Friday, June 23, 2006

Cincinnati: SWNID's Kind of Town, So What's Wrong?

Our gentle readers certainly know of our affection for our city of residence. Those who follow the local news also now know that the City of Cincinnati is losing population faster than any major city in the United States.

So how is it that Cincinnati is the city that SWNID loves but where no one wants to stay? Is this just another example of the general weirdness and utter nonconformity of SWNID?

First, to clarify for those unfamiliar with the details: the population decline is within the borders of the City of Cincinnati proper. The metro area is growing modestly, at a pace like that of many other medium-sized midwestern cities, which is to say slower than sunbelt cities. The "crisis" is within the boundaries of the city (though shared by some older suburbs in the area too).

In the local media, explanations for Cincinnati's precipitous decline in population have mostly run to (a) bad public schools; and (b) high crime.

We say that both of these are causes, but they are (a) largely matters of perception; and (b) perhaps not as significant as other, less interesting factors.

First, the perception of bad public schools. As we have explained before, with evidence both anecdotal and statistical, Cincinnati Public Schools, despite a troubled record overall, offer some of the best public educational opportunities in the country. You can argue whether in the Cincinnati metro area Wyoming High, Mariemont High or Sycamore High are better than Walnut Hills High, SCPA, Clark Montessori High or Dater High (aspiring to be the Westside Walnut), but the advantages of any one are so slight overall as to be inconsequential. The same can be said for the magnet elementary schools. We will say it again: the SWNID family proves that it's not hard to get a great education in CPS.

What has hurt the perception of CPS is the tendency of the media to report the bad news for the entire district and for parents, in turn, not to bother to investigate the particulars. The district has subtly aided this tendency. Not wanting to feed the perception that it favors the magnet schools (which by definition it must do), it tends not to vaunt their achievements.

We grant that it takes a modicum of effort to learn how to enroll in a good CPS school. But we stress that it is a modicum of effort. The SWNID family are not superheroes of bureaucratic manipulation for having identified and enrolled in good CPS schools. Neither are the thousands of other families who have done so.

So what has hurt CPS is the desire of many parents simply to move to a neighborhood, enroll their children in the one public school attended by all children in the neighborhood, and wait for graduation. Success with CPS requires making some informed choices and, often, doing some driving (though bus service is available to any CPS magnet elementary or high school from anywhere in the city). Many parents don't seem to care to do that. That's their business, but we are puzzled that some of those parents aren't attracted to school choice when they adhere to political philosophies of both the left and the right that advocate allowance of individual choice.

Now to the perception of high crime. Again, we believe that this is a matter of perception. Say what you will, in all the world crime tends to happen in economically deprived neighborhoods. People of means pay for the protection they need for their persons and possessions. Cincinnati is no exception. Crime is not high in Mt. Lookout, Hyde Park, East Walnut Hills, North Avondale or Columbia Tusculum. It is high in Over-the-Rhine, the West End, Evanston and Avondale. It is on the rise in East Westwood and East Price Hill. It's not that great in some suburbs, either.

Anyone who refused to consider living in, say, Hyde Park because "crime in Cincinnati is high" is exercising statistically bad judgment. It's a stereotype as nonsensical as refusing to be treated by an African-American doctor because "blacks don't do as well in school as whites." However, our friends in real estate sales tell us of just such decisions made by their clients.

So these perceptions become realities in the choices that people make about where to live. But what are the other factors, not so widely discussed? We list those that we, a completely untrained and unqualified demographer and urban planner, have identified based on nothing other than our Seldom-Wrong gut instincts.

