Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part III: “Affordability” and The $400 Pool Pass

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.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

 

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

 

Stay tuned!

 

OTR Housing: Families Need Not Apply

The issue of family-friendly housing and urban development is nothing new. It’s been an ongoing conversation in urban planning circles ever since the middle- and upper-classes decided they wanted to move back into the city and city planners decided it might be a good idea to entice them to do so.

Cities used to be full of housing stock that appealed to families of every demographic and income level. But the latter half of the 20th Century decimated our cities’ diversified housing by paving over workforce housing, tenement buildings, and large historic multi-family buildings with surface parking lots and corporate headquarters for commuter business owners and their commuter employees. The working class and middle class were now happy in their comfortable and spacious suburbs, the poor were shuffled into isolated and subsidized ghettos, and the wealthy urban dwellers ruled the urban core.

Times have changed and, responding to the desires of both a new generation of city-lovers and aging Boomers who no longer need the school systems the suburban tax-base supports, city planners and property developers have started taking a more diverse group of housing-seekers into consideration.

Supposedly, the people holding and renovating what remains of the available housing stock in my neighborhood, for example, are interested in leaving space for more than young urban professionals and wealthy empty-nesters.

Or so they say.

Take, as a case study of sorts, the recent experience of a friend of mine from the neighborhood.

A few years ago, this family purchased and began renovations on a small-ish multi-use property just a block off of the booming Vine St. business corridor. The building was completed a year or so later and the commercial space became a low-risk pop-up-shop venue. The two studio apartments on the second floor became rental units (and eventually Airbnb units). The family of six moved into the third floor.

The family’s living quarters is small.
One bedroom, two baths, a comfortable kitchen, small bits of living space, and a semi-finished attic flex space for storage and whatever else they need it for.

Time passed and, about 18 months after the family moved in, they decided it was time to sell the property. This was partially because they were facing a job change and wanted to relinquish some financial responsibility. Partially because they were tired and overwhelmed by managing both the commercial space and the rental units. And partially because they wanted a little more space for their family.

The property was listed for sale and my friend started hunting for rental housing in the neighborhood to line up for the family if the building sells.

Which brings me to the issue at-hand.

Long story short, my friend has been met with not one, not two, but three separate property management companies in Over-the-Rhine who will not rent an apartment to them because their rental policies will not allow more than four people in a two bedroom apartment (regardless of the square footage) and (surprise!) not a single 3-bedroom apartments exists in their portfolio.

Okay, so first of all:
This doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for my friend. She has a few options, including finding an independent landlord who has a single-family home or larger apartment to rent and doesn’t mind housing a larger family. But the chances are slim and the situation feels hopeless. For example: there is one 3-bedroom apartment (*ahem–a 2-bedroom with a study) currently available in the neighborhood, but it’s going rate is $3,000 a month.

But, even if she secures an apartment for her family, her situation illustrates a few important things that I’ve always said about the future of cities and of Over-the-Rhine, specifically.

– If urban planners and developers really want a vibrant, thriving urban core, they absolutely must make it more welcoming to families. I had some ideas a few years ago about how to attract and retain urban families and, were I to rewrite that post, I could probably add a few more.

There is a huge disparity between available housing for the highest and lowest income level residents when compared to what is available for middle-income families. My recent housing search in the 45202 zip code (excluding Mt Adams and East End) yielded zero rental units larger than 2 bedrooms. And there is not currently one condo or single-family home with more than 2 bedrooms selling for less than $240,000. (Most are listed between $500,000-$700,000.)

What does this mean?
This means that, apart from any low-income subsidized housing (which, I believe, is not publicly listed), assuming most prescribe to this “two to a bedroom” policy, there may be almost zero landlords in OTR willing to rent to a family with more than two children. And, if a family wants to purchase a 3-bedroom home instead of renting, they will need to be in the top 20% income bracket in our city. (Or, they can try their hand at purchasing vacant land to build on, but I could tell you another story or two about the nightmare that is for the average, middle-income, not in the OTR “in-group” resident.)

I’ve written more about this “missing middle” problem here and here because I saw it coming from a mile away. In fact, it’s perfectly illustrated by the fact that one of the largest in-the-works housing developments in our neighborhood, in an area of OTR that has historically been home to lower-income residents, does not seem to include a single 3-bedroom housing unit.

The people developing property in our neighborhood need a bigger, better vision for what a vibrant, diverse neighborhood actually looks like. It’s getting harder and harder to believe that any of these developers are motivated by anything other than the bottom line and what type/size housing unit can make them the most money. It’s all lip service. And it’s disappointing.

I read this article back in January about how cities could possibly design themselves out of the affordable housing crisis by bringing back the “missing middle” of housing. The idea struck me as so obvious and economical, but so “radical” that it seems impossible. Because, honestly, why would you build a reasonably-outfitted townhouse that sells for $220,000 when you can add a few faux-custom finishes and list it for $600,000? It would take a truly visionary homebuilder and developer to be so brave.

*As a sidenote, I am fascinated by the Betts-Longworth and City West districts of the West End for this very reason. They have the potential to be a model for a truly diverse, affordable neighborhood with all the amenities of urban living. I’d love to hear some thoughts about why City West seems to have flopped. I have some thoughts myself, but I don’t really know enough of the back story. It’s important to note, though, that real estate in these two districts has been moving faster in the past 2 years, housing values are rising, and they really could end up a (slow-moving) success story. It seems to be the commercial, not the residential, element that is holding it back.

 

And, on a larger scale, this “we can’t rent you an apartment because your family is too big” situation really begs some unfortunate questions about our American society, in general.

Among them:

Why do we think 1500-2,000 square feet is too small for a family of 6? My guess is that a lot of the single-family housing that has been lost in OTR over the last century was about that size and, at the time of use, was housing far more than 4 people. (Seriously, check this out.)

American families keep getting smaller and our houses keep getting larger. Look at the numbers. It’s absurd how much space we think we need these days. This is why developers don’t want to build 3-bedroom units; they would need to be huge to satisfy the desires of the average 21st Century American family.

And, trust me, the average wealthy family of four doesn’t want to live in a 2-bedroom home anyway. So trying to market a $300,000 2-BR, single-family home in OTR “for a family” is a lost cause. This is what leads me to believe that developers never wanted families in the first place. They are smarter than that.

Which begs the question:

Where on earth did Americans get the idea that children can not/should not share bedrooms? American families have absurd standards of privacy and personal space found in few places on the planet. If I want to let my four kids sleep in the same room, why is that a big deal? Sure, I know I’ll feel differently when my kids are teenagers and smell bad and want more privacy. But, families adapt as their needs change and good parents get creative with limited space (and resources). Shouldn’t it be up to the parents to decide what is best for their family? I mean, geez, some of my neighbors are living in one bedroom apartments with dogs the size of middleschoolers. But it’s not okay to throw an extra kid or two in a room with their sisters?

– And, then, anecdotally-speaking: Why is it now more socially acceptable to take your dog into the local coffeeshop or to the neighborhood bar than it is to live in a walk-up apartment with more than two children?

Welcome to OTR, circa 2016.
Families need not apply.