Price Hill Will's innovative anti-poverty strategy program gives the gift of home ownership and creates positive community impacts in the process.

Unique Program Makes Home Ownership a Reality

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

A web of Cincinnati social service and community development agencies, both public and private, are testing an innovative solution to urban blight. A homesteading program in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods is saving deteriorating, vacant houses by turning them into homes for low-income families.

If you are thinking, what is homesteading? Homesteading is an old concept with an origin tying back to The Homestead Act of 1862 to encourage families to migrate out west. The agreement was the families had to stay and work the land for five years before gaining full land ownership.

Through Price Hill Will, a nonprofit community development organization on Cincinnati’s west side, this concept is being adapted for the modern age. Its Homesteading Program was started in 2015 and allows low-income families to become homeowners by putting in five years of work on a house.

About 18 percent of Cincinnati’s housing units are vacant, according to the U.S. Census, and roughly 41 percent of the housing stock in the city was built in 1939 or earlier. Meanwhile, a good chunk of the city’s renters — 44 percent, according to the American Community Survey — are paying rent that eats up 35 percent or more of their income.

Homesteading addresses all of these concerns, said Kathy Schwab, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, one of the agencies supporting Price Hill Will’s program.

“It’s an anti-poverty strategy,” Schwab said. “It’s the perfect match. It’s a win for the neighborhood, the community, the family. It helps build wealth.”

The program also helps the city by building property value.

How the Program Works

Here’s how the pilot Homesteading Program works: Price Hill Will acquires a house that can be inexpensively brought into compliance with city building codes. Once basic repairs are done, Price Hill Will enters into a land contract with a family, which must complete a list of repairs and general maintenance to the home in addition to making payments. The contract allows Price Hill Will to regularly inspect the home.

Assuming all payments and repairs are made, the family owns the home free and clear after five years.

In addition to LISC, a variety of Cincinnati agencies have rallied around Price Hill Will to make homesteading happen. Santa Maria Community Services screens families for need and income eligibility, making sure the families have a steady income that is at or below 80 percent of the regional annual median income. Working in Neighborhoods helps the homesteading families assess their budgets, and Legal Aid Southwestern Ohio draws up the land contracts. SC Ministry Foundation, Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio and the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corporation all support the program as well.

So far, Price Hill Will has placed two families in previously vacant homes. A waiting list of nearly a dozen families continues to grow as Price Hill Will seeks additional and sustainable funding for the program. A $10,000 grant from Fifth Third Bank should help at least one more family be placed in 2017 and the program is looking into purchasing an additional 20 homes over the next few months.

Price Hill Will Executive Director Ken Smith estimates $1 million could fill 77 vacant homes with families.

Initial Success

But just the initial success is drawing more agencies to the homesteading idea and its possibilities for neighborhood building. A creative placemaking partnership of Price Hill Will, Santa Maria Community Services and arts nonprofit organization, ArtWorks, brightened the community with murals this summer with a series of “Bridging Cultural Divides” mini murals in the neighborhood incorporating community-driven designs.

Unique Program Makes Home Ownership a Reality
photo credit | JM Wolf

The first homesteading house was donated to Price Hill Will and required about $7,000 in repairs and maintenance to meet building codes. Price Hill Will purchased a second house from the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corporation for about $1,000; that one required about $23,000 in repairs. The organization averaged the cost and the first homesteaders will buy their homes for about $16,000.

The Perez Family

Valerie and Noé Perez and their three children are among the first Cincinnati homesteaders. The day last fall that they signed the land contract and picked up the keys, their house wasn’t much to come home to. They had a yard scattered with stones and plywood, and floors in desperate need of refinishing. They had to fill in holes in the concrete stoop and back patio and scrape and paint every wall.

But the Perezes, an auto mechanic and a stay-at-home mom who works part-time, never thought they’d be homeowners and saw nothing but potential in the little house that would be their home.

“It was amazing. This was our first Thanksgiving. This was our first Christmas,” Perez said. “There's so many firsts, and it's ours.”

Homesteading increased the Perezes’ workload — there’s always something that needs to be fixed — but lowered their housing costs. They pay about $250 per month now, $225 less than their last monthly renting cost.

That’s one of the keys to this homesteading program: it’s helping people who already are part of the community. Through homeownership, the homesteading program increases people’s ties to their communities and their pride in making that community better. It also gives Price Hill Will more connections in the neighborhood it is determined to revitalize.

“I can walk into Price Hill Will and say, 'Hey, I have this problem and I need help,'” Valerie Perez said. “They're there. 'Call us if you need us.' That's what they say every time we visit.”

Hillary Copsey is a writer and editor enjoying all the exhibits, music, libraries and restaurants Cincinnati has to offer. Follow @HillaryCopsey on Twitter and Instagram.