  • Aging housing stock. The City of Cincinnati has few single-family homes built after 1955 and hardly any built after 1965. Teardowns have been rare, and the topography of the region has left little land to fill in. The few who are interested in older homes are far outnumbered by those who like the design and amenities of new developments that are springing up in what used to be farmland at the edge of the metro area.
  • Low-quality housing stock. Older Cincinnati neighborhoods with lots of well-built, architecturally interesting houses are largely doing fine, thank you very much. Neighborhoods that aren't doing so well are filled with houses that weren't that great when they were built 80 years ago. The fact is that newer houses offer more convenience and more square feet than older ones, and many people can pay the price for them.
  • Oversupply of older, multi-family housing stock. Within the city limits, Cincinnati has oodles of older, smaller apartment buildings. These buildings that once were attractive to young couples, even some with a child or two, are now largely supplanted by inexpensive single-family homes in the exurbs. Cincinnati has a dismal percentage of owner-occupied housing units, but that has been largely a function of the units that exist. Why rent in the city when you can afford to buy in the suburbs?
  • Predatory lending practices. A number of marginal homes in Cincinnati have become the objects of usurious mortgages or rent-to-own contracts. "Investors" have purchased homes in undesirable neighborhoods, done superficial improvements, and then, in concert with unscrupulous lenders, sold or leased them at inflated prices with inflated interest rates to people new to home purchasing. The result has been a high number of foreclosures, which in turn fuel the cycle of usurious lending, which in turn puts more houses in the hands of landlords with little incentive to maintain their properties, which in turn leads homeowners to leave neighborhoods.
  • Redevelopment of the West End. Recent redevelopment of what had been public housing in the West End has displaced dozens of families. They have, in turn, received Section 8 housing vouchers and applied them to rent in homes and apartments that have cycled through the foreclosure-and-sale process noted above. Some neighborhoods (East Westwood and East Price Hill come to mind) are now have as concentrated a population of public-housing recipients as did the West End, defeating the whole purpose of the housing-voucher scheme to distribute recipients thinly across many, stable neighborhoods.
  • Balkanized city borders. All of the factors above, save the geographical specifics, can probably be found in other aging cities. One factor at work in Cincinnati is that the borders of the city proper are so narrow, putting nearly every part of the city in close proximity to something that isn't the city. Say, for example, a person wants to live near downtown because she works there. Few other cities have neighborhoods, like Newport and Covington, immediately bordering its downtown that are both ripe for redevelopment and are not part of the city itself. Some, like Indianapolis or Lexington, have gone through a consolidation of city and county government that obliterates the political distinction between the city and much of its suburbs. If Cincinnati had borders like those towns, the statistics would be very different.
  • Relatively easy commuting. Everyone hates I-75 and I-71. But the truth is, as urban freeways go, they aren't bad. Cincinnati commuters probably have less trouble getting to work than do their neighbors in Indianapolis, let alone folks in Chicago or Cleveland. As long as a tract home in the exurbs doesn't mean a 120-minute commute to the city center, there will be little incentive to invest in central-city redevelopment that brings people back to town.
  • The shrinking American household and growing American house. Fewer people live in a household in this country than at just about any time in the past. And they expect more square feet, no matter how many people are in the house with them. That has led to shrinking population density in all but a few cities that are constrained by geography (New York and San Francisco, both surrounded by water and massive suburbs, come to mind). For reasons noted above, this inexorable trend hits Cincinnati with a disproportionate statistical outcome.
So what's our advice to the city fathers (as if they were listening)?

