This is Part III of an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.
I’m going to tell you a story about The McEwan Family Summer of 2018 that’s not really about the Summer of 2018. It’s really about gentrification.
I hope it illustrates the dynamic between the idea of “affordability” and the reality of affordability and what it means for the average resident of a changing neighborhood.
(The story is going to seem really all-about-me so read quickly until you get to the point.)
The story basically goes like this:
Last summer was amazing.
Last summer was amazing because the kids and I spent two or three glorious mornings a week at the neighborhood pool a few blocks away.
The pool is new and fun and convenient. We brought picnic lunches and ate $.50 popsicles. We made friends and my girls learned to swim (and I got more tanned than I’ve ever been in my life).
My kids still proudly wear their Rhinos swim team shirts on the regular. They display their race ribbons on their bedroom wall. And I’m told my daughter still makes frequent appearances in their promo video on Fountain Square.
The McEwan Family Summer of 2018 was, basically, The Summer Of Our Lives.
But, you see, going to the pool costs money.
We didn’t buy a pool pass the first year the pool opened and then we almost didn’t buy a pool pass last summer because it was too expensive. I just couldn’t justify spending so much money on a luxury like a pool pass.
But then, on a whim, I did something crazy. I emailed someone at 3CDC, who manages the pool, about the cost.
In my email, I gave a pretty detailed diatribe about how, basically, their income-based discounts were using faulty data.
I wrote about the rising (and inflated) cost of living in our zip code, the Average Median Income for a family in our area, The Economic Policy Institute’s cost of living estimates, and provided links to plenty of online data sets and information.
I told her that, all these things considered, they should change their scale and they should give me a discount.
So they gave me a discount.
Mostly (probably) to shut me up.
(Never go in against an INTJ on something like this. Trust me on that.)
So, thanks to 3CDC and my mother in-law (who ended up buying us the pass), we had an amazing summer.
Fast forward to 2019.
I was anxious to see how 3CDC would handle pool pass fees this year. Would they diversify the sliding scale to accommodate more income situations? Would they instate a resident discount for those living in the immediate area surrounding the pool?
Well, it turns out they did change one thing: they made it more expensive for larger families.
The market rate pool pass that was $310 last year (if I remember correctly) is now $395.
Okay, I get it.
I understand that my family of 6 takes up more space at the pool than a family of 3. And I understand that it’s expensive to operate such an awesome pool. But my critique from last year still stands–whatever numbers they are using to measure “affordability” are inaccurate and totally out of touch.
Basically: it’s ridiculous to put a family of 6 living off of $60k a year in the same income bracket as a single person living off of $60k and offer them the same percentage discount. No real income based scales work this way.
Here’s the thing about a $400 summer pool pass: most moderate income people don’t really have a $100 “fun budget” every month to spend at the pool and most certainly don’t have $400 just sitting in the bank to spend on a luxury item like a pool pass. In a working class family, every penny is budgeted and any extra income goes to things like a birthday present, socks and underwear for the growing 7 year-old, or a new pair of glasses for Mom.
These are what I call Average People.
They are people living somewhere between 50-100% of Average Median Income. They may have a few of the cultural markers of the middle-class like a college education or owning their own home, but they are closer to what we usually consider “working-class” than “middle-class” in their economic stability and flexible budget.
(For reference: in 2018, the AMI for the Cincinnati metro area was $78,300 for a family of four. And I found this article helpful in articulating the difference between what we usually call “middle-class” and “working-class.”)
The last statistic I found online estimated that 35-55% of the population falls loosely into this working-class income bracket. These are teachers, administrative professionals, lower- and mid-level professionals. They are also the people who own our favorite restaurants, repair our windows, tune up our vehicles, pastor our churches, and fix our favorite pair of boots when the heel is busted.
Personally speaking, I feel like I don’t really have a lot of room to complain. (In fact, you’re probably thinking: stop complaining.) I know we’ve made decisions as a family that have plopped us in this Average People income bracket–working in the nonprofit sector, living off of one primary income, etc. (Though I could argue that our decisions are good decisions that actually benefit the world, but whatever…)
I know that even having the option of living with less income is a huge privilege.
So then why do I even mention it? What does this have to do with gentrification?
At the risk of sounding like an entitled yuppie, I bring up the $400 pool pass because it illustrates one of the effects of gentrification that doesn’t get a lot of air play–the “missing middle.”
As an urban community gentrifies, this is the demographic lost in the shuffle.
This is how I’ve witnessed it happen:
Big money (or government money or both) rolls in and starts to develop a community at the whims of (future) high-income residents. The conversation turns to “affordability.” In the conversation about affordability, developers pay huge lip service to protecting the affordability of the community for its most vulnerable residents–i.e. those who are low-income and/or living in government subsidized housing. The community is developed as planned, with pockets of lovely, new, high-cost housing and just enough low-income housing intact to keep people from complaining too much. But Average People are priced out of both housing and amenities. Their cost of living is not subsidized, yet they cannot afford market rate.
This “missing middle” isn’t a new thing. It was set into motion back in the middle 1900’s when “urban renewal” campaigns demolished entire city blocks of workforce housing in the name of revitalization.
The houses they destroyed by the dozens (hundreds?) were the kinds of homes where (if they still existed) people like me would be living today. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter; many upwardly-mobile people didn’t want to live in the city anyway. The American Dream was pulling (mostly white) middle-class people away from dense, urban areas to the promise of clean comfort and stability (and a garage to store your new lawnmower!) in new residential neighborhoods.
Now that people are (again) interested in the convenience and charm of traditional urban design, many would rather trade the ticky-tacky suburbs for older neighborhoods. But, not only has the economy changed and it’s hard to find a truly affordable place to live in a desirable neighborhood, it’s hard to afford the cost of living once you’re here.
Case in point: the $400 pool pass.
(I’ve written before about the plight of lower-middle class families and affordable housing in OTR. Check it out here.)
As for me, the higher cost of living in the city is something I’ve reconciled. There are things about our neighborhood–like a parking pass or a pool pass or a $35 entree–that are harder on our budget and that’s okay. There are trade-offs to urban living that save us money in other ways like lower transportation and yard maintenance costs (plus I’m a stay-at-home mom so I have minimal childcare costs).
But I do wish things were different not only for me, but for every other middle-income family who wants to live here now or in the future. And I wish moving out of the neighborhood wasn’t my only option for moving someday.
I wish that someone somewhere who holds the multi-million dollar development contracts was looking out for the Average Person, making sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle, forced to live where the proverbial neighborhood pool doesn’t costs as much.
Because ours is a pretty sweet pool.
So where does that leave me? Well, when the time comes to make our plans for the summer, I’ll try to find a way to pay for the dang pool pass because my kids had the Summer Of Their Lives in 2018 and 2019 must not disappoint.
And, 3CDC, if you’re reading this, I love your pool.
I’m so very thankful you built it for us.
But you need to hire a better statistician.
(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:
How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis
My $13 Box of Macarons