Award-Winning Filmmaker’s Latest Project Highlights Lower Price Hill’s Oyler School

Lower Price Hill is a neighborhood that has seen better days, but recent and ongoing efforts to turn things around in the largely Appalachian and Hispanic community have begun to prove successful.

Some of those efforts include the more recent co-op approach being employed by the Lower Price Hill Community School to help deliver services and offerings that are not currently available to residents of the historic neighborhood. But it is the $21 million renovation of Oyler School that is seen as the spark for the recent improvements.

“Roughly half of the children in U.S. public schools today come from low-income families, and a debate is raging over how to help more of them succeed,” write filmmakers for the new documentary entitled Oyler. “Oyler School’s approach—combining academic, health, and social services under one roof—is catching on around the country.”

Amy Scott, an independent documentary filmmaker and correspondent for public radio’s Marketplace show, says that she has spent a year reporting from Oyler, and believes the documentary tells a story that has become commonplace throughout America.

Oyler tells a gripping story of individuals fighting for change in a unique American community, but it also takes on one of our country’s most pressing challenges – the persistent achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers,” wrote Scott on the project’s Kickstarter page.

The major underlying theme is about how Lower Price Hill is using its public school to transform itself and the lives of those who call it home. In a more direct message, the film also speaks to the nationally acclaimed community learning centers being employed by Cincinnati Public Schools.

While Scott’s team has already been successful at raising just over their initial goal of $25,000 for the film through Kickstarter, the campaign will remain open for one more week. The team says that the funds will be used to cover the costs associated with producing an original music score, sound mix and color correction, rights for commercial music and archival footage, and a professional website.

After the campaign closes next week, the team will get to work on finishing up the documentary and doing the requisite post-production work for a film of this nature. They say that there will be film screenings in Cincinnati and Baltimore next fall, at a minimum, and at other locations depending on those who provided more than $5,000 to the campaign.

Housing Auction Saves Buildings In Baltimore

Often times it is difficult for distressed housing to be taken out of delinquent property owners hands. In Cincinnati this has often led to neglect and demolition of buildings, many of which are historic. Could Cincinnati learn from a program in Baltimore that puts delinquent properties up for auction? More from The Baltimore Sun:

The changes brought by Vacants to Value are creating enough sales volume to make the system financially viable, said board member Bill Romani, one of founders of One House at a Time, started by an attorney who bought his home through a receiver.

“You have a very hard time doing it at a volume to be able to make money doing it,” he said. “As the Vacants to Value program has grown and made more of an impact on neighborhoods, so has One House at a Time.”

What Does Harry Black’s History Tell Us About His Capability of Managing City Hall?

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) announced Harry Black as his pick to fill the role of the city’s equivalent of a chief executive officer.

It has been widely reported that Black is the current finance director for the City of Baltimore, and that he had a tumultuous tenure while serving as the chief financial officer for the City of Richmond, VA. When selected for the Baltimore job, The Brew had the following to say regarding Black:

Baltimore’s new director…was introduced to the City Council as a green-eyeshades number cruncher well-versed in municipal bond transactions.

That dull description hardly fits with Black’s varied career and his sometimes volatile personality that included an attempt to evict the Richmond school board from its offices and frequent brawls with the Richmond City Council.

It has also been widely reported in the Baltimore and Richmond media that Black earned the nickname of being “the mayor’s bull dog” and “Baby Wilder” in reference to former Richmond mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

What makes this interesting is the explanation for all the turmoil in Richmond, by both Black himself and Mayor Cranley. They say it was due to tensions over the transition of the city from a city manager form of government, to a “strong mayor” system.

It should be seen as no coincidence that Black has been selected for the Cincinnati role after he had ramrodded through a new form of government in Richmond that is also being proposed in Cincinnati by a Cranley loyalist – Christopher Smitherman (R). If Black’s history, and Cranley’s style of governance, is any indication, one can assume Cincinnati’s transition from a city manager government to a strong mayor system may be just as tumultuous.

What adds further intrigue to the selection are Black’s other noteworthy leadership moments.