  • Don't panic. We are not a worse city than Detroit. You wouldn't want to trade our problems for theirs, so mind your rhetoric and don't put in place some ill-conceived initiative just to appear to be doing something.
  • Reform lending practices. Ohio is overdue for reforms that will prevent the kind of predatory lending that has exacerbated urban decay. We applaud programs that legitimately help people buy their first home with little or no downpayment and little or no credit record. We scorn those who take advantage of the untutored homebuyer to create a likely foreclosure that can be flipped for usurious profit.
  • Speed redevelopment. The cities that Americans admire today (e.g., Chicago and New York) were built with near-arrogant disregard for what had been built previously. Cincinnati needs to get older properties bought up, torn down and rebuilt into something that will be useful for the next 100 years.
  • Reorganize local government. It's time that local politicians gave up their dinky fiefdoms and unified the city and county governments like other cities in our region. At the turn of the century, the Republican machine in New York was able to push through the state legislature a bill consolidating New York, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, formerly five municipalities, into the one city that we know today--and over the objections of the residents in the outlying boroughs. In the 1970s, Richard Lugar was able to get Indianapolis and Marion County to agree to "unigov" despite the fears of township residents. Today it may be the politicians more than the people who hold up the rationalization and consolidation of local government. That hold-up in turn holds up regional development.
  • Rewrite the city charter. The current debacle over hiring the city manager proves forever to the SWNIDish mind that Cincinnati has outgrown the city-manager form of government. We need a full-executive major and and expanded city council elected entirely from local districts. That's what all the successful cities in our republic have. We should drop our charterite pretentions and imitate them.
  • Shamelessly promote achievements attractive to the upper-middle class. The SWNIDs, subject to the genteel near-poverty induced by employment in Christian higher education, initially chose to live within the city out of economic necessity. But we discovered advantages of city life that have kept us there as our economic deprivation has marginally been ameliorated with time. Others who have the economic wherewithal to live anywhere in the metro area will need to know what amenities the city affords. The local media need to be full of stories about interesting and attractive homes, great parks, mature trees, easy commutes, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, excellent schools, unusal shops and restaurants, and interesting neighbors. That's the stuff that will honestly reel in a fair segment of the people with the means to live anywhere.
  • Build the stinkin' jail, for goodness' sake! Si Leis, we take back everything bad we ever said about you. Pat DeWine, you're now on our "never-vote-for-him-again" list. Pass the sales tax and build the jail, please! It's a county-wide issue, but the perception is that the crime is in the city alone. Nothing stops crime like locking up criminals. Now, please--before we really do become Detroit.


Tim said...

I agree completely with the addition of relatively high tax rates. No one likes those especially when a half hour commute guarantees lower tax rates, bigger houses and all the other amenities you mentioned. Also, as far as the downtown/entertainment issues go N. Ky and surrounding communities have seized on City Council's hesitation to do much of anything to attract people the downtown/Riverfront area. I think a metaphorical approach to the "don't be afraid to teardown everything and start over" is needed.

And no, things are not nearly as bad as Detroit. I mean, not even the Pistons actually play in Detroit, but these are issues that have to be addressed in a reasonable coherent manner.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

To a certain extent, tax rates may be a mirage:

(a) If you work in the city, you pay the city earnings tax regardless of where you live.

(b) Higher city property taxes are for many homeowners offset by the fact that property in the city costs less than the equivalent square footage in the suburbs. I groan under our property tax payment, until I realize that I'd be paying the difference in mortgate interest if I lived a few blocks over.

But once again, perception is reality here. Tax rates are higher in the city, and not everyone stops to do the math.

Tim said...

Very true. But that's where perception plays in. Homes are cheaper because demand is slack inside the city corporation limit. And there's also the matter of the 1% income tax. As population hsa shifted out so have many jobs. Someone avoiding the city entirely will suddenly have that tax income back in addition to shorter commutes etc. Also it provides very little incentive for someone who gets a job ouside of the city and lives inside the city to stay there.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Right: the real economic advantage to living outside the city only exists for people who work outside the city. For everyone else the issue is totally one of perception, as are the other main issues.

The price differential in housing that I cite is entirely a matter of slack demand, something that I've been more than happy to take advantage of. And now I selfishly pray that the city will do something to hugely increase demand for city housing, thereby allowing me to realize a handsome capital gain in future years.

We agree in all things. I'm sure you agree with my quest for capital gains.

Anonymous said...

As a resident of Price Hill I would like to make some g suggestions to the not so gentlemanly city fathers and mayor.

1. Declare all parts of the city open to section eight housing.

2. Don't lie when you speak on CCU's campus about there not being a problem in Price Hill.

I would ask of God the following:

1. Let me win the lottery so I can buy property in Hyde Park and I will rent it to certain of my section 8 neighbors for $1 a year.

2. Let all the meth labs blow up that are now in my part of town.

3. Give Mr. SWNID a larger reader base for his twisted little blog.

Danny Joe

steve-o said...

