is.’

Jan Seymour, vice president of the Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati

The Cincinnati Action for Housing Now campaign bore fruit in December 2018, when the city council passed legislation establishing its Affordable Housing Trust Fund—Fund 439—which aims to support investments in housing affordable to households earning 61 percent or less of AMI, or up to about $64,000 for a family of four, with at least half the funds to be used for housing affordable to households earning 30 percent or less of AMI. But the council did not establish a revenue source for the trust fund, leaving it without dedicated funding.

Members of the campaign advocated for funding the trust, and succeeded in placing two initiatives on the ballot in 2021 (Issue 3) and 2023 (Issue 24), which would have raised and committed a large, recurring source of revenue to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“We get more requests for housing help than any other need,” says Carolyn Yorio, director of housing for Caracole, a nonprofit that provides housing and other services to people living with HIV in Greater Cincinnati. “Housing is health care—a person cannot become healthy living with a chronic disease when they are experiencing housing instability and homelessness.”

Caracole actively participated in work related to both ballot issues, Yorio says, organizing a demonstration in favor of Issue 3, and for Issue 24, donating staff time to organize outreach, collect signatures, and speak with voters; working to recruit and support volunteers; and posting endorsements and arguments for the issue on social media.

The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, which supports “the well-being of Appalachian people, communities, and cultural expression,” was also actively involved in the campaign’s work, gathering signatures in 2021 and demonstrating in 2023.

“We think decent housing is a basic human right and we work for justice for all. . . . Tens of thousands of black and white Appalachians have been displaced from their housing in Cincinnati since 1970,” says Michael Maloney, a member of the coalition.

Despite intensive organizing by those organizations and many others, neither initiative succeeded.

Who is Supporting the Campaign, and Why?

The campaign attracted a strong following among organizations with clear interests in making affordable housing widely available, as well as others whose ties to the housing justice movement are less obvious.

Many of the campaign’s supporters are natural allies whose relationships developed organically.

Two of the supporters most integrally involved in the campaign are Over-the-Rhine Community Housing—a community development corporation, community housing development organization, and housing manager—and the Peaslee Neighborhood Center. Although their missions are different, they are part of the core team that has been working to fund the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

The Over-the-Rhine neighborhood has been subject to longtime disinvestment, and for several decades it lost residents. In the last decade, however, Over-the-Rhine’s location between downtown and the University of Cincinnati has made it attractive, and new investment has been shifting the demographics and driving up housing prices.

Despite the area’s changes, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing has created and currently manages hundreds of units of housing, serving residents earning 30 percent to 60 percent of AMI, says Mary Burke Rivers, the organization’s executive director. Ongoing involvement as a manager and provider of supportive housing has kept the organization “deeply rooted” in the community and fostered ongoing involvement with the campaign, she says.

On its face, Peaslee’s ties to affordable housing are not so clear cut. Jennifer Arens, Peaslee’s community education coordinator, describes the center as “a nonprofit that does education and enrichment that’s aimed at social change.” The center, which opened in 1984, serves children and adults, and has built on Over-the Rhine’s decades-long history of neighborhood activism to strengthen organizing skills in other parts of the city as well as in the neighborhood, says Arens. “The most recent efforts around the affordable housing trust fund campaign are more like new or recent iterations of . . . long-standing coalition work to advocate for housing justice,” she says.

Some less obvious connections to the campaign were the result of outreach. “[T]here’s certainly some of us doing outreach [to] groups that might not be directly involved in the homelessness world . . . groups like NAACP, or Urban League, [and] some faith-based organizations,” says Spring. The message that housing is at the root of Cincinnati’s social challenges “unites the community” and helps bring partners to the table, he says.

Spring also acknowledges that the issue of housing can be divisive. Citywide, perspectives on needs vary, with some interests advocating what Wright-Pierce referred to as old-school “trickle-down economics.”  That’s part of the reason advocates need strong, diverse backing in the fight for affordable housing.

Other supporters were motivated to join the campaign by passions and perspectives of their own.

Linda Ford, chairperson of Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church’s justice-seeking committee, says the congregation’s support wasn’t as universal as it was at Beloved Community Church, but some church members joined her in canvassing door-to-door to get signatures on ballot petitions. Ford’s volunteer work with immigrants and refugees has shown her that affordable housing is “really desperately needed,” and she says she is driven by her faith to participate, believing it is the role of the church to welcome the stranger and help those in need.

“For any city, the better off more of their citizens are, the better off the city is,” says Jan Seymour, vice president of civic engagement of the Woman’s City Club of Greater Cincinnati. The civic activism club endorsed Issue 24 and was involved in the 2023 campaign in support of the issue, including hosting a public forum. Seymour says the club recognizes the shortage of affordable housing as “a crisis in Cincinnati as it is in many, many cities. We wanted to take a stand on it because we believe the city should take some action to provide more housing” affordable to low-income residents. 

Faith communities have been well represented in Cincinnati’s quest for fair housing. One of the most deeply committed campaign supporters was Beloved Community Church. Wright-Pierce co-led the effort to take Issue 24 to the ballot in 2023, along with Spring and Wright-Pierce’s husband, Nelson Pierce, the church’s pastor. “Every single member of our church volunteered,” says Wright-Pierce, making phone calls, knocking on doors, and generally doing the work of mobilizing community support. “We believe we have to be in the political fights,” to create a more equitable and just society, she says.

What about others? On its face, a choir would seem to have little relationship to affordable housing. But MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir, is “one of the oldest social justice women’s choirs in the United States,” according to the group’s website. One of dozens of choral groups in the U.S. that use music to advocate for change, MUSE provides “music with a message at social justice events.” Choir members describe themselves on their website as “artist-activists blending concert and conversation to ignite dialogue that continues after the last notes are sung.” 

The Better Bus Coalition is another campaign supporter whose connection with housing might not seem obvious. But transportation links between housing and jobs are critical, and an effective bus system is especially important for low-income households. The coalition is a grassroots organization working to provide “true mobility and economic viability” in and around Cincinnati, says its website.

If at First You Don’t Succeed . . .

In the aftermath of two failed ballot initiatives, Cincinnati Action for Housing Now leaders are regrouping. Both Rivers and Spring believe it’s unlikely they’d try for another ballot issue this year, but they will continue the work.

Spring says committees are actively building momentum for the next campaign— keeping current participants communicating and working on the cause, recruiting new partners, and organizing more neighborhoods.

The most critical lesson for organizers is that change can take time—a long time.  Building support may be the work of decades, and should include developing long-term connections, seeking support in existing relationships, building on a local history of organizing, being visible to groups that will gravitate organically to the cause, and reaching out to less-obvious allies and being ready to explore how interests may intersect.

“We don’t have the capacity to work [for legislative change] at the federal level, but we do have the capacity to work here and try to solve it here,” says Rivers. “The coalition is not going to walk away . . . we can’t.”

Lessons Learned: Tips for Growing a Coalition

Cincinnati Action for Housing Now is the product of many years of organizing, activism, and passionate commitment to housing justice in the city.  Organizers says the most critical lesson they can impart is that change can take time—a long time. Building support may be the work of decades.  Some keys to building that support:

Invest in developing connections and people power for the long haul.
Seek support in existing relationships.
Build on any local history of organizing.
Use data to convey the community’s need to potential supporters.
Be visible to groups that are naturally affiliated and will gravitate organically to the cause.
Reach out to recruit less-obvious allies; be curious and ready to explore how interests may intersect.

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