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Cincinnati officials want major changes to land use, but they're taking it slow

Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval says widespread single-family zoning is keeping the city from growing. Pureval spoke at a Housing Solutions Summit in Price Hill on Saturday, setting the stage for what changes are being considered at City Hall.

“We have — as a council, as the mayor's office, the administration — identified areas that we believe are holding us back in order to create the kinds of dense diverse neighborhoods that are walkable with good public transportation that's going to make us a destination in the country,” Pureval said. “We have those areas of concern, but we have no expectation about what the specific policy changes are around those areas.”

About 53% of the city’s residential area doesn’t allow multi-family housing structures. Experts agree widespread single-family zoning has increased racial and economic segregation.

City officials are looking at options to encourage more housing density, especially along public transit routes. And Pureval says the current mandatory parking minimums disrupt walkable areas and drive up prices.

“The idea, really, is to establish a shared language,” said Council Member Reggie Harris, who organized the summit. “And then the city administration is going to engage in community engagement sessions throughout the summer around various topics, getting feedback, so that as we are working to think about designing those policies, as we think about designing those policies, we're making sure that we're understanding those pressure points for communities.”

This council and mayor have been united on many issues, but a debate earlier this year about how and where to allow more density got contentious. Harris says there are some lessons to be learned from that fight, especially about community involvement.

Pureval says resident feedback will come first, in the form of public meetings like this one all summer.

“The administration will then draft ordinances in those subject areas, pulling from the specific ideas from this summit, and people will be able to see their ideas in those ordinances,” he said. “And then we'll go through another round of community engagement to further craft them.”

Sarah Thomas is executive director of NEST, a nonprofit community development corporation in Northside.

“What we heard in so many panels today, is that people are tired of talking about it and thinking about it, it's time to do it,” Thomas said, adding she understands the fatigue around the housing discussion in the city. “I think the first step is being involved, but your involvement is most impactful when you make an effort to understand the system within which you're working.”

So what are the “problem areas” that need a solution? Here are some of the highlights:

Density

Each area of the city is zoned for a certain type of structure; when it comes to housing, zoning categories include single family (about 53% of residential area), multi-family (like a duplex or triplex), etc.

Pureval says it didn’t use to be that way: “Until 2003, only 26 percent of our city was limited to single family housing.”

Developers can (and often do) request a density waiver so they can build more units; that waiver process can be time consuming and expensive. Pureval says policies could be updated to encourage more housing near busy areas like central business districts.

Density is especially needed near public transportation options. This type of planning is generally called transit-oriented development.

“By allowing more housing options in our major corridors, we can better encourage residents to use green modes of transportation,” Pureval said. “We can get cars off the road and provide more Cincinnatians with quicker, simpler ways to get where they need to go.”

Parking minimums

Pureval says Cincinnati, like most major cities, were designed to work best for people using cars to get around. He says mandatory parking minimums for new development disrupt “the flow of connected, walkable Main Streets,” and drive up the cost of new housing projects.

He says the city should take a “hard look” at parking minimums.

ADUs

Accessory Dwelling Units (or Auxiliary Dwelling Units, ADUs) may be the next change at Council. These are small housing units built alongside a single-family home on the same lot. They’re sometimes called “granny flats” because it can be a good option for an elderly parent to live independently without giving up the support of family living right across the lawn.

The council-formed Property Tax Working Group (which met in 2019 and 2020) recommended allowing ADUs; the city administration looked into the option and also recommended the change in a report dated November 2020 that was presented to council sometime in 2021.

Residential tax abatements

The city’s system for residential tax abatements given to homeowners for improvements to their property has been challenged in court as benefitting primarily white and wealthy neighborhoods. Pureval acknowledged that bias, and said commercial tax abatements need to go to projects that increase the supply of affordable housing and that need city support to happen.

Council has requested a full analysis of the city’s tax abatement system, along with recommendations for a more equitable plan. That report has been expected for the last couple months.

Becca Costello grew up in Williamsburg and Batavia (in Clermont County) listening to WVXU. Before joining the WVXU newsroom, she worked in public radio & TV journalism in Bloomington, Indiana and Lincoln, Nebraska. Becca has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including from local chapters of the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and contributed to regional and national Murrow Award winners. Becca has a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University and a bachelor's degree from Cincinnati Christian University. Becca's dog Cincy (named for the city they once again call home) is even more anxious than she is.