I've been chewing on this all week, and even longer. I even have some thoughts on this that will be printed in next week's Cin Weekly [shameless plug]. Here are a few more:

-Since I've moved back to town [and for the first time I live in the city proper], I've had the opportunity to witness the ineptness of our city's government. No other reason is responsible for slowing down any concerted efforts for advance in this city than our messed up leadership. Strong mayor was a good idea, but it's still a neutered position. This recent incident with the city manager is just the icing on the cake.

-I believe Mayor Mallory was right when he offered his thoughts on the decline. He believes the decline will bottom out soon, as do I. Without the city, the burgeoning 'burbs wouldn't exist. All the businesses won't leave and, at some point, the novelty of a forty-five minute comment will wear off. As Arnold might say, "They'll be back."

-All week I've been driving through various Cincinnati communities observing new construction. People are choosing to live here. Tonight, in an effort to prove it to my life, we drove through an area of Price Hill with city views and grabbed a leaflet about an available condo. This home, not even half a block away from two boarded up buildings, was listed at just under $900,000. Yes, in Price Hill. Really makes me wonder what CCU's campus could fetch. It might be close to being worth it [Just kidding. Maybe not. I'm not sure.].

-The only thing I disagreed about was the sales tax for a new jail. I would be curious to find out how many inmates in Hamilton County jail are actually residents of the county. If residents from neighboring counties [and states] are coming into our area to commit crimes, why should our tax payers have to bear the burden? I think there's more to this overcrowding story that's being let out. This is a whole 'nother subject, but I'm still wondering if a bigger jail is the best response.

Sorry about the length of this comment. Just some thoughts.

Tim said...

Several points of agreement that I want to emphasize by re-pointing them out.

1) Capital gains is an excellent thing, and something I wish on all residents of all communities, but especially on the readers and writers of this blog.

2) As Steve has said, aLl of these problems have been either created by or exacerbated by city mismanagement. Had the 'nati been well managed over even the last 10 years we'd be talking about the renaissance of the central parts of the city. As it is even the successes they've achieved have been tempered by some sad mismanagement.

And now onto some points of disagreement.

1) WHile the 'burbs (and N. Ky cities) were created by the city they won't go away, even with the re-emergence of the city as an attractive place to live. Due to the critical mass of populace its not just homes, and shopping that have sprung up, its real-live career type office buildings, in addition to all the other career opportunities that come with large population centers. Not to mention that people love the communities they've lived in all their lives. Now that a great number of people have lived decades or even entire lifetimes in their non-city center homes it'll take more than the lack of a drive they've been making their entire lives to convince them to pull up roots.

Bryan D said...

CityBeat provided an unusually quality article on this subject some months ago in which the main reason they found among the large section of 20-35 year olds for leaving the city was a lack of buisiness opportunity for this segment of the workforce. In a market in which a well earned degree can often earn a new worker upward of six digits a year, why would one be complacent toiling away at P&G for years waiting for promotion while making a fraction of that?

Beond this, there are quite obviously some very serious cultural ailments that move with section 8 housing wherever the city decides to put it. The social construction within these micro communities needs to be help before we can ever hope reasonably for an end to the problems so commonly associated with them.

But lastly, for a city whose so-called decline is so commonly asserted, CIncinnati is a city with a pride in itself that is absolutely unparalleled. This can be seen in our no-less-than-fanatical devotion to our most of the time sub-par sports teams. Some of you might remember a year ago when the popular CBS program The Amazing Race featured a team of four Cincinnati siblings decked out in Bengal Orange who always celebrated their victories with a rousing chorus of "Who Dey." Thatquarter, Cincinnati had the most watched CBS station in the entire nation. That is true devotion.

So I believe in this city and its ability ro recuperate because this city believes in itself. And I believe the only possible cure for greedy and irresponsible cultures which are as a widespread and diverse as the population itself is already present. As long as our churches and institutions like CCU remain dedicated to delivering the Gospel of Christ in radical and unselfish ways, there is still hope for our beloved Queen City.