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Affordable housing has become a hot-button issue in Greater Cincinnati over the last few years, garnering media attention, promises from elected officials and no small amount of debate. Here's everything you need to know about affordable housing in Cincinnati.

New Data: Cincinnati's Affordable Housing Gap Is 19,230 Units

cincinnati skyline
Ilyce Meckler
The Cincinnati metro area is better off than most major cities, with the sixth least severe shortage, according to new HUD data.

New federal data offers the most recent estimate of the affordable housing gap in Cincinnati. A report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development shows a deficit of nearly 30,000 affordable and available units in Hamilton County — including more than 19,000 in Cincinnati — for extremely low-income renter households.

The severity of the housing shortage is under dispute as public officials consider policy solutions and voters could take drastic action with Issue 3, which would require the city to spend $50 million a year on affordable housing.

There's no doubt Cincinnati needs more affordable housing. Until recently, that need was estimated at about 28,000 units. That much-cited number comes from a 2017 report from the Community Building Institute and LISC Greater Cincinnati.

READ: What Does 'Affordable' Housing Mean In Cincinnati?

Some public officials are skeptical because the data is at least seven years old — it's based on the American Community Survey, a subset of the U.S. Census, from 2010 to 2014.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman is chair of City Council's new Affordable Housing Subcommittee.

"I think it's important that if we're using numbers, we at least know that we're using 2010 numbers in 2021," Smitherman said in late March. "And we don't know; those numbers could be bigger, those numbers could be smaller."

Michael Jones, a professor of economics at the University of Cincinnati, thinks the gap is quite a bit smaller. He researches labor and public economics, and says he got interested in housing after reading a WVXU article about council members wanting more recent data.

He decided to take a look for himself, and presented his findings to the subcommittee in mid-April. His analysis is based on a report published in March from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

"This study estimates that demand for the Cincinnati metro area to be 50,000 units," Jones said.

That's a 50,000-unit gap for not just Cincinnati or Hamilton County, but the entire 15-county metro area — it's based on census data from 2019, the most recent year available.

Jones took the analysis a step further, estimating the city alone has a gap of about 8,000 units.

It seems like a victory for anyone wary of Issue 3, including Jones himself; if Cincinnati is only short 8,000 units, the problem isn't nearly as bad as projected.

RELATED: Explaining Issue 3, The Affordable Housing Charter Amendment On The May Ballot

Interim Council Member Steve Goodin thanked Jones for the information.

"This is public service of the first order," Goodin said. "And hopefully this will inform the public debate as we go forward, both as we consider affordable housing solutions in this committee and as voters ponder what they need to do."

An email from the Hamilton County Republican Party last week cited Jones' research, urging voters to oppose Issue 3.

Not So Fast

Not so fast, say the researchers who prepared the data Jones uses. 

"I would not recommend the method used in [Jones'] report," said Dan Threet, a research analyst for the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Threet says there are reasons to doubt the "quick calculation" that reaches a gap of 8,000 units.

"[Jones'] report assumes that the affordable housing gap will be strictly proportional to the share of all housing units," Threet said. "Because, say, 16.7% of all housing units in the Cincinnati metro are in the city of Cincinnati, only 16.7% of the affordability gap for extremely low income renters will be in the city of Cincinnati. But that doesn't account for variation in where the lowest income renters live in the Cincinnati metro."

Jones says that shouldn't be part of the equation because Cincinnati shouldn't have to shoulder the burden of the entire region's housing crisis —low-income city residents could move to affordable housing elsewhere.

"There's a lack of affordable housing in places like Wyoming, Indian Hill, Mason, that's where the gap is. There's plenty of demand to live there … there's not the supply in those locations," Jones said. "It's one thing to say we want to address affordable housing unit prices. It's another thing to say, it's the government's responsibility to ensure that you continue to live in that exact same location."

The same Hamilton County GOP email citing Jones and his report includes a similar argument, under the heading "WHERE WILL THE AFFORDABLE HOUSING GO?"

"Per the Affordable Housing Advocates website, 'affordable housing must be available in all 52 of Cincinnati's neighborhoods,' " the email said. "This moves well beyond the city proper and into suburban areas like Hyde Park, Mount Lookout, Pleasant Ridge and Oakley."

The neighborhoods listed are, in fact, within city limits. 

The email sparked some backlash online; self-described life-long Republican Steven Megerle said it "sounds like something out of a 1950/1960s red-lining manual."

So How Much Housing Is Cincinnati Missing?

Threet says even if it was a fair way to calculate the gap, he wouldn't recommend using a single year of data for such a small area.

Instead, the most recent and reliable data comes from HUD's housing affordability report. Late last year, the department released the data from 2013 to 2017.

"There was a gap of about 19,230, affordable and available homes for extremely low income renters specifically within the city of Cincinnati," Threet said.

In other words, about 10,000 units less than the outdated LISC report, and about 10,000 units more than Michael Jones estimates.

affordable housing gap
Data: HUD & National Low Income Housing Coalition; Graphic: Becca Costello, Flourish

Affordable Housing Gap

The Cincinnati metro area is also better than most major cities, with the sixth least severe shortage (nearby Louisville metro ranks fifth, and Cleveland metro ranks fourth). But Threet says the list ranges from bad to abysmal.

"No metro is doing well on this metric," Threet said. "Even the best situated metro area in the country only has 50 affordable and available homes for every 100 extremely low income renter households, which is certainly not something to celebrate."

What Next?

So where does that leave advocates and public officials?

Kristen Baker is executive director of LISC Greater Cincinnati. She's also skeptical of the much lower estimate of 8,000 units needed. At the same time, she says the city has to start somewhere.

"If we can eliminate 8,000 cost burdened households from the city and the county, that's wonderful," Baker said.

LISC isn't taking a position on Issue 3, but Baker says there are things the city can do in the short term that don't necessarily cost money.

"It requires maybe some political will, it requires some policy changes, looking at zoning differently, looking at how do we really support different kinds of innovative ownership models," Baker said.

Those are some of the recommendations laid out in the Housing Our Future report from LISC – an in-depth strategy guide that Baker says is useful no matter how many housing units the city needs.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.