What Will It Take for Hamilton County to Solve Its Homelessness Problem?

According to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are just over seven thousand homeless people in Cincinnati. To be specific, there were 7,062 people either on the street or in a shelter in 2013.

This number can be a bit misleading since it does not include the many more people who have recently lost their home and are now staying with a family member or friend, or are unable to be counted at all.

The way in which local organizations are handling this situation is different today than it was decades ago. In the past the trend was to provide what experts refer to as site-based units. This has changed over the years to a model more akin to Section 8 housing vouchers, where subsidies are provided for people to go find housing out on the open market.

According to the Strategies to End Homelessness, approximately 97% of the 3,300 people in permanent housing in Cincinnati are in these scattered sites. Part of the reason for the change is due to changing funding priorities, while another large factor is that many people reject the idea of having supportive housing built in their neighborhood.

This has caused problems for local leaders who view the Homeless to Homes plan, which includes the construction of five new shelters, as part of a long-term solution. While the shelters are new and improved, they also typically include an overall reduction in total units provided. So with the total number of units and the number of homeless remaining constant, some are wondering what the ultimate solution is.

Salt Lake City has recently received national praise for their homelessness program where they simply have built and provided housing units for every homeless person in their community. It is a nod to past techniques, but one that appears to be getting results.

While it has received the attention, not everyone is convinced that Salt Lake City’s approach is all that unique, or all that comprehensive.

“It’s about giving people housing,” Kevin Finn, President and CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, told UrbanCincy. “If homelessness is the problem, then providing housing is the solution.”

The problem, Finn continued, is that the vast majority of the funds that are provided by the Federal government has strings attached and almost never allows for prevention programs. And with homelessness typically being what Finn calls a short-term crisis, a strong investment in prevention might actually be more effective and economically sustainable.

“Somewhere around 80% of people who become homeless end up getting out of homelessness on their own,” noted Finn. “Unfortunately, we seem to be discouraged from even using the money that could be used for prevention on prevention.”

While Finn acknowledges that simply providing housing to those who truly need it is more effective than anything else, he also is quick to note that taking preventative measures can be far more cost-effective.

In Hamilton County, for example, it costs approximately $3,300 per year to provide supportive housing to someone. At the same time, it costs around $1,300 per year to shelter a person on a temporary basis, and just $1,100 annually to prevent someone from becoming homeless.

“I would agree that Salt Lake City has the right model for those that are homeless, but I would say that prevention is even more effective than that,” Finn emphasized. “The real challenge is to figure out what the right solution is for each individual person.”

Further complicating the prevention approach is its inconsistent funding levels from the Federal government. According to Strategies to End Homelessness, virtually no funding was provided for prevention prior to 2009, but then the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act infused local agencies with around $2.2 million annually over the next three years. At its peak in 2011, it resulted in the prevention of 2,800 people from becoming homeless.

When the stimulus program wound down, those funds went away with it; and those numbers have been in rapid decline ever since. Such inconsistencies make developing long-term plans and strategies next to impossible.

“The issue we struggle with is trying to reduce homelessness when the landscape of the resources is constantly changing,” said Finn. “From 2012 to 2013 homelessness increased in Hamilton County; but it was less than 1%, and considering our resources had been decimated it was a bit of a moral victory.”

Beyond just the funding issues, understanding the problem and recognizing the actual need for each person could yield even greater performance and savings.

First and foremost, Finn says the goal should be to determine who is close to homelessness, but can be prevented from reaching it. From there he says that it is important to figure out who has recently become homeless, and what level of assistance they need – short- or long-term. Not doing so could create the risk of providing the funds for someone to have long-term support, even though short-term support is all that is needed.

In order to tackle each case appropriately, local leaders are developing an early stage approach that is in line with nationally recognized assessment process for determining these details that can often be difficult to uncover.

Further assisting those efforts are the already established programs operating county-wide, including the Central Access Point hotline that allows for people to call and give notification that they are at risk.

Even with all of the challenges, Finn remains optimistic about the future. The City of Cincinnati has recently increased its amount of funding for human services, and has designated reducing homelessness as a priority for those funds. In addition to that, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati is now providing $150,000 per year for prevention efforts.

New data is scheduled to be released in the near future with updated figures on the region’s homeless population. While it is not yet public what those numbers are, it is expected that they will be along a similar trajectory as recent years. The hope, however, is that this trajectory starts to change sooner rather than later.

“Ultimately if we can prevent people from ever coming in, then we can save a lot of money and save that household the trauma of becoming homeless,” Finn concluded.

East Side Commuter Rail Project in Doubt Following Vote to Develop Oasis Line as Trail

The fate of a long-planned commuter rail line along the eastern riverfront took an abrupt turn over the past month. With the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) Board voting 12-1 in favor of a plan to use it for the Ohio River Trail, it puts a severe damper on one day using it as commuter rail to the city’s eastern suburbs.

The commuter rail, commonly referred to as the Oasis Line, had been pursued by Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune (D) for many years. Over time the Oasis Line had become a component of the much larger Eastern Corridor project, which is also now facing a very unclear future of its own.