In 2007, then Richmond Mayor Douglas Wilder (D) asked for an outside audit of the city school board’s finances. When rebuffed by the school board, Wilder then forced the move and had Black conduct the operation. In order to do so, Black, as the city’s chief financial officer, withheld half of the board’s non-payroll funds and tried to evict them from their offices.

Such behavior and loyalty would come in handy for Mayor Cranley if he does in fact try to dismantle the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), and shift its control into City Hall – something he has been calling for since his time on city council in the early 2000s.

Later on in his tenure at the City of Richmond, he was nominated to become to the city’s chief administrative officer, but was rejected by the city council, according to The Brew.

Then, in 2008, Black’s office was slammed by a KPMG audit that highlighted a slew of auditing inconsistencies and faults including outdated and unreconciled city financial accounts, improperly recorded account deposits, and more than $5 million in money that was not recorded at all in the city’s cash account as it should have been.

According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, “The memo said millions of dollars from different sources of city money either were not recorded or were accounted for in the wrong period. It also criticized city officials for poor record-keeping of financial transactions, noting that they couldn’t document spending on capital projects or the details of complex economic-development deals.”

At the time, Black attributed the failures of his office to the limited resources he received from the city council, and institutional problems that restricted his ability to hire and fire staff as he pleased.

Black says that he has since learned from his troubled career in Richmond, and that his subsequent experience in the private sector has bolstered his credentials. Unfortunately, there are also disputes regarding his past performance and experience.

In 2012, it was reported that Black’s resume appeared to be a bit overzealous in describing his private sector experience following his time in Richmond.

Harry E. Black claims to have supervised a $500-million construction program at an architectural consulting firm where, according to a federal administrative judge’s finding in 2006, he “was not a key employee” and “had no management authority.”

[…]

Looking at a joint venture by McKissack & McKissack and Global Commerce Solutions Inc. – a company founded by Black’s wife, Sheryl Black – Small Business Administration Judge Thomas B. Pender ruled on May 24, 2006 that “the preponderance of the evidence” showed that Harry Black had “no management authority when he worked for McKissack & McKissack” despite his title.

“Mr. Black is not a key employee of M&M [McKissack & McKissack] and has no ability or power to control M&M. He was originally hired by M&M as an independent consultant and his role as vice president was in name only,” the opinion, obtained by The Brew, said.

But it is what was uncovered by The Brew last October that raises potentially the biggest concern. At that time, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) was moving forward with awarding a $185 million contract to Dynis LLC to replace 400,000 water meters throughout the city and county.

The problem was that Dynis had no experience in doing such work, and that an actually qualified contractor submitted a bid that was $100 million less, but not accepted. Perhaps predictably so, it was uncovered that Dynis had connections to one of the mayor’s top campaign donors, and would make a considerable profit off of the contract.

While the story was uncovered by Mark Reutter, who Mayor Cranley dismissed yesterday as a “silly blogger”, it eventually became front-page news and earned The Brew national acclaim for the work of its “bloggers” who previously had careers as investigative journalists for various newspapers.

While the story centered on Rawlings-Blake and the unethical process of awarding contracts by Baltimore’s Board of Estimates, Black’s position as the director of finance is tasked with working with the Board of Estimates on recommending and issuing contracts.

Outside of the water meter contract scandal, Black’s two-and-a-half-year tenure in Baltimore has been defined by his reduction of the city’s structural deficit and delivery of a 10-year fiscal plan. At the same time, however, he will be leaving the office amid ongoing criticisms about his department’s inability to issue accurate tax bills and maintain proper books for auditing.

Mayor Cranley appears to have used the national search for a new city manager to hand-pick a candidate that will be used to advance his own political agenda.

Black’s past shows a troubled public tenure, questionable private sector career, and paints a picture of a man who greatly desires power and authority, and dislikes those who get in his way.

While his accomplishments in improving minority contracts and reducing structural deficits in Richmond and Baltimore are laudable, his strong-headed and ruthless approach to governance should give Cincinnatians pause.

