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Everyone on council wants housing equity. But they don't agree on how to do it

A street in Pendleton, a small neighborhood near Over-the-Rhine.
Becca Costello
A street in Pendleton, a small neighborhood near Over-the-Rhine.

Cincinnati Council is considering a change to the rules that limit how many housing units can go on a single property. Experts say density limits in zoning code make housing prices go up and contribute to racial and economic segregation. Council members are fiercely split on a proposed ordinance that would affect some neighborhoods much more than others.

The nine council members who took office this year are generally united on policy, especially about housing. But Liz Keating's density legislation has them split down the middle, with no clear picture of how the vote will go.

Keating introduced the ordinance almost a year ago, but the concept is much older.

"Other cities have taken a much more drastic step, and we're trying to be very thoughtful in small steps as we go forward," Keating said. "If we wanted to do everything in one major haul, I don't think it would ever happen."

The change would reduce or remove density limits for six types of zoning: multi-family, office, commercial, urban mix, manufacturing, and riverfront. For example, a building currently limited to four units could be increased to eight.

Supporters of the density ordinance say it will make housing more affordable to develop.
Office of Council Member Liz Keating
Supporters of the density ordinance say it will make housing more affordable to develop.

Supporters say it's basic supply and demand: housing prices go up when there's intense competition for a few available units. Adding more units, even at higher price points, drives down cost for everyone.

"We all want to be able to continue to grow, we want to be able to expand that tax base to pay for the basic services that we need," Keating said.

An 'opportunity to undo racist laws'?

Keating is the only Republican on council, but the split has nothing to do with party politics. Liberal cities like Seattle and Los Angeles have made similar moves. And the measure's strongest supporter is Democrat Reggie Harris.

"We know that the zoning laws in this country are built upon racist institutions of segregating neighborhoods, of keeping Black folks and immigrants out of communities," Harris said. "And we have the opportunity in a very measured way to undo racist laws and policies."

Research backs this up; cities that allow higher density have lower levels of segregation.

But most other cities doing zoning reform have made broader changes. That's one reason Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney is opposed.

"You cannot say that an ordinance that does not look at 77% of residential zoning, i.e. single family zoning, is trying to desegregate," Kearney said. "This makes denser neighborhoods that already are dense, and those are mainly Black and brown and low income neighborhoods."

A handful of neighborhoods would see increased density in less than 10% of their area, including Hyde Park, Camp Washington, and Mount Lookout. Others, like Over-the-Rhine and English Woods, would allow higher density in more than 75% of the neighborhood.

One of city's smallest communities, Pendleton, would get higher density limits in 97% of the neighborhood. The Pendleton Neighborhood Council voted last month to oppose the suggested changes. President Abbey Tissot says she shares a concern common among others who oppose the measure: that it will fundamentally change the character of unique neighborhoods.

"If you care about your neighborhood, and you choose it because it's unique and it's special, the idea of a one-size-fits-all, pro development, unrestricted development approach is really concerning," Tissot said.

RELATED: What does 'affordable' housing mean in Cincinnati?

The ordinance wouldn't change other zoning requirements like parking, height, or setback. Pendleton, for example, is a historic district. Tissot says that doesn't provide enough opportunity for input.

"The historic conservation guidelines suggest that developers speak to a community, but they do not require the developer to do so," Tissot says.

Keating says neighborhood character is important, and her proposal isn't about adding an apartment tower to a cul-de-sac.

"[Projects] still have to go through a process and they have to get signed off on," Keating said. "You're not going to be able to build some massive, crazy structure that doesn't fit in, that wouldn't be allowed under our zoning code."

Keating says 70% of requests for an exemption to the density rule are granted anyway. This small change is more about making the process easier, especially for small developers who may not know how to navigate the city's complicated rules.

But Tissot says the public meeting for a density variance is an important way residents can give feedback on a project.

"Losing that protection, losing that step in the process, is just another way that developers are sort of given a free pass to do whatever it is that they please, in whatever neighborhood they want to do it in," Tissot said.

Several other community councils have come out against the measure, and many are meeting ahead of Tuesday's public hearing to discuss it.

Too far or not far enough?

There's one thing everyone seems to agree on: the city has a housing shortage crisis, especially for low-income residents. And the city can't grow in population without getting more housing online pretty quickly.

Vice Mayor Kearney has floated the idea of giving a density waiver only to projects that include affordable units, or that donate money to the city's housing fund. There's not much research on that kind of approach, known as inclusionary zoning, and much of it suggests it doesn't work. Kearney says it should at least be part of the discussion.

"I think a lot of people have been misled to think that this is some kind of affordable housing ordinance, and it is not," Kearney said. "Whether or not affordable housing should be an incentive is something we can look at; that could be right, that could be wrong. The point is, this ordinance does not have affordable housing in it."

Keating says this is one very small piece of a larger solution to housing affordability, and the necessary changes aren't easy.

"It disrupts things as the way we know it," Keating said. "But we have to make those tough changes to be able to get to that Cincinnati that we envision for the future and that we all campaigned on."

Mayor Aftab Pureval says he's undecided on the measure and he has no plans to veto the ordinance if it passes.

Last month, Pureval prompted council to request a comprehensive analysis of zoning laws and how they can be changed to improve conditions for affordable housing. That report is expected sometime in the next few weeks.

Where council members stand on the issue

The ordinance needs six votes to pass, one more than usual. That's because the Planning Commission considered it last month and deadlocked on a vote to recommend passage.

Keating and Harris are clear supporters.

Jeff Cramerding and Victoria Parks have voiced concerns about the approach; Cramerding says if a vote is taken Tuesday, he will vote no.

The remaining five council members say they're listening to community input. All nine council members say they support density and zoning reforms generally.

A public hearing will be held during the Equitable Growth and Housing Committee on Tuesday, March 15 at 1 p.m.

If the ordinance passes out of committee, it could be up for a final vote as soon as Wednesday.

Read the full ordinance below:

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.