Dear Councilmembers

Dear Councilmembers:

Good morning!

I am writing in regards to a final vote set to take place at today’s (Wednesday) City Council meeting in favor of a preferred development agreement in Over-the-Rhine with 3CDC. As I’m not certain you’ll be taking citizen statements at the Council meeting, I wanted to forward my comment to you here. Thank you for your consideration.

My name is Liz McEwan and I am a resident of Over-the-Rhine. My husband and I, with our three young children, live on the most beautiful street in our city. We moved here 6 years ago for many reasons, but mostly because we believed that the urban core had been neglected for too long. We believe that strong families are the foundation of strong cities. And we wanted to help re-populate our city with a strong middle-class.

We are not hip urbanites. We are a conservative, Christian, homeschool family.

But we believe in this city, we love living downtown, and we would stay here forever if we could.

I am writing to request that you take more time to consider a community-led and equitable future for our neighborhood before approving a preferred development agreement with 3CDC.

We owe much of the economic viability of our neighborhood to the partnership between the City and 3CDC. And I believe that 3CDC may continue to have an important role in the future of the neighborhood. But I have seen, firsthand, how the high-income culture and standard of living that 3CDC’s developments have produced in OTR have widened the gap between low-income subsidized housing and the high-rent, high-cost housing in these new developments.

We are a working-class family. And both my husband and I have devoted the past 8+ years to working with non-profits that strengthen Cincinnati communities. Wealthy retirees and executives may be able to afford expensive condos, but we are the ones you should be fighting to have in your city for the long-term.

If the rest of Over-the-Rhine (and then, following suit, Mt Auburn, Pendleton, and the West End) is developed with the same homogenous, high-brow, entertainment-based culture as what we’ve seen on Vine St., south of Liberty, our urban core will lose the vibrant and diverse culture that drew us all here in the first place. And, because of the cost-gap alone, it won’t be the low-income residents who have to leave; it will be people like me.

The urban middle-class of Cincinnati will no longer exist when the only housing options are either low-income housing or inflated market rate units.

Subsidized, low-income housing requirements are important, but they are not enough to create a sustainable economy. The City needs to work strategically with current and future residents to create an equitable Over-the-Rhine and to open opportunities for hard-working, capable, and competent residents to take the future into their own hands.

Until 3CDC can guarantee this sort of community-led future for us, please withhold your final vote until there can be a better conversation between all parties involved.

 

Thank you for your time.

Liz McEwan
Resident, Over-the-Rhine

 

(Sent in the early hours of the morning. Forward as you see fit.)

 

 

 

What’s Missing From the “Affordable Housing” Conversation?

This past week, in Cincinnati, Facebook and Twitter were on fire with comments and conversation about a Cincinnati Enquirer article that revealed the Over-the-Rhine Community Council (OTRCC) is trying to put an end to 3CDC‘s monopoly on the development of City-owned vacant properties in OTR. I’ve been planning on writing about similar issues (specifically, my evolving thoughts on the implications of gentrification), but I’m putting that aside for a while longer to write a bit about the issues addressed in the article.

I’m going to try to be brief because, gosh, there is a whole lot to say and I’m not qualified to speak about most of it. I’m just going to speak as an “insider,” as someone who started working in OTR right about the time when 3CDC began their development and someone who has lived here for the past 6 years. And, also, as someone who has secured affordable housing in an increasingly-difficult urban real estate market. I’m the first to admit that there are many other residents who are more qualified than I am to speak about OTR’s housing situation and the specifics of housing subsidies. But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

(A few nights ago, I wrote a longer, more comprehensive post about this issue, but decided to condense it before I posted it today. I wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped to be. Sorry!)

Here we go.

There are three really important questions missing from the conversation about housing in downtown Cincinnati. Let me draw out the conversation here and you can let me know if you see the void, too.

The conversation at-hand (and in the article) is about the region of Over-the-Rhine north of Liberty Street and whether or not 3CDC should have first dibs on the development of various properties that the city owns. One of the primary concerns is “affordable housing.” But let’s forgo the specifics for a moment and speak more broadly about the issue of urban housing, affordability, and what is currently at stake.

What does the term “affordable housing” actually mean? Well, according to the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), it means housing costs that do not exceed 30% of a household’s income. But although the term “affordable housing” is a very broad term that applies to people at all income levels, those who concern themselves with fighting for affordable housing are usually speaking on behalf of those who are most vulnerable to rising prices. Because, really, when your income rises above a certain amount–$150k a year, for example–you could essentially choose to live most anywhere you want and find something that would be considered “affordable.” Usually, the term “affordable housing” is used in conversations about housing that is subsidized with public money to make up the difference between market rate prices and what residents can actually afford. (A local organization, the Affordable Housing Advocates, has some great fact sheets posted on their website that help explain the nuts & bolts of how this works out.)

