This story originally appeared in the Sept. 22 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader.
In July 2022, notices to vacate were posted at one of the last “very affordable” places to live in Newport, leaving residents in 232 units to find somewhere else to go.
One of those residents was Morgan Mullins, who moved into Victoria Square at the beginning of 2019 with her two kids. She was making $12 an hour at the time, more than the federal and Kentucky minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour. She said that, after an extensive search, it was the one place she could afford.
“I picked that place because it was very affordable compared to anything else in the area,” Mullins told LINK nky.
For Mullins and other Northern Kentuckians struggling to find affordable housing, the Victoria Square situation illustrates an issue that local nonprofits and housing organizations say is growing: More people have to seek assistance to meet the basic need of covering their rent and utilities.
Cincinnati-based Sunset Property Solutions, or SPS, acquired the property at 506 Central Ave. last year for $26.7 million. The units are available to rent under the new name Cadence of Newport as of June, with monthly rents ranging from $1,395 for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom unit to $1,900 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit. Before Mullins and her family left the apartments, they were paying $710 for their two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment.
Though Mullins did not utilize housing vouchers commonly referred to as Section 8 — which assist low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities to afford housing in the private market — other Victoria Square residents did.
The definition of affordable housing includes the use of housing vouchers offered through Housing and Urban Development, or HUD; however, it is also defined as spending less than 30% of your monthly income on housing, including rent, utilities and other related costs, according to Gordon Henry, director of housing for HER Cincinnati, a women’s facility that provides affordable housing and support services to vulnerable people.
Mullins said that, at the time, she thought her rent was manageable with the food and daycare assistance she received. Fast forward to 2022, when she was told her family had 30 days to vacate the apartment. Mullins was a stay-at-home mom relying on her wife’s income to pay the bills after she had lost her childcare and couldn’t afford to keep working.
Even though they were getting kicked out of their home, Mullins said she considered herself one of the lucky ones because she had family who took them in. Her family of four packed up and moved into her parents’ house in Crestview. Mullins said there were seven of them living in the small house.
“We made it work, but it was a little tough,” she said. “Definitely stepping on each other’s toes and just not enough space for us all, but we made it work.”
Mullins’ family found their first place to rent in March since leaving Victoria Square, a three-bedroom townhouse in Cold Spring, for approximately $1,600 a month — or $890 more than before. While she said the rent was not as much as she and her wife were expecting, it was still a huge jump for them.
“Even being in a good job now, and my wife making more than what she was making at the time, it’s still hard because it is that much of a difference,” she said. “It’s been an adjustment, for sure.”
Executive Director Karen Zengel said the organization has seen a jump in the need for rent and utility assistance, particularly accelerating since last March.
From last Oct. 1 through the end of June, the agency had provided almost $700,000 in rent and utility assistance, compared with $602,000 during the same period last year. If this trend continues, the organization expects to provide almost $1 million in rent and utility assistance by the end of its fiscal year in September, Zengel said. She said this is an increase in emergency financial assistance of 25% over last year.
“I think it’s a function of increasing rent,” Zengel said. “When folks’ leases are up and it’s time for them to find another place to go, they can’t find something at the same rate at which they were renting before. And that’s been a struggle for a lot of people within our community.”
Welcome House CEO Danielle Amrine said the organization is seeing the same uptick. Welcome House, in Covington, helps people move from housing uncertainty to housing stability through housing, service coordination and outreach.
Amrine said Welcome House is seeing many people who are experiencing homelessness for the first time. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, the economy was fairly good and the job market was strong. Welcome House provided around $250,000 in direct assistance in 2019, which covers rent, utilities, and the securing of birth certificates and IDs.
In 2022, Welcome House provided more than $1.5 million in direct assistance, a 407% increase from 2019. Amrine said the organization is on track to provide almost $2 million in direct assistance this year. From 2019 to 2022, she said, the organization saw an increase of 40% in the number of people served. This year, it is on track to help 5,400 individuals, a 51% increase over 2019.
“So that’s more people needing assistance, more people experiencing homelessness for the first time, more individuals saying, ‘Hey, I can’t pay this Duke bill,’ or ‘I need to move,'” Amrine said.
Housing costs have increased significantly within the region, according to the recently released National Low Income Housing Coalition’s “Out of Reach” report. To afford a two-bedroom apartment in Kentucky, a person must earn $17.90 an hour, the report concluded. That wage requirement is even higher, at $21 an hour, in the Cincinnati metro area — and both are much higher than the federal minimum wage.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage in the Cincinnati metropolitan statistical area — which includes parts of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana — is $21.95 an hour.
