What the first Cincinnati downtown affordable housing in decades means to residents and developers 

The Barrister

The First Affordable Housing Project in Three Decades provides opportunities.   

Downtowns are commonly the most expensive parts of any city across America. Which makes what happened in the heart of the Central Business District in downtown Cincinnati more remarkable.  Nonprofit organization, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, joined forces with a Property management company, Urban Sites, to turn abandoned office buildings into affordable housing.  The Barrister is a combination of two historic buildings, providing 44 affordable units between them. All the units are income-restricted to households making 30%-60% of the area median income.  The development is already being hailed as a successful example of the adaptive re-use of historic buildings to provide much-needed housing.  

“Living down here is expensive, that’s why some people feel like they hit the lottery” said Michelle Christopher, permanent supportive housing case manager at Over-the-Rhine Community Housing. She said those who secured housing with The Barrister can enjoy the pleasures of living downtown without the burden of the costs Even though Cincinnati’s housing is 15% cheaper than the rest of the United States, it has become a popular area to move to, making it hard to find affordable housing.  

The Barrister offers many other advantages. It is close to major transit corridors, so residents don’t need a car. It is near the Kroger grocery store, so residents don’t have to go far for their grocery needs. It is also near the Cincinnati Public Library. The Barrister, itself, offers free Wi-Fi to all residents, eliminating a major cost for an item that we heavily use for school, work, or leisure.  

Christopher worked with a current resident of The Barrister, 54-year-old Todd Halsell. Halsell is a plumber who “always wanted an apartment down here…downtown is really coming up. And I got blessed” said Halsell. Halsell was born and raised in Cincinnati. He moved around to different cities such as Indianapolis, Atlanta, and even Los Angeles in his early twenties. Even though he traveled around a bit, “I just wanted to be in my city and have a place to my own name” said Halsell.  

Due to previous imprisonment because of drug charges, Halsell couldn’t pass background checks to have a place of his own and build out his life. Despite changing his life around, he describes the charges as a label that prevented him from moving forward. Thanks to his work with Michelle Christopher and the David and Rebecca Barron Center for Men, Todd was able to secure housing at the Barrister. 

“If I told you I was paying 2,500 a month for this…its believable right?” Todd pays around $900 dollars a month in rent because the unique financing package of the Barrister was designed to keep apartments affordable 

Funding Breakdown of The Barrister 

The Barrister is funded using federal subsidies in the form of low-income housing tax credits, state subsidies in the form of historical tax credits, and philanthropic donations. “This project wouldn’t have happened without it,” said Ben Eilerman Director of Real Estate Development at Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH). Eilerman said because The Barrister isn’t charging market rate rent “we don’t have as much money to pay off debt like a traditional project would.”  

Because of historic tax credits, they had to adhere to strict requirements, like wall thickness. In other circumstances developers would, “build a wall out thicker and put insulation in there” said Eilerman. These limitations forced OTRCH and Urban Sites to approach the project creatively to secure funding from the state.  

Challenges with Adaptive Reuse 

Affordable housing is already expensive to develop, but what made the Barrister even more. expensive were – supply chain issues. “A $60 electric breaker can hold up the occupancy and completion of the building…at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.” said Eilerman.  (How is that different  

“Development is not for the faint of heart,” said Kristen Baker, Executive Director of LISC Greater Cincinnati ((Local Initiatives Support Corporation). Baker LISC helps support the project by securing a feasible permanent debt on the project. “You can’t always anticipate when something is out of stock. Our expert developers know [unexpected problems] will come. They don’t always know what the problem will be, they know it happens all the time and we try to build that into the schedule,” said Baker. 

Can there be another Barrister? 

On March 7th, 2024, the official ribbon cutting for the Barrister occurred at the standing-room-only news conference. Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval said the Barrister is, “helping to grow our city for not just some of us but for all of us.”  

There is still a need for more affordable housing in the Cincinnati area. But future developers will find it impossible to replicate the Barrister’s model. Early 2023, after the Barrister already secured its funding, Gov. Mike DeWine signed House Bill 45 into law, preventing developers from using both historical tax credits and low-income housing tax credits for the same project. In the past, it would be a normal strategy for affordable housing developers to utilize both of those subsidies, where it makes sense, to make a project financially viable.  The Ohio General Assembly has since created a new low-income housing tax credit program from the state which can be combined with federal low-income housing subsidies.

Hernz Laguerre Jr. – Multi-Media Journalist

Hernz is a Haitian American who was born and raised in Spring Valley, NY. He attended school at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, where he learned to hone his skills as a storyteller. After graduating with his Bachelors in Broadcast and Digital Journalism and his Masters in Television Radio and Film, he went on to a career in media as a producer, reporter and freelance videographer for companies like ESPN and Court TV. He eventually moved to Detroit, where he worked as a Multimedia Journalist for The Detroit News and then the NPR affiliate, WDET, before starting his work with the Brick by Brick team at CET and ThinkTV. Hernz aims to produce stories that tell the bigger picture while doing his due diligence to educate and inform the public about the solutions-focused work being done in the Cincinnati and Dayton areas.