The Forgotten History of Over-the-Rhine

Becky Seipel

Today, Over-the-Rhine (OTR) is celebrated for is architectural beauty and German heritage. But, what is too often forgotten in the popular history of OTR is the long struggle for fair housing. 

In the early 20th century, most African Americans in Cincinnati lived in the West End. In response to deteriorating buildings and overcrowding in the neighborhood, the Cincinnati Planning Commission passed the Cincinnati Metropolitan Master Plan of 1948, which called for the clearance of large sections of the West End and the displacement of thousands of families. Relocation plans were discussed but, due to the racial climate, all plans were abandoned and residents were left to find their own housing. West End residents looked to working class neighborhoods that were not traditionally black, such as Avondale, Walnut Hills, Evanston, and OTR. From 1950-1970, 50,561- 54,471 people were displaced and between 13,147- 22,354 low-income units were eliminated from the West End. From this point forward, OTR became an increasingly African American neighborhood.

During the Civil Rights Movement, state and federal laws declared segregation illegal, yet, these laws failed to help the low-income blacks living in OTR. The Ohio Fair Housing Act of 1965 declared it illegal to refuse to sell, rent, lease, or finance housing on the basis of race, religion, or nationality. Three years later, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 ensured equal housing opportunities on a national level. However, since the political rhetoric used to pass the Fair Housing Law focused on the need to get “deserving” middle-class blacks out of the inner cities, fair housing projects in the years to come largely ignored low-income blacks. Indeed, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cincinnati’s fair housing organization, House Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), focused on using the laws to providing legal aid to middle-class blacks. The low-income African Americans living in OTR were disregarded.

While Civil Rights legislation focused on moving middle-class African Americans to the suburbs, two ineffective federal projects attempted to address inner-city problems. One such program was Project Rehab, which was established in 1969 by the Federal Housing Association to fund remodeling projects. People living in the OTR opposed Project Rehab. Residents argued that Project Rehab provided economic incentives for landlords to kick out their tenants, displacing residents. Once a building was poorly renovated the landlord then would charge higher rent. Furthermore, the residents of OTR pointed out that Project Rehab did not properly dispose of lead-based paint and its practice of sandblasting buildings polluted the air.

Model Cities was another federal program that stressed resident participation as a means of alleviating poverty in inner-city neighborhoods. In 1971, Cincinnati implemented its Model Cities plan, which focused on Mt. Auburn, the West End, and OTR. Model Cities offered a variety of services. One such service was the establishment of the OTR Development Corporation (ORDCo), which developed low-income units. The city and OTR community initially supported ORDCo, but, after a series of failed projects due to poor management, ORDCo lost city and local support. ORDCo closed in 1979.

Lacking the help of HOME and without effective federal programs, the OTR community came together across racial lines to fight for their rights. In the late 1960s, a grassroots group known as the People’s Movement began organizing tenants. The People’s Movement’s first major victory came in 1973 when it pressed the city to pass the Tenant-Landlord Ordinance which protected tenants from landlord neglect and unwarranted evictions.

Throughout the 1970s, the People’s Movement published Voices, a street newspaper, to help tenants know their newfound rights and to hold landlords accountable. One tenant helped by the People’s Movement was Mannie Young. Young was a black woman who lived with her eight children in a Rehabbed home on Mulberry Street. Young’s home had damaged ceilings, rats, and sewage problems. Like many OTR residents, Young complained to her landlord but received no response. In 1975, when Young contacted the Cincinnati Health Department because of the raw sewage leakage, she received an eviction notice. After Voices brought attention to the issue Young’s landlord made some minor repairs. When the problems continued Young decided to withhold her rent until repairs were made, a common tactic of discontented tenants. With the help of the People’s Movement, Young and her surrounding community formed the Mulberry Defense Committee to help Young fight for her rights. Eventually, the Mulberry Defense Committee and Legal Aid (a group of nonprofit lawyers) pressured Young’s landlord to make all the necessary renovations.

The People’s Movement celebrated the repair of Young’s home as a sign of the power of collective action and a symbol of the unity of poor blacks and whites in the neighborhood. Referring to the People’s Movement, advocate Bonnie Neumeier explains, “What we had in common was our poverty and we saw that we would be stronger if we came together as one united voice.”

From 1980-1981 four court decisions weakened the Tenant-Landlord Ordinance. But, at this time the People’s Movement shifted its focus from organizing tenants to fighting OTR’s historic district nomination, which would provide federal tax credit for redevelopment projects. From the beginning residents of OTR were largely against the development of a mixed income community. The OTR Community Council declared in 1975 that it opposed mixed income development because it feared that it would displace low-income, and increasingly black residents. Despite the community’s opposition, the Cincinnati Business Committee established Heritage Preservation Development Corporation to redevelop the Washington Park area of OTR in 1977.

Concerned that the redevelopment would displace the community, the People’s Movement effectively pressed the city to pass the Anti-Displacement Ordinance. This ordinance made it a city goal to minimize displacement and declared it unlawful to discriminate against people with rent subsidies. However, the ordinance was relatively weak, as it did not protect those displaced by private developers.

From 1980-1982, the city pressed to nomination OTR as a historic district so as to spur redevelopment. The OTR Task Force, the planning body of the Community Council, fought the nomination fearing that it would lead to “negro removal.” On Dec. 3, 1982 over 100 OTR residents traveled to Columbus and successfully defeated the historic nomination. The nomination was then forwarded to D.C., returned to the state, and passed in 1984.

In order to take advantage of the federal tax credits now available, five low-income housing organizations came together to form OTR Housing Network (OTRHN) in 1988. While some federal tax credits could be used to develop low-income housing, the tax credits did not apply to the lowest level of low-income housing. ReSTOC, an organization founded by the People’s Movement, continued to serve the lowest level of low-income housing units. In 2006, OTRHN and ReSTOC came together to form OTR Community Housing.

In 1991, HOME published an analysis of OTR in which the executive director, Karla Irvine, argued that OTR was on its way to become a permanent segregated ghetto. According to Irvine, no more low-income housing should be built in OTR; low-income housing had not solved OTR’s problems of crime and poverty, but, in fact, was the primary contributor to the problems. The OTR community responded, and continues to hold, that unjust racial policies have brought OTR to its present state, not low-income housing. It is wrong to attempt to cancel these historic injustices with the equally unjust practice of displacement caused by redevelopment. Redevelopment is good but only when it benefits the existing residents, not displaces them.

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