Amrine said something that stood out to her from the report was that the Cincinnati HUD Metro Fair Market is the most expensive housing market in the state.
Victoria Square is one of many apartment complexes in the region that have been bought and updated. Less than a half-mile down the street, Newport’s Riverchase apartments have been rebranded as Flats on the Row.
Last September, Cincinnati-based Towne Properties, which manages the 203-unit Riverchase complex, distributed letters of non-renewal to a number of tenants regarding their leases. The letters cited interior renovations and repairs to many of the units as the reason for non-renewal, similarly to Victoria Square’s notices to vacate.
Under previous ownership, monthly rent for a studio apartment in Riverchase cost $560, while a one-bedroom unit was $660 and a two-bedroom unit cost $760 per month, according to raybrownproperties.com.
The updated Flats on the Row features three apartment sizes: 375-square-foot studios with one bathroom for $805 per month; 690-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom units for $1,250; and 810-square-foot, two-bedrooms, one-and-a-half bathroom units for $1,425.
In neighboring Covington, residents were told in 2020 that they would need to gradually move out of the City Heights barracks-style public housing complex because the 366 apartments were severely deteriorated, outdated and not salvageable.
In total, 801 units of more affordable rentals were lost in the market with the rental changes to Victoria Square, Riverchase, and City Heights.
Founder of A.M. Titan and local developer Anthony Bradford said the most significant challenge when creating affordable housing is getting the project to pencil.
“What I mean by that is that development projects are very capital-intensive, and that requires several partnerships and vendors to be successful,” he said. “When I think about partnerships, I think about — you partner with banks, you partner with investors, a property management company, a construction management company, insurance providers. And that developer incurs an expense for everyone involved in that project.”
Without incentives, Bradford said, developers experience a hurdle just making the project work financially for affordable housing.
He said as far as he is aware, the only type of incentive available for a developer to create affordable housing is the low-income housing tax credit program.
According to HUD, the program “gives state and local low-income housing tax credit-allocating agencies the equivalent of approximately $9 billion in annual budget authority to issue tax credits for the acquisition, rehabilitation, or new construction of rental housing targeted to lower-income households.”
However, Bradford said the program is very competitive and requires a lot of resources, time and expertise to win the credits. He said it makes it very challenging for developers, especially small ones.
“I think if there’s opportunities there and the right programs are available, I think developers will take that risk,” Bradford said. “It is a big risk, it’s really capital-intensive. … No bank is going to finance you, even if you have a passion to build affordable housing, if you can’t make it work financially.”
A.M. Titan specializes in restoring old, blighted and neglected buildings, with a mission to invest in the community by providing a quality living experience. Still, Bradford said some circumstances, such as historic tax credits, are required, even for market-rate housing, to make deals work.
The federal historic rehabilitation tax credit program, according to Novoco.com, is an indirect federal subsidy to finance the rehabilitation of historic buildings with a 20 percent tax credit for qualified expenditures.
“Things like historic tax credits really help hold the integrity of each neighborhood as well as entice developers to rehab and revitalize communities,” Bradford said.
Attainable housing units aren’t the only thing dwindling. Henry said the number of landlords accepting housing vouchers is also decreasing.
There was a push from HUD a few years ago to have fewer single-property landlords accepting Section 8 vouchers to streamline the process, Henry said, but that made it harder for applicants to find somewhere to live. Amrine said they are seeing the same at Welcome House.
“When the economy got good, everybody started unloading these mom-and-pop-type rental properties,” she said. “So, it’s created quite a squeeze because we’re decreasing subsidized affordable housing, but we’re also losing all these private rentals to these big major companies that are coming in and scooping up all the rental properties and either redeveloping them or increasing the rents significantly.”
Bradford said there are benefits to restoring neglected and blighted properties in a neighborhood. He said it is crucial for the social and economic vibrancy of the community.
Restoring the properties also reduces crime, as neglected properties often become hotspots for criminal activity, he said, adding that it also helps boost the economy.
“Redeveloped properties attract businesses, which not only results in job opportunities but increases consumer activity in local shops, restaurants and services,” Bradford said. “By doing so, homeowners also see increases in their property values. We’ve seen it happen in multiple areas that have experienced a renaissance by restoring properties in Over-the-Rhine, Mount Auburn and Price Hill. We’ve also seen it right here in Covington.”
Not only are there fewer landlords, but the waitlist to receive Section 8 housing can be hundreds of people long. In March, Tracie Joyner, deputy director of Neighborhood Foundations (Newport’s housing authority), told LINK nky that its waitlist was roughly 500-600 people. That number increased significantly with the vacancy notices posted at Victoria Square last year.