Let me (try to) explain how this works in numbers, using the example of eligibility on the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) website.

As best I understand it, nationwide, there are a few levels of qualifying income for HUD subsidized housing and they vary from 30-80% of the median family income (MFI) for their particular area. But, in Cincinnati, the vast majority of people qualifying for the available subsidized housing are between the 30-50% of MFI level. The MFI in Cincinnati is about $71k a year and the average family size in the US is currently hovering around 2.55 people. So, using CMHA’s guildelines, a qualifying Cincinnati household could make between $17k-35k a year*. A single earner making $17k a year would make just over $8 an hour, a little over minimum wage. According to the data found here, the average full-time worker at this income level has less than a high school education. Now, for $35k a year, a full-time worker would be paid about $16.5 an hour.

So, there is your average HUD-qualifying family.

* I should have clarified that, according to the CHMA guidelines, the baseline for qualification is based on a four-person family. You can see the CHMA site to see how the income amount is pro-rated based on family size. Technically, my income amounts for a 3-person family are off by a few thousand dollars a year, but not enough to invalidate my estimates.

When we hear conversations about cities and developers guaranteeing “affordable housing,” we are usually talking about housing that this kind of family (as well as those who fall economically below this scenario) can afford at 30% of their gross income. So, to get specific according to government standards of affordability, affordable housing for this family may fall anywhere between $425/month and $875/month. If the market rate of rental units in any given area rises above these amounts, the government can step in and subsidize the cost for the family by either providing discounted housing or by paying a Section 8 landlord the difference in the amounts. Cities can also force developers into contractual obligations to provide this subsidized housing.

Now, let’s explore the rest of the people in our city and what would be considered “affordable” for them.

If we divide the US population into fifths, the lowest-income 2/5 of the population fall into the HUD-qualifying category ($0-35k/year). The next 2/5 fall into the “about average” median income category (which is 60-150% of MFI or about $36-100k/year). Remember, the MFI in Cincinnati is $71k a year. So, in numbers, affordable housing for the average family in Cincinnati would be $1,775/month.

What can the top 20% of earners afford to pay for housing? Well, the top fifth of Cincinnati households earn about $101k a year or more. Using the lowest earners in this bracket as our example, this high-income family could afford at least $2500/month in housing costs.

How does this all translate into the cost of home ownership? At the highest end of the lowest 2/5 income bracket here, affordability translates–roughly–into payments on a <$100k mortgage (including taxes and other costs). In the middle 2/5 bracket, we’re talking about payments on a $100k-300k+ mortgage. And, in the top fifth percentile, the price can increase astronomically.

What does this all mean and why does it matter?
Let’s bring it back to Cincinnati and Over-the-Rhine specifically.

And I’ll try to wrap this up as quickly as I can.

What is currently available in market rate housing in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati?

For Rent (just a snapshot, obviously): http://www.trulia.com/for_rent/5427_nh/map_v

For Sale (again, a snapshot): http://www.trulia.com/for_sale/5427_nh/map_v

Unless you’re checking those links in the year 2020 and the market has either crashed or soared, you might be saying to yourself, “Hm. Over-the-Rhine still seems pretty affordable to me.”

Until you look at this: 3CDC’s available housing stock.
A quick search for available units under $300k yields only two condos with two-bedrooms, both around $250k. The rest of the options are studios and one-bedroom condos. Their site does not list apartment rental pricing (perhaps because the market moves so quickly or because so few units are actually available right now). And there are currently no single-family homes available. (Though their website lists them as priced from $290k.)

So, now, back to the article.
Why is the Over-the-Rhine community up in arms about 3CDC developing more of this housing north of Liberty?
That’s actually a legitimate question seeing as 3CDC has done a fantastic job at increasing the economic viability of a few other areas of OTR. They are fiscally responsible, efficient, and historically-sensitive. And the overall safety, beauty, and quality of life in the neighborhood has undeniably improved. Anyone who claims otherwise is either delusional, has never been here, or was never here before 2005. But the OTRCC (You can read their letter to City Council here.) and other groups concerned with the housing situation in OTR see a problem and I think they’re on to something.

