Mayor's Desk: Housing and Hope in Cincinnati
Aftab Pureval, elected in 2021, is making history as Cincinnati’s first Asian American mayor. He was raised in Southwest Ohio, the son of first-generation Americans, and worked at a toy store when he was in middle school. After graduating from the Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati Law School, Pureval held several positions including as counsel at Procter & Gamble before entering public service. He served as Hamilton County Clerk of Courts from 2016 to 2021, and was the first Democrat to hold that office in over 100 years. Pureval resides in the north Cincinnati neighborhood of Clifton with his wife and their two sons and, as has become evident during his time in office, is a big-time Cincinnati Bengals fan. He spoke with Senior Fellow Anthony Flint earlier this year for the Land Matters podcast; their conversation has been edited here for length and clarity.
Anthony Flint: You’ve attracted a lot of attention for what some have called a “heroic undertaking” to preserve the city’s single-family housing stock and keep it out of the hands of outside investors. Briefly, walk us through what was accomplished in coordination with the Port of Cincinnati.
Aftab Pureval: Just to provide a little more context, Cincinnati is a legacy city. We have a proud, long tradition of being the final destination from the Underground Railroad. We were the doorstep to freedom for so many slaves who were escaping that horrific experience. We have a lot of historic neighborhoods, a lot of historic buildings, and we have a lot of aging infrastructure and aging single-family homes, which—paired with the fact that we are an incredibly affordable city in the national context—makes us a prime target for institutional investors.
Unfortunately, Cincinnati is on national list after national list about the rate of increase for our rents. It’s primarily being driven by these out-of-town investors—who have no interest, frankly, in the well-being of Cincinnati or their tenants—buying up cheap single-family homes, not doing anything to invest in them, but overnight doubling or tripling the rents, which is pricing out a lot of our communities, particularly our vulnerable, impoverished communities.
The City is doing a lot of things through litigation, through code enforcement. In fact, we sued two of our largest institutional investors, Vinebrook and the owners of Williamsburg, to let them know that we’re not playing around. If you’re going to exercise predatory behavior in our community, we’re not going to stand for it.
We’ve also done things on the front end to prevent this from happening by partnering with the Port . . . . When several properties went up for sale because an institutional investor put them on the selling block, the Port spent $14.5 million to buy over 190 single-family homes, outbidding 13 other institutional investors.
Over the past year, the Port has been working to bring those properties into compliance, dealing with the various code violations that the investor left behind, pairing these homes once they’re fixed up with qualified buyers, oftentimes folks who are working in poverty or lower middle-class who’ve never owned a home before.
Just this year we’re making three of those 194 available for sale. It’s a huge success across the board . . . but it’s just one tool that the Port and the City are working on to increase affordability of housing in all of our neighborhoods.
AF: What did you learn from this that might be transferable to other cities? It takes a lot of capital to outbid an institutional investor.
AP: It does require a lot of funds. That’s why we need more flexibility from the federal government and the state government to provide municipalities with the tools to prevent this from happening in the first place. Now once an institutional investor gets their claws into a community, there’s very little that the city can do to hold them accountable.
The better strategy as we’ve seen this time is to, on the front end, buy up properties. A lot of cities have a lot of dollars from the federal government through ARP [American Recovery Plan]. We have used a lot of ARP dollars not just to get money into the hands of people who need it most, which is critically important in this time, but also to partner with other private-public partnerships or the Port to give them the resources necessary to buy up the land and hold it.
That has been part of our strategy with ARP. This is a unique time in cities where they have more flexibility [with] the resources coming from the federal government. I would encourage any mayor, any council, to really think critically about using the funds not just in the short term but also in the long term to address some of these macroeconomic forces.
AF: Cincinnati has become a more popular place to live, and the population has increased slightly after years of decline. Do you consider Cincinnati a pandemic or climate haven? What are the implications of that growth?
AP: What I love about my job as mayor is my focus isn’t necessarily on the next two or four years, but the next 100 years. Right now, we are living through a paradigm shift because of the pandemic. The way we live, work, and play is just completely changing. Remote work is completely altering our economic lifestyle throughout the entire country, but particularly here in the Midwest.
What I am convinced of is because of climate change, because of the rising cost of living on the coast, there will be an inward migration. I don’t know if it’s in the next 50 or 75 years, but it will happen. We’re already seeing large businesses making decisions based on climate change. Just two hours north of Cincinnati, Intel is making a $200 billion investment to create the largest semiconductor plant in the country.
Two of the reasons they chose just north of Cincinnati are access to fresh water, the Ohio River in the south and the Great Lakes in the north, and our region’s climate resiliency. Now, don’t get me wrong: we’re all affected by climate change. We’re not all affected equally—our impoverished and disadvantaged communities are more affected disproportionately than others—but in Ohio and Cincinnati, we’re not seeing the wildfires, the droughts, the hurricanes, the earthquakes, the coastal erosion that we’re seeing in other parts of the country, which makes us a climate-change safe haven not just for business investment but also for people. Cincinnati is partly growing because our economy’s on fire right now, but we’re going to really see, I believe, exponential growth over the next few decades because of these massive factors pushing people into the middle of the country.
