Laura Brunner of The Port has a goal that is perfectly reasonable, but history has proven
it to be achingly elusive. Her plan is simple, elegant, and big. Very big.
She wants every person in our city to have a reasonable chance at a good job, and a decent home.
“Jobs provide financial stability,” Brunner said. “Homes create wealth.”
That’s very nice, says everybody who hears this idyllic vision, but how? In December, with one bold move, Brunner showed us exactly how it could be done.
Brunner is the president and CEO of The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, an agency dedicated to making real estate work for people.
Just before last Christmas, Brunner and The Port saw an opportunity to make a radical change, so the agency spent $14.5 million to purchase 194 run-down homes across the city that had belonged to a California investor. This was already unheard of.
Then The Port told the residents of those homes that their rent would not increase. That was even more shocking. But wait, there is more.
Lastly, the residents were told they would be given every opportunity to buy these homes, and that The Port would keep them affordable.
It was like an early Christmas present for these people and our city. Suddenly, people would be able to invest in their own homes, many for the first time. They could also invest in their own neighborhoods.
Nobody saw this coming.
There were other investors interested in buying all the homes, and some of those potential buyers had already communicated to renters that they could expect rents to increase, or they could be evicted.
This would not have been a new disaster for these residents or this city. No, it would have been more of the same. More people would feel disenfranchised or marginalized. More neighborhoods would miss out on the benefits of homes being owned by people who live in and care about their neighborhoods. More children who lived in those homes would find themselves displaced again, probably switching schools and losing ties to family and friends.
These misfortunes do not tear at the fabric of a neighborhood with one big rip. No, these are events that happen without attention and lead to quiet, difficult discussions late at night about where a family could live. It is a death by a thousand cuts.
Some residents were ready to buy and only needed the opportunity. For the others, The Port enlisted the help of outside nonprofit agencies to provide homeownership training, to help with credit scores, and to learn about places that can help with a down payment.
Suddenly, all of these homes can become dreams. The benefits for the occupants of these homes can be vast and generational.
The Port was formed in 2001 to grow the regional economy. Partnering with the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, the agency works to redevelop manufacturing and residential communities to build the foundation of job creation and livable, viable communities.
If it still seems complicated, Brunner can put it very succinctly: “The Port fixes broken real estate.”
This city is filled with broken real estate. In distressed neighborhoods, homes can be purchased at reasonable rates, but rents remain unreasonably high. So what happens is people or developers with ready access to cash buy those homes. Then they make money renting them at high prices to people who live in the neighborhood and who may not have the resources or banking acumen to compete.
Those homes begin to decay. The renters feel unsettled and unheard, and the investors get rich.
Brunner knows that a higher rate of homeownership means people invest in their community. They mow the lawn and trim the bushes. They stay put longer, shop local and demand better schools for their children. They pay taxes and look out for their neighbors.
Economists call these benefits “positive externalities.” Brunner puts it more simply. “Nothing is better than a homeowner living next to you.”
The purchase of 194 homes was a game-changer. “It is a tremendous undertaking but one with extraordinary upside for our community. Because of Laura’s leadership, The Port is providing tenants with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a home, to build wealth, and to take control of their economic lives,” said Paula Boggs Muething, who as Cincinnati city manager worked closely with Brunner.
Boggs Muething knows Brunner well. “The qualities that make her such a strong leader — she is smart, relentless, willing to take risks, works with a high sense of urgency, and recognizes the needs of the moment — are developed around her foundational commitment to equity, truly her life’s work. We are so fortunate that she has devoted her energy and passion to our community’s benefit.”
Brunner grew up in South Bend, Indiana, graduated from Indiana University, and moved to Cincinnati in 1982. She spent 15 years in accounting and moved her way up to partner at Barnes, Dennig & Co.
Participating in Leadership Cincinnati helped to inform Brunner’s perspective. The civic engagement program is designed to help emerging leaders understand their community better, and learn more ways to make change happen. An important piece of the program is to help people see the challenges faced by many in our region. Brunner took the program seriously.
“Equity became a passion for me,” Brunner said. “I met and learned from people who did not have the opportunities they should have had.”
Brunner then left accounting and moved into commercial real estate in 2005, where she eventually worked for Al Neyer Inc., the developer. “That’s where I got to do deals, and invite African Americans to the table,” Brunner said. “Then I came here (The Port) and I realized I could put it on steroids.”
Sitting in her office on Third Street downtown, Brunner remarked that homeownership alone is not enough.
“Real estate is the fastest way to shrink the wealth gap,” Brunner said. But she also knows that fair-paying jobs keep the financial train on the tracks. She has seen our community lose too many jobs, particularly manufacturing jobs. Those jobs were a pathway toward the middle class for people not born into wealth. The loss of those jobs was particularly difficult for African Americans in the region.
“We need to help restore the middle class,” Brunner said. “From 1967 until today, Hamilton County has lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs. That is how we built a middle class, and it is how we lost it. We need to start making things again.”
The Port is funded in part through city and county capital budget allocations, state and federal grants, property sales, private investors and earned fees.
However, the agency is moving away from public funding. In 2020, for example, public funding made up 7% of The Port’s total operating revenue, down from 8% in 2019 and 17% in 2018.
For Brunner and The Port, the third piece of the equity puzzle, for creating a more fair and equitable city, is business ownership. Brunner wants to help people create their own local companies, and keep those businesses in their communities. The Port does this by offering loans for entrepreneurs and down payment assistance.
Essentially, The Port, under Brunner’s leadership, is taking a holistic approach to make sure everybody has a fair shot to live in a decent home, hold a good job, and even aspire to build their own company.
Molly North is CEO of Al Neyer. She has seen the difference Brunner has made in our community.
“Laura has a remarkable vision for Cincinnati and believes that a well-balanced ecosystem can create vitality in all our neighborhoods,” North said. “She doesn’t only work at the macro level though. She’s always held the belief that building individual wealth is one of society’s great equalizers and she’s making that happen, one homeowner at a time.”
Bruner will remember her big national-splash housing deal (the Wall Street Journal, among others, have written about it) for a variety of reasons. One is how happy people were about it. Real estate is a business of big money, sharp elbows and large egos. “This is the first thing we have ever done without making anybody mad,” she said.
She has also been thrilled by all the calls she is getting from across the country, with people asking how she did it, and how it can be replicated. This will now happen in other cities, too. This might be the thing that makes her most happy.
“We can do this,” Brunner said. “It can be done. It will be done.”
For more of Movers & Makers May 2022 FOCUS ON: Housing and Shelter read about progress on affordable housing in Cincinnati. For organizations working in this space and ways you can help, see our Digital Edition.