There are many properties sitting vacant and neglected in OTR, especially in the area north of Liberty St. And my understanding is that City Council is considering giving 3CDC a blanket permission to develop many of them however they see fit. But, 3CDC is not developing OTR for the actual, average resident of OTR (which has been, for the past few decades, a low income demographic). And they are not creating affordable housing for the other residents of Cincinnati who would like to move to OTR. They are developing OTR for the people who will buy those beautiful $300,000 condos you see on their website. The top fifth of the population. The $100k+ earners. The doctors, lawyers, and executives. The ones with .5 children or no children at all. Or the ones who have already raised their kids or retired early with their pockets full and sold the big family house in the suburbs and moved here for a new season of their lives.

You know the adage “if you build it, they will come?” Well, they built it. And, boy, they are coming in droves.

So, can you blame the rest of the community for wanting a piece of the action? Some of my neighbors have lived here since long before 3CDC incorporated. And they want access to the properties that the City of Cincinnati is poised, ready to hand-over to 3CDC for another manifest destiny-type of neighborhood overhaul. And they want the new developments and homes and shops and restaurants to look more like them.

So, it sounds like I agree with OTRCC, right?
Well, I do.
Sort of.

I think that 3CDC should start bowing-out of the development and let a more diverse group of individuals and businesses take ownership of some other regions of the neighborhood. And I think the City needs to find a way to release some of their holdings to responsible parties that don’t have multimillion dollar budgets. But when I hear the rally cry of OTRCC and I hear them say “we want more affordable housing,” I know that it’s far too difficult for a government to guarantee actual, market-rate affordability and that their only solution will be “subsidized housing.” And then I see the proposed “solution” to the problem, which is that the City will make 3CDC sign a contact that guarantees a certain percentage of the new housing is affordable for low-income residents, and I go—

“Wait, wait. Aren’t we missing something here!?”

 

So, tell me, what’s missing from the conversation about affordable housing?

I think there are three important questions we are not asking.

First-
What are the implications of an urban core with no affordable housing for the average median family? You know, the middle 2/5 of Cincinnati households with full-time wage earners who keep the economy afloat by bearing the brunt of the physical work, skilled labor, trades, and small, community-oriented businesses? Where is the average family going to go when 50% of the housing in OTR is subsidized for those below $35k and the rest is at a market price that is rising so rapidly that it will be unattainable in only a few years? And what about a family with more than 1 child? What will be available for them when anything not subsidized is either a one-bedroom, $150k condo or a $350k+ single-family home (like the ones 3CDC has already sold!)?

A common misconception is that middle-class families don’t want to live in the urban core. But this is simply not the case. Remember: if you build it, they will come. And if you don’t think that the most (economically) sustainable way to build an urban core is to build it for the hard-working middle-class, you are crazy. In January of last year, I wrote a bit about the possibility that urban revitalization in Cincinnati would force out the urban middle class. This issue is even more pressing now that vacant or undeveloped properties are at a premium (and held hostage by the City and by developers) and finished, rehabbed properties are unaffordable for the average median family.

There will always be subsidized housing in cities (even if not with public money) because good people will always speak for the ones who can’t speak for themselves. But there will not always be actual, affordable, pay-out-of-your-pocket housing for the rest of us. It’s those of us in the middle who will have to leave.

 

Second-
Does subsidized housing alleviate the burden of poverty for working families, or does it simply perpetuate it?
Think of it this way: if you were currently living in Section 8 housing in an area like OTR, increasing your income by $20,000 a year could easily disqualify you for subsidized housing (along with other available goverment aid). This would push you into that middle-income no-man’s land of affordable housing and make it nearly impossible to afford your current neighborhood.

Basically, subsidized low-income housing is a trap. And it’s easy to understand why so many people get stuck there. Why would anyone finish high school, attend college, apply for a higher-paying job, or encourage a spouse to find employment when it could mean being stuck in the middle-class where no one is looking out for you and you don’t always have the means to look out for yourself? Losing a housing subsidy may force a family to relocate completely out of their neighborhood, away from friends, family, and a wealth of job and educational opportunities.

Please tell me we can come up with a better option than subsidies.

 

Third-
Why aren’t we diverting more support to increasing home ownership among the working poor and low income families, rather than providing supplemental rent support? After all, the benefits of home ownership on families, children, and communities have been touted since The American Dream was first envisioned. I understand that short-term and emergency housing is necessary for some. But, surely there are many among the “working poor” would would rather find a way into home ownership than continue renting. If you ask me (and I plan on writing about this eventually), a goalpost of “gentrification” should be the economic mobility of all residents. In other words, how can we create an urban core where families stuck in cycles of poverty aren’t just placated there, but are actually moved upward and into self-sufficiency, while still being able to live anywhere they want for as long as they want?

