Council votes against density ordinance after controversial public comment

A controversial ordinance to increase density died Tuesday in a Cincinnati council committee. This would have removed or increased density limits in certain types of zoning throughout the city, including multifamily. The committee voted 5-2 against the order, with one abstention.

Council members heard public comments from approximately 50 people, mostly opposed to the proposal. Residents of at least 14 neighborhoods took the floor.

“We are very supportive of increasing density and rezoning to be more inclusive,” said LaTonya Springs of Housing Opportunities Made Equal. “However, we don’t see that as an effective way to do that.”

Several community council leaders spoke out against the idea; many said they weren’t against higher density in general, but this process required more community engagement.

“City Hall builds a relationship with its citizens, and relationships come with baggage,” said Kate Mock Elliott, president of the Kennedy Heights Community Council. “And you’re hearing today from voters with leftover baggage from the last administration; severe distrust after years of thinking our needs come second, third, or fourth for developers.”

Supporters included the Northside Community Council, Northside Engaged in Sustainable Transformation, Greater Cincinnati Real Estate Investors Association, The Port, Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and West Side Brewing.

Committee chairman Reggie Harris wanted to hold the measure for about a month to allow for further discussion. He said the administration would release more information about other housing efforts soon, which would put the density proposal in the context of a more comprehensive plan.

But several council members demanded an immediate vote: Victoria Parks, Jeff Cramerding, Scotty Johnson and Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney.

“We just have to have the courage to vote against it,” Kearney said. “Let’s start from scratch. Let’s start over. Let’s do it right. And let’s start from a place of equity. Let’s start from a place where the community has a voice and doesn’t get knocked down like we usually do.”

Vote against the order: Kearney, Parks, Cramerding, Johnson and Mark Jeffreys. Vote in favor of the ordinance: Liz Keating, who introduced the measure, and Harris. Meeka Owens abstained.

Harris says he’s disappointed but hopes to pursue more comprehensive zoning reform soon.

“What became clear to me is how much people don’t understand density and what density means and how it manifests,” Harris said after the vote. “And so I see that as a challenge to create more tools for people to understand what that would mean and what that would look like on the street.”

Keating, who has been working on the proposal for about a year, says the discussion has changed a lot during that time.

“A year ago when we first had these public hearings, a lot of the complaints were, ‘Whoa, that’s way too far, that’s way too much change,'” Keating said. “Today most of the complaints we heard were, ‘It doesn’t go far enough, we need a lot more changes. We have to look at a much bigger picture to be able to make this shift to get where we want. And that’s a really, really, really good thing for Cincinnati.

A significant criticism of the ordinance is that it would not have affected single-family zoning, which accounts for about 77% of the city. Opponents say it only increases density in predominantly low-income, majority-black neighborhoods.

Harris says opposition to single-family zoning reform is going to be much greater.

“We know that cities and especially cities like Cincinnati with large black populations have enacted zoning to exclude black people, brown people and immigrants,” Harris said. “And so we’re destroying something that’s rooted in a deeply racist system, and so we’re going to meet that backlash. And that doesn’t mean that everyone who opposes it is racist, but we’re all informed by those systems. “

The Cincinnati Chamber harshly criticized Tuesday’s vote in a statement: “When faced with the opportunity to tackle one of the barriers to housing affordability and create business districts more dynamic, board members have instead chosen to do nothing,” said Pete Metz. “We remain committed to working with the mayor and a majority of council who want to advance policies that grow the city, add housing and maximize our transportation investments.”

Council member Jeffreys said he voted against the order because “process matters” and explained what he thinks should happen next.

“As much as I support density, I think it needs to be included in transit-oriented development,” Jeffreys said. “I think as a first next step, I would encourage us to do ADUs [Accessory Dwelling Units] first, because I think it’s something that’s widely supported in the community; we build trust with that, start there.”

The city manager’s office is working on a few reports requested by council over the past few weeks, including a full zoning review.

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