Is a Cincinnati response to out-of-town investors now a national model for preserving local affordable housing?

Representatives from The Port, Realtist Association and Fifth Third Bank are speaking at a news conference and are standing in front of a single-family brick house. There's a sign in front of them that says, "Building Homeownership Home By Home & Block By Block."
The Port shows off a Price Hill home it was selling as part of the portfolio it bought from the now defunct Raineth Housing.

Preserving Local Housing by Outbidding Out-of-Town Investors

Two years after it bought nearly 200 neglected rental properties from an out-of-town real estate company to sell as affordable housing, Cincinnati’s The Port (short for Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority) is still getting attention from many U.S. cities who hope to copy it, including St. Louis, Kansas City and Atlanta. Milwaukee, who also reached out to The Port, is already working to increase home ownership with a slightly different plan.

In December 2022, The Port acquired 194 homes from Los Angeles-based Raineth Housing for $15 million as other institutional investors continued buying up properties and doubling or tripling the rent. This was depleting the housing supply and squeezing out tenants. To get the properties, The Port outbid 12 other investors, financing the deal with a combination of taxable and tax-exempt bonds.

The quasi-governmental entity is now renovating and selling those homes for an average of $144,000. Originally The Port thought it could spend $25,000 to renovate each house but the homes were in such bad condition, they needed $88,000 worth of work. The Port has now secured $4 million in grants to cover what was once a $4.6 million funding shortfall.

Can other communities create affordable housing this way?

Housing and economic opportunity consultant Loren Berlin thinks other cities can do what Cincinnati did. But in her article for the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy she cautions, “The Port’s acquisition is likely neither the story of a one-off victory for the public good, nor an easy formula that other cities can follow to facilitate these sorts of acquisitions. But housing experts agree that while some of the circumstances in Cincinnati may be rare, the fundamental strategy is replicable.”

The limitations include money. It’s expensive to buy a whole portfolio of homes. And few port authorities are structured the way The Port is. It has not only the ability to buy property but find developers and buyers. On its website it says it can “provide unique finance tools to developers and communities to unlock stuck real estate for housing, jobs and improved infrastructure.”

The deal comes at the right time

The U.S. is still in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Only 16-percent of people nationwide could afford to buy a home in 2023, according to Redfin.

That’s down from 21-percent in 2022 and 40-percent before the pandemic. And Redfin says white households had three times more affordable options than Black households.

The Port is partnering with The Greater Cincinnati Realtist Association to increase Black homeownership.

Brick by Brick’s Hernz Laguerre Jr. interviewed one couple about their journey to buy one of The Port’s homes and another woman who is hoping to purchase one. Read and see his story here.

How did we get to this point?

Wall Street investors were able to pay pennies on the dollar for foreclosed homes in 2008 and that buying spree has continued. The real estate company Redfin shows these institutional investors now own a record 26.1-percent of homes, according to data from the fourth quarter of 2023. These investors own more than 4,000 properties in Cincinnati and 5,000 in Dayton. And with a dwindling supply, the cost for both renters and home buyers continues to rise. The Dayton Daily News said that Dayton is one of the worst U.S. urban areas for availability.

Lack of available and affordable housing is a problem nationwide and many point to out-of-state investors. “They’re coming in and they’re basically bullying people out with cash offers,” says Chase Barrier, the president of a North Carolina homeowners association, interviewed by Business Insider.

Some associations are now placing caps on the number of homes that can be rented in certain neighborhoods. Local governments are also considering ordinances restricting investors from competing with local home buyers.

Dayton also bought a portfolio of homes

The Port’s model is difficult to duplicate. Not many local governments have an agency set up this way. For example, a key Dayton area affordable housing organization-CountyCorp-must partner with its own regional port authority and other agencies like CityWide to get the money it needs.

Yet CountyCorp is having success in the Dayton Region, where out-of-town investors are also a concern. Less than two years ago it bought a portfolio of one hundred rental homes from a commercial investor. The plan was to fix them up, keep them affordable, and over time help renters become homeowners.