 

 

There are still hundreds of properties left in OTR (as well as in Pendleton, the West End, and Mt Auburn) that would be fantastic opportunities for middle-income residents to develop businesses and create family homes in the urban basin of Cincinnati. And there are many good people with great ideas who would gladly take on the task. But there seems be a deep chasm between the desire of those who would and the resources of those who can. And, realistically, why would developers like 3CDC sell a property (that they bought for next to nothing) to a middle-income earner at $20k (for them to develop or renovate) when they could just as easily develop it themselves and sell it for $600k to a wealthy retiree?

I would love to see a stronger urban middle-class in Cincinnati. I think it’s absolutely necessary for the positive movement in Cincinnati to continue. (Read this 2009 piece by Joel Kotkin for a nationwide perspective.)

That’s why I don’t want “more affordable housing.” Instead, I want more opportunities for the working- and middle-class to develop a homegrown, economically viable community of their own in the urban core. And I believe that, when that happens, the fluid movement of all residents between income levels and social strata will be possible. And this is what is truly missing from the conversation about housing in downtown Cincinnati.

Thanks to folks like 3CDC, OTR is now viable enough to be the perfect ground for an experiment in what would happen if the people who “would if they could” finally get to.

The City of Cincinnati and 3CDC are holding the cards for the next phase of development here. I’m excited/scared/curious to see what the next ten years will bring here in Over-the-Rhine. And I’m hoping folks like me find a way to stick around and see it all happen.

 

Why Diversity Matters To A Conservative Mom Like Me

Diversity matters to me.

It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

When imagining the lifestyle of a “conservative Christian housewife,” the mind isn’t usually drawn to pictures of diversity. Instead, we usually picture privacy fences, kids who “don’t talk to strangers,” and family conversations about Us vs. Them. But one of my deepest commitments in the way I parent and educate my children is to their early and intentional exposure to diversity.

This is one of the things I love most about our life in the city.

In the most basic terms, the defining characteristics of an urban environment are density and diversity. Conversely, sub-urban areas are characterized by sprawl and homogeneity. One of the most common misconceptions about sub-urban places is that they are better for families. And, more often than not, what people mean by “better for families” is that the social, economic, and ethnic homogeneity makes it easier for parents to navigate.

When most of your neighbors look like you, make about the same amount of money as you, and vote like you, their culture is familiar. There are fewer conversations with children about why the neighbor “looks like that” or “eats that kind of food.” And there are fewer difficult conversations about why that other neighbor does that thing that you absolutely do not do.

But, does that really make it “better?”
Better by what definition?

Do parents consider the long-term effects and implications of a childhood with little to no experience with anyone different than themselves?

Now, some sub-urban areas are more dense and diverse than others, especially as many suburbs are being retro-fitted with more characteristically “urban” developments. And every childhood is formed under the direction of parents, so every suburban child’s experience will be different. But, I suggest that parents–especially those who identify as Conservative–should consider the benefit of building a family life in which their children are regularly and positively exposed to diversity, regardless of where they live.

Let me offer two reasons why diversity matters to me.

First, early and intentional exposure to diversity could help release my children from bias and bigotry as they grow older. This is obviously not a guarantee. I believe that bias is a natural (fallen) reaction to cultural differences. But parents can direct a child toward experiences that help them navigate diversity with wisdom, not fear or misunderstanding.

I was a suburban kid. And most of the people I knew as a child came from families very much like mine. But, I went to a public high school that was about a million times more diverse than the neighborhood I was from. So, even if my early childhood was not characterized by diversity, my adolescence was a bit more. I didn’t understand the impact this diversity had on me until many years later when my husband took me to a high school football game in his hometown. It took me a few moments to realize why the crowd was so strange to me.

“Wait,” I asked him, “where are all the black people?”

My husband attended a high school where the student body was nearly 100% white. But I, though I lived in a predominately white suburban neighborhood, attended a high school that was remarkably diverse, both ethnically and economically. So, my early experiences with my minority peers–particularly African American and Middle Eastern–were as diverse as these cultures themselves are.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the homogeneity of my husband’s almamater. Public schools simply reflect the lines drawn by school districts. But I do believe there was an inherent strength to the diversity of my school.