Comprehensive Study Needed to Examine Cincinnati’s Migration Problem

Cincinnati has a problem with attracting immigrants.

While it is the largest metropolitan region in Ohio, Cincinnati lags behind both Cleveland and Columbus in attracting foreign migrants. Even as Cleveland continues to lose population and struggles with a weak economy, Cincinnati, with its much stronger economy and national recognition, attracts fewer of America’s newest residents.

More alarmingly, at 4.6%, Cincinnati ranks behind all of its regional competitors (Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis) in percentage of foreign-born population. Columbus (10.5%) and Indianapolis (8.4%) have double or nearly-double the percentage of foreign born population. Cincinnati only bests Pittsburgh and Louisville in terms of attracting immigrants over the past three years.

International Migration 2010-2013

The United States as a whole continues to attract millions of new immigrants. They’re just not coming to Cincinnati at the same rate as elsewhere.

Mayor John Cranley’s (D) recent announcement to start an initiative to grow the immigrant population in Cincinnati is a welcome one. With statistics showing that immigrants are more likely than non-immigrant Americans to start a business, a flux of foreign residents would be good for Cincinnati’s economy in more than one way.

Cranley is not unique among mayors in cities across the nation that have suffered massive population losses since the 1950s. From Baltimore and Philadelphia, to Detroit and Dayton, cities across the country are now targeting immigrant communities in order to help bolster populations and foster economic growth.

Preferably, Cincinnati’s quest to attract new immigrants will be part of a larger plan to attract new residents, period. While lagging behind in attracting immigrants, the region also continues to shed existing residents to other parts of the country.

International - Domestic Migration in 2013

Local leaders should authorize a comprehensive study to find out why Cincinnati struggles so greatly with attracting domestic and international migrants. With a growing economy and incredible regional assets, there is no reason why Cincinnati should fail so miserably at attracting new people.

It may prove wise to set city funds aside to create some sort of media blitz that touts the benefits of the city and the surrounding region. With a recent Gallup poll showing that 138 million people around the world would choose to move to the United States if given the opportunity, the market for new immigrants is surely present. Some sort of economic incentive would help as well. Tax breaks for immigrant businesses and incentives to live within city limits will help attract immigrants of all economic levels.

It is not a stretch to imagine that Columbus’ ability to attract and retain so many more immigrants than Cincinnati is due to the presence of Ohio State University, one of the nation’s most prominent public universities. As a result, Cranley should take heed and foster greater cooperation between the City of Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University, using those nationally-recognized institutions to attract even more newcomers.

At the end of the day, however, immigration is a national issue. For that reason, regional leadership should be in active dialogue with Cincinnati’s Congressional delegation and lobby them to support immigration reform and initiatives that will help attract immigrants not just to the U.S. in general, but to the Cincinnati region specifically.

Gentrification Occurring in More Than Cincinnati’s Center City Neighborhoods

Like many cities across the United States, the City of Cincinnati is gentrifying, but it is doing so at a faster rate than most of its Midwestern peers – ranking fourth only behind Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis. When compared with the primary city in each of the nation’s 55 most populated metropolitan areas, Cincinnati is in the middle of the pack. Those cities that are gentrifying most quickly are located in the Northeast and along the West Coast.

The information comes from a new report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, which also dove into the financial implications of what is often generally considered a bad thing.

Gentrification is generally understood as the rise of home prices or rents in a particular neighborhood. In Cincinnati this has most vigorously been discussed as it relates to the transformation in Over-the-Rhine from what was one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, to now being one of its trendiest.

Clifton Heights
The Clifton Heights neighborhood, which continues to see a surge of private real estate investment, was found to be one of several Cincinnati neighborhoods that gentrified between 2000 and 2007. Photograph by Randy Simes for UrbanCincy.

“Gentrification is sometimes viewed as a bad thing. People claim that it is detrimental to the original residents of the gentrifying neighborhood,” stated Daniel Hartley, a research economist focusing on urban and regional economics and labor economics for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “However, a look at the data suggests that gentrification is actually beneficial to the financial health of the original residents.”

