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Walnut Hills Residents Feel Pushed Out As They Struggle To Find Affordable Housing

Thearon Lewis faces displacment in Walnut Hills after the apartment building she lives in was sold this winter.
Thearon Lewis faces displacment in Walnut Hills after the apartment building she lives in was sold this winter.

In Cincinnati and in cities across the country, people living paycheck-to-paycheck are finding it ever-harder to afford increasing rents as demand for housing near urban cores heats up. Those who can't keep up with increased living expenses are often left with few options.

Thearon Lewis is a 76-year-old Black woman with long silver braids. She lives in a two-story brick apartment on May Street in Walnut Hills, not too far from where she lived on Kemper Lane in the '80s.

Back then, Black-owned businesses lined McMillan Street, and Lewis would frequent them often.

"The Thatched Roof — which was a clothing store which sold African jewelry and all kinds of artifacts and stuff like that. That was one of my favorite places to go, and plus you could sit down and chat and stuff like that," she said

After a while away, Lewis moved back to Ohio. She made her way back to Walnut Hills five years ago after her husband Lonnie died. But the neighborhood is much different than she remembers.

"Black people have been pushed out of Walnut Hills with gentrification, I'll say that," she said. "So that's why the look has changed. Because there are a lot of people that used to live here that aren't here anymore because their buildings were bought and renovated. And then, you know, then you can't afford to move back in." 

Consequences Of Shifting Demographics

Part of what contributes to gentrification of neighborhoods like Walnut Hills is the migration of people to city centers. According to NPR, two main factors that cause people to move into urban cores are jobs and entertainment. Despite some people leaving cities during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts don't think the trend will last. 

The shift is not without consequence. It can price lower-income residents like Lewis out of their homes.

She's paying $650 per month, plus electric, for a two-bedroom apartment. But the market rate for an apartment that size in Walnut Hills is about twice that amount.

This winter, her apartment building was sold. Just days before Christmas, she and people in about nine other units were given a notice to vacate by the end of January. If not, they'll be evicted. 

After tenants protested those terms, the building's owners gave residents more time to move out and made other concessions. The building's owners say the property needs extensive repairs that will make rent increases necessary, though Lewis says that's not the case with her unit.

Regardless, she now has until mid-March to move out. She says agreeing to the deal with the landlord was the best option in front of her because she knows she won't be able to afford the new increased rent.

"He is going to renovate this building and he is going to put people in here that can pay the amount that he wants, and it's going to be between $950 and $1,000. ... It's going to be because that's what's happening in Walnut Hills," she said.

Lewis' experience is not unique in Cincinnati.

How The City Could Help

Kristen Baker is the executive director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation in Cincinnati, known as LISC. It's part of the organizations that helped gather data and wrote a housing report called "Housing Our Future," which was publicly released last spring.

According to the report, the price of rent has increased more than 25% in the past five years while income has remained stagnant. It caused Hamilton County to be short about 40,000 affordable housing units. But Baker says there's a lot the city can do to help people in need.

For instance, tenants can be offered first right of refusal if their building is being sold and assistance with purchasing it; a housing court could be created in Hamilton County; renters could be issued a Tenant's Bill of Rights outlining resources that are available to them; and more can be done to preserve already existing affordable housing.

"So we work to really try to drive those kinds of issues forward in our community, both through the projects that we fund, the organizations that we provide resources to, but also through the work that we do in terms of policy advocacy, and trying to sort of shine a light on these issues," she said.

Most important, though, more housing needs to be built. Baker says LISC and other organizations have committed to see 2,000 affordable housing units every year for the next 10 years.

But whether these changes ever make headway in Cincinnati or Hamilton County won't help Lewis or the other tenants in time.

'It's A Home I've Built'

Lewis' neighbor John Smith, 47, has lived in the building for five years and in Walnut Hills off-and-on most of his life. The steelworker is there with his 14-week-old baby and says the impending move will cause a lot of disruption.

"I've started building a life here," he says. "I have a brand new baby girl. I'm building stability. To me, being put out of here is the equivalent of someone getting their home foreclosed. It's a home I've built to accommodate a whole other life."

Smith says he will miss the community he's found in the building and really hopes to find another place nearby. But that has been difficult.

"I don't want to move outside the city limits," he says. "The further out you move, the less there is available to you."

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