“I think there’s multiple issues of why there’s not enough affordable housing,” Henry said. “One is: Not as many landlords are accepting those vouchers, but also, we live in a very capitalistic world, and cash is king.”
When it comes down to it, Henry said if a landlord can charge as much as people are willing to pay, why would they charge less? Landlords that accept Section 8 are also subject to inspections of their rental properties, which he said may be a disincentive.
But there are some incentives for landlords to accept housing vouchers, particularly the “guaranteed” portion of the rent because vouchers cover most of the revenue coming in.
While there are incentives for landlords to accept Section 8, Henry said, there are also incentives for developers to create market-rate housing with tools such as Industrial Revenue Bonds, tax breaks or tax incentives. Municipalities can issue an Industrial Revenue Bond to provide a lower interest rate for the financing of a project, but the issuer is not obligated for the debt repayment.
“You see a lot of times, too, someone goes in with the best intentions to fix up a property, and it’s way worse off than they thought,” Henry said. “They wanted to make it a little more affordable, then they say, ‘I really can’t swing it. I’ve got to charge this (higher) amount.'”
Another consideration Henry mentioned: New development or renovations can bring new residents into an area who want to experience the bars, restaurants and other businesses. But who will work in those establishments?
“Where are they going to live? Who’s going to work there? And then you have the pushback … ‘We don’t have enough staff.”
Amrine said economic activity can’t just focus on single-family residential development. Communities need workforce housing.
“They (Boone, Kenton, and Campbell counties) want economic development; they want to draw people into the area,” Amrine said. “But … you want to go to Starbucks and get your mocha latte, but the person that works there can’t afford to live here or without a roommate.”
Henry said there is a difference between workforce housing and affordable housing. The main differences being affordable housing units require reporting, compliance and research to ensure the property is up to par. People living there do not pay over 30% of their monthly income. Workforce housing allows someone to pay more than 30%, but it’s still attainable for an area’s median income.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s “Out of Reach” report, 60% of workers statewide earn an hourly wage less than the two-bedroom housing wage, and nearly 50% of workers earn an hourly wage less than the one-bedroom housing wage ($14.46 an hour.) And 13 of the 20 most common occupations in Kentucky pay median wages that are lower than the two-bedroom housing wage.
Henry said that one of the significant qualifications of market-rate housing is that renters must earn three times the amount of their rent. At HER Cincinnati, he said, they are seeing average prices of $1,300 to $1,500 for units, equating to $4,500 a month income needed.
If they hadn’t been forced to vacate their apartment, Mullins said her family had no intentions of leaving Victoria Square, though she knew it wasn’t their forever home.
Morale around Victoria Square when the notices to vacate were sent out was low, she said.
“After we got the notices … you could just see how defeated everyone felt, ” she said.
Mullins said her family chose not to contact any community organizations for housing; however, they did reach out to St. Vincent de Paul for financial support because she said they were already in a tight spot with money when they were asked to leave.
Zengel said that in 40% of the cases where they have assisted with rent and utilities, the families had children under 18.
Mullins said her family was struggling because she quit her job to take care of her two children full time because she lost child care assistance. Zengel and Amrine said folks make trade-offs because they must decide what bills to pay if they can’t afford to pay them all.
Amrine said they see people who forgo paying their utilities because they can only afford to cover their rent, but the lack of utility payments will cause an eviction. Similarly, Zengel said transportation is another issue. People will stop taking care of their vehicles; over time, the car will stop running, and then they can’t get to work.
“It’s this compounding effect of all these different stresses that folks are making active decisions every day on the best way to get to the next day,” Zengel said.
When it comes to gaining more affordable housing options for people in the region, Zengel said it starts with awareness and advocacy. She said it’s essential for people to reach out to elected leaders to demand legislative change.
According to Amrine, many people say they want affordable housing to be available for those who need it — just not in their backyard.
Mullins said she saw comments on social media when the notices were sent about “meth heads” living in Victoria Square and how people needed to work harder.
“I never met anyone like that in my time there,” Mullins said. “I met single parents who were working really hard just to provide. There were elderly people on disability who didn’t have family left and had no other options.”
Henry said he has found that if affordable housing is not baked into developments or a comprehensive plan on the front end, it will not be added in at Phase 2 or 3.
In the future, Mullins said she wants people to pay more attention to situations like what happened at Victoria Square.
“I just hope the best for everybody that lived with me there, and I hope people realize that this is a bigger issue than a lot of people think and that it’s something that I do think can be stopped or slowed down,” Mullins said. “It’s possible to make better resources and have better options for people, and I really hope that happens.”