Cincinnati wants to make zoning changes. How quickly can those changes result in more housing? 

How quickly Cincinnati can house more people may depend on developers. Kaiker Development, in partnership with the Avondale Community Development Corporation, built 7 townhomes on Hale Ave. in Avondale and has plans for 14 more.

How Zoning Reform Could Increase Housing

Creators of Cincinnati’s proposed zoning reform plan, known as “Connected Communities,” are shopping it around in the neighborhoods it would affect. The plan targets business districts and transit corridors to increase housing in those areas. 

City planners crafted “Connected Communities” over 18 months. Residents of Bond Hill and Price Hill learned more about the six-tiered plan in public meetings in February and March. Residents from these and other neighborhoods were also invited to a virtual meeting and a community event at the Duke Energy Convention Center on March 23. 

Some are skeptical. Others are embracing the plan. 

Ken Brawner owns four multi-family units in Avondale and Norwood. Because he does not plan to own any more units, he says he is against the Connected Communities plan.  

“The concern is changing the proposed zoning to allow multi-families in traditional single-family neighborhoods. I see that as potentially interrupting the quiet one-family house neighborhood.” Brawner lives in a single-family home and likes the yard and space that go with it, he says. 

Nick Wright grew up in a big house but now lives in a triplex in Walnut Hills. “So, how do we recreate some of this to build more (multi-family) housing in Cincinnati, which is lacking housing for people right now, but do it in such a way that supports the neighborhood that already exists?” 

Mayor Aftab Pureval announced the Connected Communities plan at a news conference on January 29th.  

You can watch it here: https://vimeo.com/907906652 

The proposed changes include: 

  1. More “Middle Housing,” or housing units that could include duplexes, triplexes, rowhouses, and small apartment buildings to increase density, “while maintaining the look of single-family areas.” 
  1. Fewer parking spaces-required by offices, retail, and apartments because these spaces could be used to create more housing. The city says, “Current parking minimums are disconnected from Cincinnati’s context. In 2021, around 18-percent, or 56,000 Cincinnati households did not own a vehicle.” Brick by Brick plans to focus on parking in a future episode. 
  1. More Walkable Neighborhoods (“human scale development”)-areas could be redesigned to bring businesses closer to those walking and biking. The Connected Communities website gives examples. 

And there are other ideas, such as putting more housing near bus routes. The major corridors align with Metro’s 24-hour routes along Glenway, Harrison and Gilbert Avenues, Madison Road and Westwood Northern Blvd., and the Bus Rapid Transit routes on Hamilton Avenue and Reading Road.  

Proponents say the changes would also make the zoning code easier to read and would simplify some processes, such as outdoor dining approvals. 

A draft of zoning legislation is expected to be released this spring. Cincinnati Council is expected to vote on the proposed changes in June. 

Developer Buy In 

The effectiveness of the changes made by this initiative might come down to developers and whether they are lined up to build the kind of additional housing the city wants.  

Brick by Brick tracked down one of those developers, Kai Lewars, founder of Kaiker Development. He took us on a tour of the seven townhomes he built in partnership with the Avondale Community Development Corporation on Hale Avenue. Fourteen more townhomes are expected to be finished in 2025. These $300,000 townhomes are for sale to people earning no more than 115-percent of area median income. 

Lewars says there’s a big need for this type of middle housing that can be built on vacant lots in the city. He says it’s all about finding a place for people they can call home. 

“I wouldn’t be the man I am today, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in if it wasn’t for home ownership. It was the catalyst in my life to take it to the next level. If I can pass that forward, very similar to the mentors who instilled that in me, it means the world to me,” he says. 

Proposed Dayton Changes 

Dayton wants to create more housing of all types, as well as preserving what it already has. In 2022 the city formed committees to investigate housing development, housing preservation, and housing support. The recommendations are expected to be added to the Dayton Comprehensive Plan when they are available. 

The Comprehensive Plan says the key to housing is neighborhood stabilization. 

“As a city that has lost 47 percent of its population since 1960, there is tremendous capacity for housing in Dayton. In fulfilling that opportunity, housing quality and choice should be prioritized. Dayton was built as a city primarily of detached single-family homes. However, it is also interspersed with duplexes and multi-family buildings. While contextual development is important, preservation of all types of housing is essential. The city should continue to look for ways to encourage this.” 

The report also says “Demolition must not be the only option. As funding allows, the rehabilitation of existing vacant units should be supported.” 

Over the years Dayton says it has kept up with necessary zoning changes. Planning Division Manager Tony Kroeger says making incremental changes is better to get resident buy-in. 

Allowing ADUs or accessory dwelling units on a conditional basis is one example.   

In 2006 Dayton did make significant zoning changes, allowing duplexes and even some apartment buildings in traditional single-family zoning districts. 

Kroeger says, “In many parts of Dayton you’ll have apartment buildings that happen to be smack dab in the middle of a single-family zoning district. In 2006 those buildings were zoned as single family. Well, that doesn’t do a whole lot of good to encourage rehabilitation of those apartment buildings and so we lowered the regulatory threshold to rehab those apartment buildings by single family homes so that they can be reused.” Kroeger says zoning should not be an obstacle for things that make sense. 

How can zoning changes add more housing? 

Some say building more “missing middle” housing is key to solving the national housing shortage. But nationally “missing middle” housing is illegal on 75-percent of residential land, according to The New York Times. 

What is the “missing middle?” It is every type of housing in between single-family homes and high-rise apartments. Think duplexes and triplexes. But few states have enacted laws to spur development of them. Construction made up just 1-percent of new housing units in 2022, according to the Business Journals

The California architect and urban designer who coined the term “missing middle,” Daniel Parolek, emphasizes it has the greatest impact if built in historic, walkable neighborhoods.  

