City council passes ‘critical’ measure taking aim at car reliance in Cincinnati

‘Giving people the chance of not buying a car, living near mass transit, is obviously something that we need to do.’
The Blonde is a 13-story, 125-unit apartment building in Downtown Cincinnati completed in early...
The Blonde is a 13-story, 125-unit apartment building in Downtown Cincinnati completed in early 2020 without structured parking.(WXIX)
Published: Feb. 28, 2023 at 8:49 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Cincinnati City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a proposal to incentivize dense developments located on all public transit lines.

The proposal calls for a so-called “public transit corridor incentive.” It’s co-sponsored by council members Liz Keating, Meeka Owens, Reggie Harris and Seth Walsh.

“This is a huge win for economic growth, equity, housing, sustainability and public transit infrastructure,” Keating said.

The proposal tasks City Administration with creating a bonus incentive that would increase the maximum abatement value for transit-adjacent multi-family property owners seeking community reinvestment area tax incentives.

The incentives would increase the maximum abated market improvement value per unit, so that developers and property owners would see their tax savings increase linearly with each unit added.

Council members said the incentives could allow residents to live and commute without owning a car, lowering the cost burden on families and helping to reduce the city’s carbon output.

“Currently, there is a real reliance on cars in our city, and we have to be honest that owning a car is a tool for economic mobility in our city,” Owens said. “But we know we can build a city where that is not necessarily the case. Being able to live car-free is a huge factor in economic mobility. We are thinking long-term and encouraging housing along what is our current transit and what will be our expanded transit lines.”

Cramerding cited research showing the yearly average cost of owning a car is around $10,000, which reflects “a massive investment” for even middle-income earners.

“So giving people the chance of not buying a car, living near mass transit, is obviously something that we need to do, and this enables it,” he said. “I think this is a policy choice that makes sense.”

The proposal anticipates the region’s region’s forthcoming Bus Rapid Transit system.

“Development is going to happen along the bus rapid transit and other metro routes, so making sure it’s the kind of development we want is critical,” Walsh said.

The BRT system will be funded in part by Issue 7, a county-wide sales tax levy passed in 2020 to broadly improve transit service and transit-related infrastructure. The SORTA Board requested federal funds to supplement local dollars earlier this week. The system is expected to be completed by 2028.

Harris said coordinating housing reform with the transit expansion is an example of “really big” thinking.

“We are thinking about this very comprehensively and very systematically,” Owens added.

The proposed transit corridor incentive is the second of two recent housing measures introduced as amendments to a residential tax abatement reform package that’s been in the works at City Hall for more than a year.

Another amendment, passed in February, would create a bonus incentive to increase the maximum abatement value for a remodel job adding 2-4 additional units to an existing building or a new build adding 2-4 units total.

The incentive, according to the motion’s sponsors, would create the sort of “missing middle” housing that’s naturally affordable for renters or buyers.

If passed, it would work in concert with proposed zoning reforms that would allow homes in single-family zoning districts originally built as multi-family homes to be restored to that use. Those reforms are currently before the Cincinnati Planning Commission.

Property owners or developers would be able to stack the two bonus incentives to double their tax savings.

The abatement reform package, first introduced by Harris and fellow council member Jeff Cramerding, is premised on a 2021 study finding a disproportionate amount of Cincinnati’s abated properties are in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

A new rubric for determining abatement amounts would account for the economic vitality of the neighborhood in which the abatement is sought. Higher maximum abatement values in struggling neighborhoods would, in theory, empower and incentivize residents in those neighborhoods to improve their properties, creating a more equitable city.

“Incentivizing investment across our city is a vital component to our economic recovery from COVID and our future growth,” Council member Reggie Harris said last month. “The residential tax abatement reform we are proposing centers equity and revitalization that is both inclusive and accessible. The goal of this update is to help expand growth to communities that have been historically under-invested and simplify the process so ordinary people can see the benefits. Importantly, the 3-year program review allows us to closely monitor the program’s impact and course correct when needed.”

Council will vote on the abatement reform package no earlier than the third week of March following two more public feedback sessions.

Public officials, meanwhile, are working on still more measures to bring more housing units to Cincinnati, which faces a housing shortage due to a growing population, a decade of sparse residential construction and the loss of housing through demolition.

Those changes could include zoning reforms to make it easier for property owners to build additional dwelling units.

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