The investments that we make right now to help our legacy communities and legacy residents stay in their homes and continue to make Cincinnati an affordable place for them, while also keeping in mind these future residents, is a really challenging topic. While Cincinnati right now is very affordable in the national context, it’s not affordable for all Cincinnati residents because our housing supply has not kept up with population growth and our incomes have not kept up with housing prices.
In order to make sure that the investments in the future and the population growth in the future does not displace our current residents, we’ve got to stabilize our market now and be prepared for that growth.
AF: What are the land use changes and transportation improvements that you’re concentrating on accordingly?
AP: Oftentimes, people ask mayors about their legacy, and the third rail of local politics is zoning. If we’re going to get this right, then we have to have a comprehensive review and reform of our land use policies. When I talk about legacy, that’s what I’m talking about.
We have, for over a year now, been having meetings with stakeholders to [explore what] a modern Cincinnati looks like. I believe it looks like a dense, diverse neighborhood that’s walkable, with good public transportation and investments in public art. Right now, the City of Cincinnati’s zoning is not encouraging those kinds of neighborhoods. Close to 70 percent of our city is zoned for single-family use exclusively, which is putting an artificial cap on the amount of supply that we can create, which is artificially increasing rents and artificially increasing property taxes, which is causing a lot of our legacy residents, who even own their homes, to be displaced.
If we’re serious about deconcentrating poverty and desegregating our city, then we’ve got to take a look at multifamily unit prohibitions. We’ve got to take a look at parking requirements for both businesses and homes. We’ve got to look at transit-oriented development along our bus rapid transit lines. We’ve got to look at creative opportunities to create more housing like auxiliary dwelling units, but none of this is easy.
It’s not easy because NIMBYism is real, and we’ve got to convince people that I’m not going to put a 20-floor condo building on your residential cul-de-sac . . . . Zoning is very, very difficult because change is very difficult, and people are afraid of what that will turn the city into. That’s why we’ve been doing a year-long worth of community engagement, and I am confident we can make some substantive changes to our zoning code to encourage more affordability, encourage more public transportation, and just be a greener city.
On that note, we have made a commitment that we will only buy city vehicles that are electric vehicles when they become available. We have the largest city-led solar farm in the entire country, which is significantly contributing to our energy consumption.
AF: A little bit of this is back to the future, because the city had streetcars. Do you have the sense that there’s an appreciation for that, that those times actually made the city function better?
AP: The city used to be dense, used to have incredible streetcars, public transportation, and then, unfortunately, cities—not just Cincinnati but across the country—saw a steady decline of population, losing folks to the suburbs. Now people want to come back into the city, but now we have the hard work of undoing what a lot of cities tried to do, which was create suburban neighborhoods within a city to attract those suburban people back, right? It’s a little bit undoing the past while also focusing on what used to exist. When I share this vision with people, they say, “Yes, that’s a no-brainer, of course, I want to do that,” but they don’t want to do it on their street.
AF: What worries you most about this kind of transition, and what do you identify as the major issues facing lower-income and communities of color in Cincinnati?
AP: Displacement. If we cannot be a city that our current residents can afford, they will leave, which hurts everything. If the city is not growing, then a city our size, where we’re located in the country, we are dying, and we are dying quickly. Cities our size have to grow, and in order to grow, not only do we need to recruit talent, but we have to preserve the families and the legacy communities that have been here in the first place.
No city in the country has figured out a way to grow without displacement. The market factors, the economic factors are so profound and so hard to influence, and the City’s resources are so limited, it’s really difficult. Getting back to our institutional investor problem, the City doesn’t have the resources to just go up and buy property and make sure that we’re selling to good-faith owners, right? If we had that power, that market influence, we would do it. Oftentimes, I guess I get frustrated that I don’t have enough resources, enough authority to make a meaningful impact on the macroeconomic forces that are coming into the city. Because if we get our dream, which is more investment, more growth, that comes with negative consequences, and it’s really difficult to manage both.
AF: Finally, back to climate change, the mayor’s website says Cincinnati is well-positioned to be a leader in climate change at home and abroad. What do you think the city has to offer that’s distinctive in terms of climate action?
AP: All of our policy initiatives are looked at through two lenses. The first is racial equity and the second is climate. Everything that we do, whether it’s our urban forestry assessment, looking at a heat map of our city and investing in trees to not just clean the air but also cool our neighborhoods, [or] our investments in biochar. We are one of only three cities in the entire world that received a huge grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies to continue to innovate in the world of biochar, which is a byproduct of burning wood, which is an incredible carbon magnet that helps with stormwater runoff but also pulls carbon out of the air.
Our parks department, which is one of the best in the country, continues to innovate on that front . . . . Continuing to have some of the best testing and best preservation in the country for our water supply will be important. Ultimately, businesses and people who are looking to the future consider climate change in that future. If you’re looking for a city that is climate-resilient but also making massive investments in climate technology, then Cincinnati is that destination for you.
Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, host of the Land Matters podcast, and a contributing editor of Land Lines.
Lead image: Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval. Credit: © Amanda Rossmann – USA TODAY NETWORK.