“An Ambitious Housing Experiment in Cincinnati: Striving for Affordable Living through Bidding”
A Bid for Affordability: Notes from an Ambitious Housing Experiment in Cincinnati
The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority authorized the purchase of 194 single-family rental properties for up to $16.25 million in an effort to fight back against institutional investors who have been buying up affordable housing stock. The majority of these homes come with tenants, and the agency wanted to keep them out of the hands of corporate buyers to preserve the pathways to affordable homeownership that these homes could offer. Institutional investors purchase about one in five single-family homes in Cincinnati, leading to higher rents, lower rates of homeownership, and less affordable neighborhoods. The Port staff and board had to move swiftly to put together a bid and secured support from area organizations active in the housing space before making the purchase.
A Bid for Affordability: Notes from an Ambitious Housing Experiment in Cincinnati
By Loren Berlin, December 23, 2022
Every year, the Board of Directors of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority makes dozens of resolutions. Most relate to buying or renovating specific properties, approving budgets, creating committees, and other standard orders of business. But in December 2021, the board issued a different kind of decision.
Resolution 2021-34 authorized the agency, commonly known as the Port, to proceed with an unprecedented and ambitious plan: securing and spending up to $16.25 million to purchase and rehabilitate a portfolio of 194 single-family rental properties in a handful of largely low- and moderate-income neighborhoods in and around Cincinnati. It would be a bold move for any local government authority to buy so many properties at once, but especially for an agency without experience owning occupied homes.
The Port, jointly established in 2000 by the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to promote economic development in the metro area, operates a land bank that manages hundreds of properties at any given time, redeveloping them and returning them to productive use; it also invests in the construction and renovation of single-family homes and commercial and industrial properties. But this would be something altogether different. The vast majority of these homes would come with tenants. Then again, that was the point: to try something different, to fight back against the institutional investors who have been buying up the area’s affordable housing stock.
Today, outside investors purchase about one in five single-family homes in Cincinnati. This mirrors a national trend: institutional investors made 24 percent of single-family home purchases in 2021. The results of this property grab are the same in Cincinnati and across the country: higher rents, lower rates of individual homeownership, and less affordable neighborhoods.
The Port took action because it wanted to keep these 194 properties—which are located throughout the city and county, with many concentrated in the neighborhoods of Price Hill, Westwood, and Springfield Township—out of the hands of corporate buyers. The agency also wanted to preserve the pathways to affordable homeownership that these homes could offer current tenants and other local residents.
A dozen private investors were bidding on the portfolio, and the Port was concerned that most intended to continue with the previous owner’s business model of absentee landlords, bare-minimum maintenance, market-rate rents, and hostile eviction practices, a cash-cow approach for investors that wreaks havoc on local housing markets. The Port team knew it would need to act quickly and aggressively to win the bid.
This is the story of how a local, quasi-public agency pulled off a bit of a coup against powerful market forces, of what comes next when that agency suddenly becomes a landlord, and of the lessons the Port’s experience could offer other cities grappling with increasing corporate ownership of the nation’s limited supply of affordable homes.
Predatory Investors in Legacy Cities
To understand how the Port came to own these properties, it’s important to consider what was happening in Cincinnati when the portfolio became available. The local housing market was, and still is, one with relatively low home prices. In October 2021, the median home sale price was $213,000 in Cincinnati, compared to $378,000 nationally. This creates the perfect market conditions for institutional investors to swoop in, says Alison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center.
“Investors think they will get a good return here, especially the ones who are coming from outside of Ohio and are used to seeing higher home prices,” Goebel says. “They see that the home prices here are low enough that they can afford to buy a bunch of properties and make money on the rents, but the prices aren’t so low as to give them pause. They see it as a good deal.”
These market conditions are not unique to Cincinnati, says Goebel, who has coauthored two Lincoln Institute Policy Focus Reports on the challenges and opportunities facing postindustrial cities in the United States (Equitably Developing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities and Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities). Also known as legacy cities, such places experienced substantial economic and population decline in the second half of the 20th century. Most of these former economic powerhouses are in the Midwest and Northeast; they vary significantly in size, from very large cities like Detroit and Baltimore to smaller ones like Gary, Indiana, and Worcester, Massachusetts. Roughly 17 million people live in legacy cities, with per capita and household incomes that tend to be lower than those in non-legacy cities, making access to affordable homeownership both more critical and further out of reach.
Median home prices in Cincinnati are well below the national median, which has attracted outside investors to the market. This house is one of 194 properties purchased by the Port of Cincinnati that were previously owned by a Los Angeles-based real estate company. Credit: Jeff Dean.
Both the Port and the Greater Ohio Policy Center are participants in the first national community of practice established by the Lincoln Institute’s Accelerating Community Investment initiative (ACI), which seeks to mobilize investment in low- and moderate-income communities and bring new partners to the community investment ecosystem.
“Building stronger community investment ecosystems is essential for achieving more equitable redevelopment in places across the nation,” says Robert J. “R.J.” McGrail, senior research fellow at the Lincoln Institute and director of the ACI initiative. “This work is especially important now, when low-income and moderate-income communities are facing new challenges from deep-pocketed institutional investors.”
The staff at the Port had long been aware of the increasing presence of outside investors in the local housing market. In early 2021, they decided to do some digging. By analyzing property records from the Hamilton County Auditor’s office, the Port discovered that institutional investors owned more than 4,000 homes in the area. As was the case in cities across the country, many single-family homes that had been registered as owner-occupied a decade earlier were now listed as rental properties.
Further research also confirmed a troubling suspicion: an opaque connection seemed to exist among the most negligent property owners. The Port team was able to map networks of limited liability corporations (LLCs), many of which were related to just a few central entities. In some cases, properties were transferred between LLCs multiple times a year. These investor-owned properties were primarily concentrated in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.
The Port created this map in 2021 to illustrate the outsized influence of institutional investors in Hamilton County. Credit: Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority.
The Port staff and board were still digesting this information when a call came from Colliers, which was managing a portfolio of foreclosed rental homes. The properties had most recently been owned by Raineth Housing, an institutional investor based in Los Angeles that had gained local notoriety for being delinquent on its property taxes and neglecting maintenance to the point where its properties had become, in the words of a lawsuit filed by the city in 2019, a “public nuisance.” Now they were going up for sale. Would the Port want to bid on them?
“My deep conviction is that we should use the powers and expertise of this agency to make the biggest positive impact we possibly can,” said Laura Brunner, president and CEO of the Port. “So when we were suddenly faced with the opportunity to do something that was possible and where, in this case, we saw a moral imperative to act, there was no chance in the world that we would say no.”
Putting a Plan Together
Neither the Port’s budget nor its strategic plan included the acquisition of nearly 200 occupied single-family homes, so the staff had to move swiftly to pull together a bid. After securing informal support from the Port’s board, Brunner and her team met with more than a dozen area organizations active in the housing space to confirm that what the Port wanted to do made sense from their respective positions in the community. Those groups included the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, the nonprofit community development corporation Price Hill Will, the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, the Home Ownership Center of Greater Cincinnati, and Working in Neighborhoods, a nonprofit founded by the Catholic community Sisters of Charity.
The Port pledged that it would keep rents at their…
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