It’s impossible to be completely bias-free, but I credit my diverse high school with helping me have a bit more realistic view of people who are different from me. You see, black people and Muslims and gay kids and poor kids and unwed mothers were not “those people” who lived in the other part of town or went to the other school. They were my classmates. They were football heroes, the student council President, and my co-star in the school play. They were people. Actual people. People with names and talents and fears and dreams–just like me.

The diversity that my children experience in the city on a day-to-day basis can be difficult at times. There are still questions that I haven’t figured out how to answer about the differences between our family and some of our neighbors. The questions we do answer, we sometimes only answer in part while our children are young and are satisfied with simply, honest answers. We are still different, after all. And our children get that, even if they don’t understand to what extent.

I can’t guarantee that my children won’t carry bias into their adulthood, but what I’ve tried to provide is a more broad experience in their childhood so that “those people”–the people who are different from us in any given way–are not strangers or numbers or ideas. They are people. Actual people. They own businesses and restaurants; they have ailing parents and they have rowdy children; some have good jobs and some ask for change; some are lazy and some work really, really hard.

They are our neighbors and friends.
They have names. And talents. And fears. And dreams.
Just like us.

I believe that our experiences with diversity as a child influence our interaction with diversity as an adult. When people who are different are kept at an arm’s length, they have no identity other than the thing that makes them different. They have no humanity. No dignity. And their complete other-ness makes them easily misunderstood. Teaching my children to acknowledge them as more than “different from us” teaches them to acknowledge their God-given dignity. And that is the foundation I would like to build for my children as they approach adulthood so that they don’t need to spend their young adult lives undo-ing the bias they were given as children. Instead, I want them to spend their young adult lives determining how they will engage with the world as adults.

And this relates to the second reason diversity matters to me:

I believe that the Christian faith lends itself to an active relationship with a diverse society, a relationship that is mutually efficacious.

Now, I would be foolish to claim that I am even near to perfecting this subtle dance between remaining apart from the world while establishing relationships and engaging those who are different from me. (Especially when my young children are involved.) But I know that this dance can’t be learned without first jumping in.

In the same way that Christians have to learn to human-ize people who are different from us, I want to help make Christians more human to those for whom we are “those people.” You see, when Christians disengage and remove ourselves from diverse populations, we become nothing more than a foreign idea. We appear irrelevant to the world. And we have no identity apart from our other-ness. But when we engage, when we make ourselves present in the lives of people are are different, they can begin to understand us as real, actual people. And that will, perhaps, give them a better understanding of what, exactly, this peculiar people who call themselves “Christians” are actually all about. And I believe that what Christians are actually (supposed to be) all about is good for the whole world.

We may be kind of weird to some of our neighbors. And they may not understand why we vote the way we vote or why we homeschool or why on earth we head to church every Sunday while they head down the street for waffles. But they will, hopefully, know us in other ways. They will know the names of our children and they will sit at our table or chat on our front stoop and they will (hopefully, someday, when I figure this all out) know that we love them.

I want my neighbors to know that we see them as more than “those people” who live in a different part of town.
Because they don’t live in a different part of town.
They live here.
With us.
And that actually makes a difference.

 

The Hidden Cost of Sprawl

I came across this link on Twitter (via @brenttoderian) and had to share it here.

infographic1000It’s a Canadian study on the hidden costs of suburban sprawl and it reveals the economic stress sprawl puts on all citizens, both those inside and those outside of the city:

While a suburban mortgage may look cheaper, it’s perpetuating a problem for municipalities, businesses, and taxpayers.

The report can be found at thecostofsprawl.com and I’d love to know if there is another study with US-specific statistics. Preferably one with an awesome, user-friendly website like this one?

Can someone send me a link?

Urban Families: How to Get Them & How to Keep Them

I’d be a millionaire if I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “Oh, I would love to raise my kids in the city, but…”

(Okay, maybe I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I would have a decent wad of cash.)

There are two sides to the “urban family” paradigm. There are the things we choose to live here for. These are the inherently valuable aspects of urban life, the positive things about the city. And there are the things we choose to live here in spite of. These are the battles we fight internally, as a family, and externally as we go about our lives.

I’ve argued over and over again for families to consider urbanism as a valid and valuable lifestyle decision for themselves and their children. And I know many people who have seriously considered it and, maybe in another life, would have actually done it. But the truth is that, in the past 50 years, our cities have simply not been designed with families in mind while the suburbs, on the other hand, have. And although I’d argue that the design of the suburbs is flawed in many ways, it is at least a response to what families wanted at the time. It delivered on its promises of safety, privacy, and comfort, and families flocked to get a piece of it.

