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After a setback, housing in Over-the-Rhine for those experiencing homelessness could get revived

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Nick Swartsell
/
WVXU
The proposed site of OTRCH's 44-unit permanent supportive housing development on Dunlap and Henry Streets

Cincinnati City Council could vote on a controversial affordable housing development in Over-the-Rhine put in limbo earlier this year.

Cincinnati's Historic Conservation Board in August voted not to waive density rules for a four-story, 44-unit building by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing on Dunlap Street. That project would serve people experiencing mental illness, addiction or chronic homelessness.

Council Member Reggie Harris recently introduced an ordinance that, if approved, would allow the housing to be built anyway.

"It just feels like a moral imperative that we ensure that this project makes it across the finish line," Harris says.

The project has garnered both intense opposition and support from residents and organizations in the neighborhood. The Over-the-Rhine Community Council voted 34-30 to oppose the project in April.

At their August meeting, Historic Conservation Board members said current zoning only allows 14 units at the project's location. They did approve other requests for the project, however.

"I desperately want to approve all of this, but I feel incredibly hamstrung by the zoning code and what it allows as far as density is concerned," board member Allison McKenzie said. "I think that it's a case where it's just too far of a reach over the density allowed. I really hope that something can be done that won't hamstring us in the future."

A previous building on the property was also four stories tall. The property is currently a parking lot.

The proposed building at 2000 Dunlap Street received $1 million in federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Those credits are awarded on a competitive basis by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency from a statewide pool of applicants.

That, Harris says, is another reason it should move forward.

"It would be not a good precedent to set for a development company working with the city to send back federal dollars for affordable housing while also saying we have a need for dollars for affordable housing," he said.

The apartment building would include offices for social service caseworkers and other supports for people experiencing addiction, mental health issues and chronic homelessness who would otherwise be in shelters or living on the street. More than 6,000 people in the region used emergency shelters or encountered street outreach workers in 2021, according to data from Strategies to End Homelessness.

"Permanent supportive housing is recognized as a best practice to ending homelessness," OTRCH said in a May news release. "Just as important as providing a physical home to those who are currently unhoused, this project will support residents in addressing physical health and mental health issues. In addition, support for reducing substance use, and rebuilding relationships. The stability of a home provides the foundation for recovery."

Many residents and organizations wrote the city expressing opposition to — or support for — the project. Some said that it would increase the density of such services in a neighborhood that already has more than its fair share.

"Placing 44 clients with mental health illnesses and drug and alcohol addiction into a neighborhood with open drug sales and prostitution, gun violence and a plethora of drinking establishments does not set the homeless up for success," a petition signed by dozens of residents and sent to the city reads. "No more institutional projects need to be shoehorned into our small neighborhood which is trying to evolve from past neglect."

Others in the neighborhood, however, are supportive.

"This city is in dire need of affordable housing," nearby resident Steve Smith wrote to the city. "This project reaches those who are most in need of affordable housing, the chronically homeless."

Harris says that whether or not the housing happens, people in the neighborhood are in need.

"There has been some concern and pushback that we've been getting saying that we don't want these people in our community, we don't want this type of housing," he says. "The reality is, there are folks who are struggling, who are unhoused, who are dealing with substance abuse issues who are already in this community."

Harris' ordinance will be considered by the city's Planning Commission Oct. 21. It will then go to City Council in early November.

Nick Swartsell is a general assignment reporter for WVXU. Before his current role, he worked on the station’s Cincinnati Edition program as assistant producer and was a journalist for outlets in Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and Texas prior to that. When he’s not reporting, he likes exploring places he probably shouldn’t on his bike, taking photos, and growing corn, tomatoes and peppers that are, in all honesty, much too hot for any practical use. He is from Hamilton. You can find him at @nswartsell on Twitter.