What Hartley’s research found is that credit scores for those living in a neighborhood that gentrified between 2000 and 2007 were about eight points higher than those people living in a low-price neighborhood that did not gentrify. He also discovered that delinquency rates, as represented by a share of people with an account 90 or more days past due, fell by two points in gentrifying neighborhoods relative to other low-price neighborhoods during the same period.

Some, however, caution against drawing conclusions about the data presented in Hartley’s report.

“I don’t see any reason why gentrification would affect the credit scores of existing residents – those who lived in the neighborhood prior to gentrification occurring,” commented Dr. David Varady, a professor specializing in housing policy at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Planning. “It was my impression that banks and other financial institutions were not supposed to take the neighborhood into account but rely on the family’s financial characteristics.”

The practice Dr. Varady describes of banks and financial institutions taking neighborhoods into account is called redlining. It is a practice that was rebuffed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, but some believe the practice persists in more abstract forms today.

One of the biggest concerns shared by those worried about the gentrification of neighborhoods is that it is particularly those that rent, rather than own, who are affected most. This too, however, is challenged by Hartley’s research.

“Mortgage-holding residents are associated with about the same increase in credit scores in gentrifying neighborhoods as non-mortgage-holding residents,” Hartley explained. “This result suggests that renters in gentrifying neighborhoods benefit by about the same degree as homeowners.”

Cincinnati Gentrification (2000-2007)
The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland noted gentrification in a wide variety of Cincinnati neighborhoods between 2000 and 2007. Map produced by Nate Wessel for UrbanCincy.

What is even more intriguing about the report’s findings is that original residents who moved from the gentrifying neighborhood, who many would consider displaced residents, experienced a 1.5 point higher credit score improvement than those who did not move.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland provided UrbanCincy with the data broken out by Census tract for Cincinnati. Approximately 72% of the city’s 104 Census tracts are defined as low-price, and of those 75 Census tracts with home valuation data, nine were found to have gentrified between 2000 and 2007.

When examined more closely it becomes clear that the neighborhoods experiencing the biggest gains in home value and income in Cincinnati are those that are in the center city. Specifically, and perhaps not surprisingly, five of the nine are located in the neighborhoods of Clifton Heights, East Walnut Hills, Fairview, University Heights and the East End. Outside of the center city, Pleasant Ridge, Oakley, Columbia Tusculum and Mt. Airy also experienced gentrification over the past decade.

Community council leaders for these neighborhoods did not respond to multiple requests for comments from UrbanCincy.

Unfortunately, the two neighborhoods where many expect gentrification has occurred most – Downtown and Over-the-Rhine – did not have median home value data available for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland to study.

While the report has generally positive findings about the impacts of gentrification, Cincinnati is at a disadvantage when it comes to improving the financial health of its neighborhoods.

According to the report, the percentage of low-price Census tracts in Cincinnati beneath the median home value of the metropolitan area is 14 percentage points higher than the national average, and the rate at which Census tracts are gentrifying in the Great Lakes region is approximately 4.5 points lower than the national average.

“I don’t have a clue what Hartley meant by the phrase ‘neighborhoods with a potential for gentrification’ but the assertion that 95% do in Baltimore is rather ludicrous given the high rate of abandonment,” Dr. Varady scoffed. “Baltimore certainly can use more gentrification but how the city can promote this is an open question.”

With the nine identified neighborhoods in Cincinnati spread throughout a mix of expected and unexpected locations, it is probably safe to say that the Census tracts in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine also gentrified during this period, or have since 2007.

Change in cities is inevitable, but whether these changes sweeping Cincinnati are good, bad or indifferent is probably still open for spirited discussion among those most interested.

“In general I think that gentrification presents benefits and costs,” Dr. Varady concluded. “Anyone who says it is all bad or all good is not contributing to the debate.”

This story originally appeared in the December 20, 2013 print edition of the Cincinnati Business Courier. You can view that story online for additional comments and discussion. UrbanCincy readers can take advantage of an exclusive premium digital Business Courier subscription that includes access via the web, smart phone or tablet applications for just $49 per year.