SORTA purchased the right-of-way in 1994 for $4 million, after which it sold the more southern of the parallel-running tracks and easement to Genesee & Wyoming – the parent company of the Indiana & Ohio Railway Company – which also has the rights to utilize the northern tracks that would be paved over as part of this plan.

As a result, SORTA officials still need to work out details with G&W in order to allow the bike trail to move forward.

“After a comprehensive three-month review of all aspects of the issue, the SORTA Board has overwhelmingly endorsed the concept of a temporary bike trail on the Oasis Line,” said Jason Dunn, Chair of the SORTA Board. “We will do all in our power to work collaboratively with our partners to support the development of the trail.”

The 4.75-mile section of trail will complete the Ohio River Trail on the city’s east side. This segment is estimated to cost $4 million, of which $1 million has already been raised by Ohio River Way. Other portions of the Ohio River Trail, which connects to the Little Miami Scenic Trail, have been completed in a piecemeal fashion over the years.

Project supporters say that if everything goes smoothly, the multipurpose trail could open as early as 2017.

“The trail is an asset that the community clearly wants and it will be an enhancement to multimodal transportation in the region,” Dunn stated in a prepared media release.

SORTA officials say the next steps call for working out regulatory issues with federal agencies, and coming up with a design for the trail that is both safe and amenable to G&W.

While this move may hamper future efforts of developing commuter rail along this corridor, SORTA officials structured the agreement to allow for future flexibility. This includes the design of what the transit agency is calling a “temporary trail” that does not preclude from future passenger rail service along the Oasis Line.

To some passenger rail advocates, however, the prospect of the Oasis Line going away is a good one.

“The riverfront is a perfect place for a recreational trail, while light rail transit would be better-suited serving our neighborhoods,” Derek Bauman, Chair of Cincinnatians for Progress and SW Ohio Director for All Aboard Ohio, told UrbanCincy. “We should move forward with this plan to complete the Ohio River Trail, and then shift our attention to developing a recreational trail and light rail line along the Wasson Corridor.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: In August 2010, UrbanCincy provided an in-depth look at the plans for the Oasis Line. Then in February 2012, UrbanCincy published a controversial editorial that called for a new vision with the Oasis Line being utilized as a trail, and the Wasson Line as a combined trail and light rail corridor.

Cincy Red Bike users can use Dayton’s new Link Bike Share when it launches in May

While Cincy Red Bike is expanding and celebrating higher than expected ridership in its first six months, Dayton is preparing to launch a 24-station bike share system of its own. Link Bike Share is expected to begin operations in May and will also be part of the national B-Cycle network – meaning that Cincy Red Bike members can also use their memberships when in Dayton. More from WDTN:

Mayor Nan Whaley was the first to buy a Link membership. The first 100 members will get $10 off of the $65 dollar membership. Otherwise, renting a bike for 24 hours will cost $5, but will need to be ‘checked-in’ every 30 minutes at any kiosk. Link will be the 31st bike share program system in the country when it launches in May.

Transit Ridership Inches Forward in Ohio’s Largest Metropolitan Centers

While transit ridership nationwide inched upward and reached its highest level in more than a half century, it remained flat in Ohio’s two largest metropolitan regions.

According to new data released by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), transit ridership in both Cincinnati and Cleveland remained essentially unchanged from 2013 to 2014. With a 3% ridership gain over the previous year, Columbus bucked the trend and posted the fifth highest bus ridership gain nationally.

“In 2014, people took a record 10.8 billion trips on public transportation — the highest annual ridership number in 58 years,” said Phillip Washington, APTA Chair and CEO & General Manager of the Regional Transportation District in Denver. “Some public transit systems experienced all-time record high ridership last year.”

In a nod to Columbus, Washington said that the increases were not just relegated to large cites, but were found in smaller and medium size communities as well. But according to Streetsblog USA, an UrbanCincy content partner, the national increases can be largely attributed to the large gains in New York City, which accounts for roughly 25% of American transit ridership.

Growth in transit ridership is expected to continue in the years ahead as dozens of cities throughout the United States build out regional rail networks and implement new bus services. In Cincinnati, that includes new services operating out of the recently opened Uptown Transit District and the forthcoming Northside Transit Center and Walnut Hills Transit District.

The opening of the first leg of the Cincinnati Streetcar is also expected to boost ridership in 2016. Until then, Cleveland will remain as the only city in Ohio to have both bus and rail offerings. Not surprisingly, Cleveland’s transit usage dwarfs that of both Cincinnati and Columbus.

While year-over-year ridership only increased nationally by 1%, that gain is seen as encouraging since it occurred at the same time as prices for gasoline plummeted. Transportation officials see continued transit ridership growth, in addition to VMT growth for the first time in nearly a decade, as a clear indication of a much stronger economy where more people are employed.

“Since nearly 60 % of the trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes, public transportation ridership increases are seen in areas where the local economy is growing,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy.

In spite of Cincinnati’s growing economy, transit ridership actually posted a slight loss. That loss, however, is in line with national bus ridership trends. While Cincinnati saw an annual decrease of 1.8%, bus ridership across the country also experienced a 1.1% decline. All modes of rail transit, meanwhile, posted gains, which now accounts for 46% of all trips made by transit.

