Controversial Liberty & Elm Development Gets Final Council Approval

Feb 3, 2021

Updated: Wednesday, 6 p.m.

Cincinnati City Council voted 5-4 Wednesday to advance a controversial development at Liberty and Elm in Over-the-Rhine.

Two weeks ago, council delayed a vote on the project and asked developers to find a way to include affordable housing units. But the majority of council voted for the original proposal, backing Mayor John Cranley.

"This developer has bent over backwards to work with the community and is building an awesome project,” Cranley said. "I’m not apologizing for supporting it. There's not a whole lot wrong with it, and there's a lot right with it."

The version with minority support offered 28 slightly cheaper housing units in exchange for paying less money into a fund for the streetcar. Council members favoring this version said it wasn't perfect, but was better in its efforts to address housing concerns.

Several residents and community leaders told council they don't support either version of the project.

"Standing up for affordable housing does not mean we are opposed to development," said OTR resident Bonnie Neumeyer. "I've been living in this neighborhood almost 50 years. I've seen affordable housing decline, even in our community's efforts to preserve and build more."

Both versions of the proposal included a one-time payment of $750,000 to an affordable housing fund.

And the developers say they’ll apply for low income housing state tax credits that would allow them to add 15 affordable units. The average income limitations for these grants is 60% of Area Median Income, according to the development agreement.

The project will have nearly 300 total units with rents ranging from $1,400 for a studio apartment to $2,800 for a four-bedroom unit.

Council members dissatisfied with the revised plan pointed to about $800,000 less in payments to a fund for streetcar maintenance and operation.

"This is not separated from a discussion about affordable housing," said Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman in committee Tuesday. "That is important, and we certainly will continue to have that. But we cannot put all of that weight on this project."

Two Competing Proposals

The "B Version" is what council members considered two weeks ago and approved Wednesday. It doesn’t include any guaranteed affordable units. It does include about $1.45 million in payments to a fund established to operate and maintain the streetcar (the voluntary tax incentive contribution agreement, or VTICA, program).

In exchange for a 30-year Tax Increment Financing (TIF) exemption, developers would make VTICA payments yearly for tax years 11-30.

The "C Version" promised at least 10% of the 278 newly constructed units will be rented to tenants making no more than 80% of the Area Median Income.

The 28 units would have been rented to tenants who make no more than 80% of the Area Median Income.

Josh Spring, director of the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition, said that's not good enough.

"We end up with units that are affordable at $45,000," Spring said in Tuesday's committee meeting. "How many of our Cincinnati citizens and residents make $45,000 a year?"

In exchange for the 30-year TIF exemption, developers would pay a total of about $650,000 into VTICA, or about $800,000 less than the other plan. And those yearly payments would begin later, at tax year 21 of the 30-year incentive.

Read more about both versions of the development proposal below:

Liberty & Elm Developme... by WVXU News

Liberty & Elm Developme... by WVXU News

This article was first published Feb. 2 and has been updated.