So long as the people designing our cities are designing them for everyone but families, our cities will have a hard time attracting them and keeping them here. At another time, I’d love to draw out my manifesto a bit more and explain why, exactly, our cities need families (and why families need cities). For now, I’d just like to offer some suggestions for how urban planners can design cities that will appeal to families in the first place.

1. Make it safe. I don’t believe urban areas are actually any more “dangerous” than other areas, but the dangers are different. The population density and economic diversity of cities creates a level of insecurity that will probably always be present. But there are subtle ways to increase the comfort and safety of urban environments, which will make parents more comfortable having their children around. For example, get police officers back on sidewalks instead of in cars. Keep streetlights in working order, especially in alleys. Enforce vehicle/pedestrian laws that make walking safer. Enforce loitering and public drunkenness laws. Ticket speeding cars. Invest in “main street” districts that encourage foot traffic, which increases safety. Make bike lanes. Get guns off of the streets. I could go on and on…

2. Provide diverse housing options. As a city becomes more economically viable (or successful, even!), working- and middle-class families are quickly priced out of the housing market. There will always be low-income, subsidized housing options. And their will always be high-income options. But a family living near the median income of any metropolitan area will have a hard time finding a comfortably-sized living space that they can afford in the urban core. A city that wants to attract the sustaining power of the middle-class simply must find a way to make it possible for them to live there. I wrote about this a while ago, and I’ve thought about it a lot since then as my husband and I consider how long we will stay in our home and where we’ll go from here. In my mind, the perfect housing market is one in which a couple could move around the same neighborhood from their first apartment to their first home and eventually to their retirement condo, if they wanted to. But if this is ever going to happen, if young couples will consider investing in a neighborhood for the long run, there have to be a multitude of options for the present and the future. And there has to be space for creative situations like living/working properties and multi-family co-op housing.

3. Don’t neglect public (indoor and outdoor) space. This should be obvious, right? One of the biggest things a family gives up when moving to the city is literal space–both outdoor space and square footage. So families will be drawn to communities that have a variety of public spaces that offset that loss. And I’m not only referring to public areas like parks, playgrounds, and squares. I would also include amenities like libraries, zoos, and museums. Invest in making these places where people actually want to spend time on a daily basis. Make them clean. Make them beautiful. Keep them safe. And, please, make them free! (At least sometimes.)

4. Provide diverse food sources. “Where do you do your grocery shopping?” is among the top five questions other moms ask me when I tell them where we live. In Over-the-Rhine, this is a simple question to answer. Between the OTR Kroger, Findlay Market, GreenBean Delivery, a csa co-op, and the few big grocery stores within a 5-minute drive, food is the least of my worries here. But some other urban dwellers are much less fortunate, especially those without a car. (Have you heard of “food deserts?” This article from 2011 will–and should–break your heart.) Make it easy to find affordable and healthy food and parents will be able to cross off one of the things on the top of their “anti-urban” checklist. (Victory Garden, anyone?)

5. Support transit options. One of the hallmarks of young urbanists is their love for public transit and for car-lite cities. As these young folks get a bit older and start having children, they will be looking for other ways to get around. And they will want to live in places where loading and unloading a couple kids into a car five times a day is not necessary. I am very thankful to have a reliable vehicle. But I am thankful that, living in the city, I can go days without using it. And I am even more thankful that, if we continue to live here, my kids might be able to live, work, play, and attend school as teenagers without ever needing a drivers’ license (or needing to use it). Pedestrian- and bike-friendly, car-lite, rail-based commuter cities are a future that I’m willing to invest in. And I want to live in a city that invests in that future, as well. It will take some time for families (especially with multiple children) to get used to a pedestrian lifestyle. But, once they’re acclimated to it, I would bet that most will never want to go back.

6. *Invest in education. Another question on the top of the list of Questions Often Asked of Urban Families is, “But, where do your kids go to school?” People ask this because the quality of the public schools is probably one of the top 2-3 things that keep families out of cities in the first place. Most middle-class families cannot afford private schools, so public schools are their only option and sending their kids to a struggling school means a whole lot more work for the parents and risking all sorts of academic and cultural stresses for the child. A sure-fire way to attract educated, middle-class families to the city? Create a kick-ass neighborhood school. It will bring them in in droves.