Light rail systems posted the biggest annual gain of 3.6%, while heavy rail and commuter rail added riders by 3.3% and 2.9%, respectively.

“People are changing their travel behavior and want more travel options,” Melaniphy concluded. “In the past people had a binary choice. You either took public transit, most likely a bus, or you drove a car. Now there are multiple options with subways, light rail, streetcars, commuter trains, buses, ferries, cars and shared use vehicles.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: APTA’s annual report does not include ridership data for the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK), which provides approximately 3.8 million trips annually. For the purposes of this analysis, UrbanCincy has used a constant 3.8 million annual trips from TANK in the Cincinnati totals presented in the above chart.

Two Big Ideas to Bring Cincinnati’s Urban Housing Boom to Next Level

It has become painfully clear that we are not building enough housing supply to meet demand for center city living. In order to meet those demands, and prevent runaway price increases, now is the time to go big and develop thousands of more units.

In 2014, CBRE released a study about the strength of Cincinnati’s urban real estate market, and noted that the center city housing market could support thousands of additional residential units, even as 2,500 were under development at that time.

This was reinforced by CBRE’s economic outlook for the region released just days ago that said, “The multifamily recovery continues with unabated strength in the Cincinnati MSA with strong demand fundamentals pushing rents higher.” With occupancy hovering around 95% and the strongest demand in the urban core, their real estate analysts expect rents to continue to rise.

As of now, 3CDC is virtually sold out of all of their condos, luxury apartment buildings are being filled in a matter of weeks, and a parade of home builders continues to redirect their attention to the market. But it has not been nearly enough.

While 3CDC has done an incredible job at establishing a viable residential market in Over-the-Rhine, they have only produced a few hundred units over the past decade. Bigger projects in the central business district are turning historic office towers into posh residences, but are doing so at about 100 units per project. Even the long-planned residential tower at Fourth and Race Streets will only include 208 units once it is complete several years from now.

The rate of production at The Banks, which is by far the largest development in the center city, only averages out to a couple dozen units per year when you consider the time it continues to take to build out that massive undertaking.

Something bigger is needed. Something much bigger. Here are two options.

City Hall Quarters
Cincinnati’s majestic City Hall is unfortunately surrounded by decrepit, low-slung parking garages and a smattering of parking lots. The area’s proud history, however, can still be seen by taking a leisurely walk along Ninth Street. There, one can view the regal structures that were the original homes of Cincinnati’s economic and political elite.

Just around the corner, however, is a collection of parking lots controlled by collection of different limited liability companies. The original owner of the lots, if it is different from now, had long-planned to build offices on the site similar in nature to what was developed on its north side along Central Parkway. That building was completed in 1983, and times have certainly changed since then.

The large collection of parking lots allows for a unique opportunity to create a residential sub-district within the central business district. Look to Atlanta’s West Midtown, Chicago’s South Loop or Denver’s Cherry Creek District of examples of the type of development that could rise here.

Its density would respect its historic surroundings, but its scale could provide hundreds of residential units. Instead of lining each street with retail, thoughtfully placed corner markets and cafes could be placed intermittently in order to maintain a residential character for the sub-district.

CL&N Heights
Like its Broadway Commons neighbor to the north, this area was once part of the large warehouse district that previously occupied the site with the CL&N Railway. Those proud buildings, and the history that went along with them, are now largely gone and have been replaced by I-71. There are, however, some of the historic warehouse structures that can still be seen in the Eighth Street Design District and immediately to the south.

This collection of parking lots is largely out of site since they sit beneath I-71 and at a lower grade than the rest of the central business district. Procter & Gamble currently owns the vast majority of the site, but Eagle Realty has recently acquired some land with the interest of building a parking structure along with some office space.

Unlike the City Hall Quarters site, this location has an opportunity to go even bigger.

In order to properly develop the location, it would make most sense to raise the site up to the same level as the rest of the surrounding street grid. This would essentially create a situation akin to The Banks, where two or so levels of parking could be built as a platform, with the structures then rising from there.

Instead of building four- to five-story structures, like at The Banks or near City Hall, this site would be an ideal location for a handful of sleek, modern residential high-rises. In this case, think of Vancouver’s Yaletown or San Diego’s East Village near their ballpark.

In this location it is conceivable that four to five residential towers could be constructed, while also preserving some land for pocket parks and other neighborhood amenities. At such a scale and density, this site alone could produce upwards of a thousand residential units.

Like the City Hall Quarters site, there would be no strong need to build retail as part of this project. Instead, a small collection of service offerings, like dry cleaners and convenience stores, could be built as part of the development, thus allowing the new influx of residents to bolster the existing and potential retail offerings in the central business district and Over-the-Rhine.

Both development sites include their challenges, but they offer immense opportunities to not only provide the much-needed injection of housing, but also improve the city’s tax base, hold down skyrocketing residential prices, bolster center city retail, and rid the city of two of its largest-remaining surface parking lots.