CountyCorp Vice President of Housing Adam Blake says the need was urgent.

“We have just recently purchased 100 single family homes that were part of one of those investment partnerships where the residents told us we haven’t seen the property manager in three years,” says Blake. “We’ve never seen a maintenance deck. A couple of the houses had literally burned down. Some of them had systemic water in the house, and other issues that impacted the residents’ health. But they were still paying the rent because they had to.”

Because those homes were originally built using low-income housing tax credits, they must remain affordable for another 15 years. So even if one of these renters bought the home they live in and decided to sell, they would still have to sell it at an affordable rate. CountyCorp’s purpose with this program is not to promote house-flipping. It’s to create home ownership among these renters.

This is the most homes CountyCorp has ever bought at once and the purchase more than doubled the number of properties in its inventory.

And there is something else. In 2016 CountyCorp convinced a California investor to sell Whitmore Arms Apartments, where residents were “living in squalor.” The 46-unit multifamily apartment complex is in West Dayton, off Third Street. CountyCorp was able to follow through, got the financing, and fixed it up.

What else is being done?

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has introduced the Stop Predatory Investing Act. It’s still being considered in the Senate Finance Committee.

It would:

  • Prohibit an investor who acquires 50 or more single-family rental homes from deducting interest or depreciation.
  • Incentivize big investors to sell back to homeowners or nonprofits in the community.
  • Support affordable rental housing and construction by allowing owners to continue to take deductions on properties that are financed using Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.

In Ohio, Senate Bill 334 is sponsored by Louis Blessing and would impose a 45-day waiting period once a private investment firm has the highest bid. If during that time the tenants can match the bid and agree to live in the home for one year, they can buy the property. Another buyer can also come in as well as a nonprofit affordable housing group to purchase the home. The bill also remains in committee.

Will real estate investors continue buying up community housing?

Real Estate investors now have another strategy – building entire developments of houses to rent. It’s called “build-to rent.” There are about 900 of these developments nationwide, according to data obtained from the Wall Street Journal. Four of these communities are set to break ground in central Ohio. Not everybody is on board.

RentCafe says the construction of these new build-to-rent homes hit a record in 2022, with more than 14,500 houses. There are 44,700 such homes under construction now. That’s triple the number of new homes completed in 2022. Indianapolis and Columbus are in the top 20 markets for these.

What cities are learning from The Port

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy says 17 million people (about the population of New York) live in “legacy cities,” like Cincinnati, at risk of institutional investors coming in and buying up homes. This is because at some point they have had a population decline and home prices are lower than the national average. Most of these cities are in the Midwest and the Northeast.

As they try to get out in front of out-of-town investors, cities can model The Port’s plan (to preserve and reclaim local control of affordable housing in order to create equitable homeownership opportunities) if:

  • They have the resources to outbid other investors (with city, county, or port funding).
  • They have the money to fix up what could be rundown properties.
  • They work with other agencies to provide financial education to renters in those homes to sell the properties.
  • They partner with minority real estate companies to increase black home ownership.

Here at Brick by Brick, we’ll keep an eye on The Port’s continued progress with its CARE Portfolio (as well as other acquisitions), and bring you updates on its success and limitations as information becomes available.

A white woman in her 50's with shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes wearing a maroon leather jacket stands on a neighborhood street.

Ann Thompson – Host, Producer

Over the last thirty years in Cincinnati, Ann Thompson has brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported and anchored for WVXU, WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV and Metro Networks and freelanced for NPR, CBS and ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and she has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. She is a former News Director and Operations Manager. Ann has reported from India, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Belgium as part of fellowships. Ann thinks of the Brick by Brick project as “journalism for good.” She serves as host and producer. Ann lives in Anderson Township with her husband Scott. They have two boys. Jake graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2022 and Kurt attends West Point.