When people can’t find common ground on issues relating to affordable housing, Kristen Baker and Robert Killins Jr. are often there to help repair relationships, find shared goals and create the path forward.
Baker, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Greater Cincinnati, and Killins, special initiatives director for Greater Cincinnati Foundation, have collaborated closely for a decade, but more so in the past two years as COVID-19 revealed the scope of a housing crisis. The 2020 Census found that in Cincinnati and Hamilton County, 99,034 households were considered housing cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their income on housing.
LISC and GCF launched Housing Our Future two years ago as the pandemic was taking hold. The strategy is a data-rich, coalition-led roadmap for producing and preserving affordable housing and changing outmoded systems, like zoning.
Baker and Killins drive momentum through the Housing Our Future framework, united to advance racial equity throughout the housing work. They contribute to Cincinnati’s 2026 FIFA World Cup bid effort by serving on a human rights leadership committee, and support community-driven projects in neighborhoods like the West End, where Killins is a resident and executive board member of West End Community Council.
LISC reports that four of the five most frequently occurring jobs in the Cincinnati region do not pay enough to afford monthly rent on a median two-bedroom apartment costing $831. Killins and Baker sat down with Movers & Makers recently and shared insights from the past two years.
Baker: Robert and I have learned a lot (about housing). And the more you learn, the more complicated you realize it really is. And that also is daunting sometimes. But it just means that we need more people to understand it better. So Greater Cincinnati Foundation saying this is important, it matters, that’s a really important piece of this. People know that (when) Robert Killins says I should think about this issue, then I probably should.
Robert has taken this issue in, internally, to a place that really is inspirational. Robert just knows how to motivate people to think about what their role is in housing and about why we should care about this issue in a really dynamic way. That inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing and keep being the execution person – how do we move on these things? It’s important because as a resident of Cincinnati in a neighborhood that is changing and has had challenges (West End), Robert understands directly what this looks like in a neighborhood.
Killins: LISC deserves a lot of credit. It sounded the alarm in 2017 about this issue. One thing that I think is foundational that Kristen mentions is being pragmatic. If we have just one approach, if all we say is it has to be this way or that way, then we are not going to make progress. And so we can see and be able to meet organizations and communities and institutions and individuals where they are and try to figure out how we can build on that. And, as she says, not let perfection be the enemy of progress. We can incrementally build relationships and bring entities and individuals together. And that’s what Housing Our Future did. We had hardcore activists, people from government, business, for-profit entities, and nonprofits – all working together to get to a common good.
Baker: I know that some people might not think the fact that we are even talking about affordable housing should be considered a success, but I do. When you think back to what conversations were like pre-COVID, and even when we were doing the planning for what became Housing Our Future, we were in a completely different universe. The conversation is entirely different. Entirely. I think that is something to be acknowledged that it just takes a lot of groundwork to get any of this off the ground. I do think we have built an inclusive set of relationships to build that foundation. And that is what to me is like a really big win. Robert and I could go away tomorrow and this will still keep going. I didn’t feel that way two years ago.
Killins: COVID should have made us all affordable housing advocates, because so many things that we were called upon to do, it was with the assumption that housing was in place. You had to go to school from home, you had to work from home, you had to run a business from home, you had to shelter in place. All of these things assumed that you had a decent, safe and affordable stable place. And we quickly learned that that was not the case for everyone, which we knew, but it brought it into the spotlight. And we now can, as Kristen says, have a different conversation because we see how central it is. It’s a real pragmatic reason why we need to keep affordable housing affordable, because when you have poor people spending 50% or 60% of their income on housing, that’s a life sentence to stay poor.
Baker: This work has shown me that we have some very weak spots in our housing ecosystem, unfortunately. And a lot of this happens at the neighborhood level. If we don’t support and do the work that LISC does as a capacity-building organization to support community development activities; if we don’t build those capacities and retain the people that make all of this work happen in neighborhoods that help us reach our goals of bringing new units online and preserving existing affordability; if we can’t maintain the strength that we have and build on it, we are going to be very challenged to reach the goals in Housing Our Future.
Homelessness: The most serious housing challenge in Cincinnati
The Cincinnati/Hamilton County Continuum of Care was the first in the nation to have all homeless services agencies (30+) utilizing a single system to track homelessness, managed by the nonprofit Strategies to End Homelessness.
Part of Strategies’ work is to dispel stereotypes and myths around homelessness.
In Cincinnati and Hamilton County roughly one of every four people experiencing homelessness is a child under 18. More than half – 51% – of our homeless population is 35 years old or younger.
2021 Cincinnati homelessness data:
- 6,062 total people lived on the streets or in shelters at some time in 2021, a less than 1% decrease from 2020 and a 14% decrease since 2019.
- 5,603 of them resided in emergency shelters at some time in 2021. 92% of the total homeless population spent at least part of the year in shelter. That’s a less than 1% decrease from 2020 and a 16% decrease from 2019
- 917 – 15% of the total homeless population – spent at least part of the year unsheltered on the street, a 10% decrease from 2020 and 46% decrease from 2013.
- 459 people slept on the street, with no stays in shelters (7.5% of the total)
- Locally in Cincinnati/Hamilton County
- 64% of our homeless population is African American
- 30% White/Caucasian
- 5% Multiracial; and 1% unknown
- Adults – 59% Male, 40% Female, 1% Transgender/no single gender
- Children – 48% Male, 52% Female, <1% Transgender/no single gender
Children and youths
- 23% of people on streets or in shelter are children; that’s 1,381 children
- 10% are between age of 18-24 (598) and 18% between age of 25-34 (1,115)
- 415 families resided in emergency shelters in 2021. Of those, almost 25% were led by a parent aged 18-24.
Other key takeaways
- “Street”/Unsheltered homelessness decreased each year from 2013-2019.
- There was a 22% increase in unsheltered homelessness in 2020, followed by a 10% decrease in 2021.
- On average, 35% homeless population was unsheltered (lived on the street at least for one night) nationally vs. 15% locally.
- Shelters reduced their capacity because of COVID-19.
- People are three times as likely to die on the street vs. in shelter; more people coming into shelter and fewer unsheltered is positive.
Data and chart provided by www.strategiestoendhomelessness.org