What impact are zoning changes having in other cities? 

The Pew Charitable Trusts say zoning changes in Minneapolis helped increase its housing stock by twelve-percent in just five years, which in turn helped keep the rent down. Most of the additional housing units were apartment buildings with at least twenty-units.  

This article compares Minneapolis to Cincinnati in housing units and rent. 

Some say the boldest change Minneapolis made was ending single-family zoning in every neighborhood, but that is on hold because it is being challenged in court. PBS Newshour tried to get a better understanding of the issues Minneapolis was facing in 2020, and reported this story. 

Buffalo, New York is seeing success in building walkable, mixed use neighborhoods after changing its zoning code in 2017. In the new plan, called the Green Code, some zones are still just for single-family homes but the code expands the range of housing types in other residential areas to include stacked units, row homes and carriage homes. 

Buffalo planner Chris Hawley told Public Square. “Legalizing the historic mix of uses in Buffalo neighborhoods, and removing all minimum parking requirements, have been the Green Code’s two highest-impact reforms.” 

Brick by Brick’s Hernz Laguerre Jr. took a closer look at these zoning changes and how their solutions could help Cincinnati.  

University of California Berkeley researchers have built a zoning reform tracker. They say in recent years more than one-hundred U.S. cities have made zoning changes. In Columbus, Ohio zoning changes are expected to take effect this summer.  

By changing 17 zoning ordinances to allow for more dense development, taller buildings, and fewer parking spaces the hope is Columbus “could eventually provide 878 new housing units, half of them designated affordable,” according to the Columbus Dispatch

“Columbus City Council wants to make it clear that affordable housing is for everyone and everywhere in the city,” says City Council president Pro Tem Rob Dorans. City Council Spokesperson Nya Hairston added, “We’re being intentional in adding more housing units and affordable units with the increased demand and low supply.” 

How did we get here? 

It was 1963 when, for the first time, Cincinnati set rules around density. These new zoning policies leaned into protecting detached single-family housing. You can read about it in Erwin Hoffman’s book The Creation and Development of the Zoning Code of Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Single-family zoning has its roots in racist policies. One way cities were able to legally keep people of color out of certain neighborhoods was by zoning those areas for single-family homes only. Those houses tended to be more expensive, and therefore unattainable for most people of color. 

In his book The Color of Law, author Richard Rothstein says segregated zoning comes down to governmental racist policies. “Segregation by intentional government action is not de facto. Rather, it is what courts call de jure: segregation by law and public policy.” 

In a follow-up book, Just Action, also authored by his daughter Leah Rothstein, the two lay out how to challenge segregation. 

Brick by Brick interviewed the Rothsteins. You can hear them in a future podcast, to be released May 8, 2024. 

Local statistics 

  • Only 18 of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods added housing between 2010 and 2020. 
  • Overall, the city lost 2,000 units between 2010-2020. 
  • Various reports have mentioned Cincinnati’s gap in needed housing between 28,000 and more than 40,000. 
  • Dayton lost housing between 2000 and 2010. (housing data for the next decade was not available) 
  • A 2021 Dayton-Montgomery County Housing Needs Assessment shows a projected need of more than 20,000 additional units by 2026. 

NPR talked to the President of the American Planning Association which has made zoning reform a top priority. Angela Brooks says, “We’re really dealing with outdated and inequitable regulations that in too many places really have choked housing supply.” 

Zoning laws are hard to interpret. How can we understand them?

Zoning laws are complicated. One organization wants to make sure everybody can understand the sometimes-cumbersome code so policy makers and advocates can work on them. Marketplace reports on this effort by The National Zoning Atlas, which seeks to record government information and translate it for everyone. 

Here’s the idea behind it: 

Lessons Learned 

As more communities try to increase their affordable housing stock, expect them to look to zoning to make a difference.  

NPR reports the added supply in Minneapolis kept the rent down. It rose only 1-percent between 2017 and 2022, compared to 14-percent in the rest of Minnesota. 

Filtering 

Everyone can benefit from additional housing even if only one type is built, says Notre Dame researcher Evan Mast. It is called “filtering.”  This is where newer housing frees up older, less expensive housing in what Mast calls a “migration chain.”

Mast says, “For example, let’s suppose that a new Procter & Gamble employee moves into one of these new buildings and maybe there’s some house a mile away that I otherwise would have lived in that is now vacant.”  

His research shows with each round, housing is available at a lower price point. How long does that take? “It’s hard to exactly measure for each round to occur but in my research that for a new building to start to affect, like below-average income neighborhoods, that would take somewhere between two and five years.” 

Mast says for every one-hundred new market-rate apartments, fifty vacancies are created. 

Recognizing the history of zoning

The cities making zoning changes realize that governmental policies are responsible for segregation. Author of the book Just Action, Leah Rothstein told Brick by Brick, “As a result of the racially discriminatory actions of our government and of private industry from the past generations, that limited the amount of housing that could be built in suburban areas by instituting single-family only zoning in most suburban communities, 75-percent of residentially zoned land all over the country is zoned to only allow one house per lot.”

Cincinnati Councilmember Reggie Harris, who was instrumental in developing Connected Communities along with other colleagues, says this new zoning plan can help us move away from a segregated past. 

“Duplexes, triplexes are really good tools for affordable home ownership….multigenerational living is sort of like a universal experience we see and particularly when we think about tools that help build middle-class families, particularly black and brown families in the U.S. It is the ability to capitalize on multigenerational living, according to Harris” 


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.