7. Invite families to the table. Do you want to know how to attract families to your city? Ask them. Believe me when I say that many parents would actually love to move to more urban areas if they felt those areas were a legitimate option. But, for the past fifty years, it has not been (at least for those in the working- and middle-class) and, so, families were written out of the urban planning equation. Invite families back to the table and let them be a part of building a more liveable city.

I understand that this is really a matter of “the chicken or the egg” as far as urban planning goes. Will families move to the city because the city is designed with them in mind, or will the city design with them in mind because they move to the city?

There will always be pioneering-types who are willing to move their families to the city, regardless of its design. In our neighborhood, I could name a half dozen families who were here long before me, raising children in a neighborhood that is far safer and more comfortable now than it was when their children were young. In this aspect, I am in no way a pioneer of family-friendly urbanism. But, now that I’m here, I want to help steer the design of my city toward one that is more welcoming of my peers and more liveable for them once they’re here.

If you build it, they will come. Right?

I sure think so.

* On a personal level, I did not want to include “Invest in education” on my list. I have all sorts of wacky ideas about education, one of them being that a child’s academic success is almost completely dependent upon their family dynamic and parental involvement in their education. Basically, I believe that a parent who is committed to providing a good education for their child will do so, regardless of the schooling options available. This is especially true in a city like Cincinnati where children can opt out of attending their neighborhood school. I decided to include it on the list anyway because: 1) I am sympathetic to parents who are committed to public schooling (and neighborhood schools) and understand why the quality of the neighborhood school will make or break a decision to live in that neighborhood; 2) that urban schools are often the most under-served and academically weak; 3) regardless of what middle-class families may move based on the success of a neighborhood school, the lower income urban kids who have no other option than their neighborhood school deserve a chance at a better education. This, we all know, is the first step toward a better future for them post-graduation and is worth the investment, all middle-class yuppie families aside.

Educating Your Children in the City

One of the first questions my peers ask, related to our life in the city, is usually about my children’s education.

“So, where will they go to school?”

My oldest is not yet five years old and, unlike most of his peers in the city, he has never been to daycare and is not enrolled in preschool. When strangers ask him if he is in preschool, he simply answers, “No, we do school at home.”

When my son was born, I went from full-time to part-time (~15hrs/week) employment and never looked back. When I’m not at work, on top of daily household tasks, I am ushering our children into the world of homsechooling. How do we make this work? Well, it’s definitely not easy. I’ve been able to keep my job because my boss is gracious and flexible and we have always been fortunate to find affordable childcare (no, it’s not a family member and, no, it’s not free). It works because my husband and I are willing to sacrifice my “earning potential,” along with the comforts that it would afford, for the sake of providing a home-centered family life for our children.

Educating my children at home was never my plan. But, as my husband and I began building a vision of our life together, it started to make sense to me. We have made this choice for a multitude of reasons, some of which I wrote about back in January, so I’m not going to get into that now. Suffice to say, I believe it is the best option for most children and preferable to modern standardized public schooling.

We have many friends who homeschool, and many friends who don’t, for all sorts of different reasons. So, I understand that it is neither practical, nor desirable, for many other families. Education, in general, is a very polarizing issue. (Isn’t everything about parenthood? Geez.) And, here in the city of Cincinnati, there are three viable options for parents: 1) public neighborhood schools; 2) private, charter, or magnet schools; 3) homeschooling or co-op schools.

I’m not interested in drawing out the three different options. but would like to share a few articles that I’ve come across lately that have helped me clarify my own opinions about the options. Maybe they will helpful to you, as well.

1) Public Neighborhood Schools.

In the City of Cincinnati, without parental intervention, children default to their neighborhood schools. The school they’re enrolled in is based solely on their home address. Some of these schools are fantastic; some are not. They are always at the mercy of the demographic of their area and, therefore, are the most successful in higher-income areas and tend to struggle in lower-income areas. For parents who don’t want to fuss with private or magnet enrollment, neighborhood schools are one of the top few reasons they re-locate when getting ready to “start a family.”

A few months ago, I read an article published by Christianity Today, written by a woman who sent her children to a struggling neighborhood school–the worst one in her city. Before I got married, I always saw myself as a future public school mom. After reading this article, I felt like my former self might be telling my current self that I’m taking the easy road by keeping my kids at home. The sentiment of the article is gripping. And I will question myself again and aging during our tenure here in the city about the balance between caring for our children vs seeking the welfare of others’.

Our neighborhood school here in OTR is struggling. There are talks, among some like-minded neighbors, of pushing for an overhaul at the school. This is, after all, one of intended benefits of gentrification, right? Committed parents move into a neighborhood and, by sheer numbers, change the culture of the neighborhood schools. But, as it is, no drastic change is in sight for our neighborhood.

For families in other parts of the city, the neighborhood schools might be a good option, one that allows them to engage locally with their neighbors without sacrificing a sound education for their children. We know that the largest contributing factor to students success is parental involvement, anyway, so maybe it’s possible for our children to succeed academically no matter where we land. If that’s true, maybe there’s no reason to avoid public neighborhood schools.

2) Private, Charter, or Magnet Schools.

As a  “public school kid” myself, with good memories of my schooling experience, it never really crossed my mind that I would enroll my own children in private schools. Since I’ve married and started having children, I have considered it at times. After all, having our children enrolled at a school that prescribes to our own educational philosophy would take away the stress of doing it ourselves. And it would connect us to a support system of families who prescribe to the same philosophy. But, economics aside (because I’d have to work full-time to pay for it, which I don’t want to do), I’m simply not sold on the idea.

I have one main argument against enrolling children in alternative schools and it’s captured here, in this article:

…the (magnet) system as it is stratifies communities. By the time they graduate high school, many of the brightest kids already feel alienated from their neighborhoods; after all, they spend the majority of their day somewhere else.

(“Magnet Schools: More Harm Than Good?” Victor Harbison, NY Times)

What alternative schools do is pull families out of their immediate neighborhoods and plant them, for the duration of their educational career, in a “community” with their educational peers. Rather than engaging with their neighbors and early childhood friends, they now spend all of their time in another part of town with people their own age who are much more like them. It’s a comforting scenario and, to be fair, creates many strong and lasting relationships with both children and their parents. But it’s a shallow sense of community in that it is, by design, more controlled, homogeneous, and could easily end the moment enrollment ends.

The great thing about alternative schools is that parents can live anywhere it’s affordable or convenient, while still getting the education they desire for their kids. Heck, they can have three kids in three different schools if they want! But, from my perspective, this decision is counterproductive to engaging with the community where they live, inhabiting that space, and truly investing in their neighbors. They are, as the article above states, spending the majority of their day somewhere else. This is not to say that families always disengage from their resident community, only that their time will always be divided. So, though not rendering engagement impossible, it is at least now more difficult.

One obvious exception to this rule is the parish model of schooling that the Catholic Church has followed for years. I think it’s a good lead for us to follow. Another exception is when families relocate to be in closer proximity to their chosen alternative school, thereby creating more of an intentional “neighborhood” model. This second option, though, does not guarantee that any of the other students in the school live nearby, as the nature of alternative schools is that they are open to those both near and far. So, you may not need to drive your kids 20 minutes to get to their school, but you will now have to drive them 20 minutes to visit any of their friends.

(As a sidenote: These are the very same issues I have with those who join churches far from their homes. I’m sure I’ll write about the issue someday, but today is not that day.)

3) Homeschool or Co-op Education.

When I was young, I knew a handful of homeschooling families. Then, in the 80’s, homeschoolers were on the fringe of even religious circles and were often isolated in their decision for home-based education. Now, thirty years later, the world of homeschooling is as diverse as our education system itself.

A few weeks ago, I saw a link to this article posted on my Twitter feed and it absolutely made my day. The source of the article is Next City, a nonprofit online news source and blog written from an urbanist perspective. The article tells the stories of a few urban homeschooling families and articulates, much better than I can, the rich lifestyle education afforded to families who homeschool in urban areas. It also helps illustrate the level of community engagement that’s possible for families who may feel committed to the place they live, but cannot sign-on to the available schools for whatever reason.

Far from disconnected protestors against the mainstream, urban homeschoolers use the city as a resource — and in turn, can become deeply embedded in the city’s wider life.

(“Charter for One: A New Breed of City Parents Embraces Homeschooling,” Carly Berwick, Next City.*)

*The article itself is viewable, in its entirety, by subscription only or for $1.99, but it’s worth the cost.

I know that homeschooling is not always a better alternative to other available options, especially in smaller communities with more parental control and involvement. But, the potential for homeschooling in an urban environment really excites me, especially when so many of my peers can’t imagine living in the city because of the schools.

The article above does not address homeschool co-ops, but you can find a quick run-down here on About.com if you’re unfamiliar with the idea of co-oped education. In my mind, some type of co-op is absolutely necessary for homsechooling families and provides just enough of the “alternative school” benefits, without a full-time commitment.

But, what about you?
Do you live in a city?
Where do/will your kids attend school?