Building Futures, Empowering Lives
By Erin Reder
In an article printed in the 2020 issue of Intercom, we spotlighted the work of Working In Neighborhoods, a nonprofit organization formed to help low- and moderate-income residents in Cincinnati’s neighborhoods. Executive Director and Sister of Charity Barbara Busch co-founded WIN and has worked for more than 40 years to help residents shape their communities. With her knowledge and experience in the field of affordable housing, S. Barbara has become a wisdom figure and leading authority for the city of Cincinnati and beyond. Her guidance and forethought are empowering families and growing communities.
Three years ago, WIN embarked on its Net Zero Urban Village project in the small African-American, low-income community of South Cumminsville (Cincinnati). The project includes 50 near net-zero homes – rehabbing 25 existing homes for senior homeowners to improve energy efficiency and building 25 near net-zero homes to incorporate alternative energy technologies. The goal is to provide safe, secure and affordable housing. “By making energy bills more affordable, homes are more affordable,” says S. Barbara. “If we can keep those bills down, it helps families over the long haul to be able to stay in their home. A second reason is we feel that this is something we should be doing for the Earth and for low-income communities who don’t normally get experience with any new kind of technology. When our kids grow up they don’t know about new technology and they can’t use that as a choice for a job. Our goal is to spread information in our communities and give people an opportunity to see what’s possible and what will be our future.”
Many residents in the neighborhood lost their homes during the recession and foreclosure crisis. The net-zero houses being built will go in spots where there were homes and where there were families; the goal being to bring families back to the community. This innovative solution took hold after thoughtful planning and discussion with the community. S. Barbara then gathered energy experts to talk the organization through the process of making the homes energy-efficient.
WIN has completed 15 energy retrofits for senior homeowners with the thought that they would help them stay in their homes, and provide for the next generation. “[The house] always goes to the family,” she said. “What we saw during the recession, when homes aren’t in good shape and you pass those on, they aren’t necessarily something people can keep.”
Success stories abound. Prior to putting in new windows and weatherizing a home, one resident could only live in one room of her house and wore a winter coat most of the time. One of the first things she told S. Barbara after the remodeling is that she could use her whole house now. She can have people over and sit in her living room. She also never realized how much noise there was. Now that the house is sealed, she is able to sleep through the night. “Giving people the opportunity to be able to use their home the way they’d love to is extremely important,” says S. Barbara.
Another resident didn’t have air in her upstairs. WIN installed new, energy-efficient windows and put in a new heating/cooling and hot water system. Prior to the additions the whole family would sleep on the first floor of the home where the window unit was. Results were seen and felt immediately. Once the whole family could go back upstairs to their rooms to sleep, the homeowner told S. Barbara her teenage son was able to perform better at work because he was finally sleeping in his bed and not on the floor. The slightest changes and additions make a world of difference for families.
Funding for the Net Zero Urban Village has been a challenge. However, WIN has assembled funders to pay for the construction of the first seven net-zero homes. The organization is breaking ground on the first two homes this summer. WIN continues to seek investments for this innovative approach to reinvigorating the housing stock in South Cumminsville.
WIN’s vision for empowering families and communities extends to the entire county. In one of its latest efforts, WIN has partnered with The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, a quasi-governmental organization whose purpose is to create equitable economic development in the Cincinnati metropolitan area. The Port, as it’s called, bought from a bankruptcy sale, 194 single-family homes that are rentals. WIN’s part is to help families in those homes become homeowners. “This is important because when out-of-town investors buy up our single-family housing stock, they are taking away the opportunity for people to buy their first home, particularly for low-income, working-class folks who want to buy a house and can’t. From our perspective it’s a way to help those families already in these homes to buy their home and The Port will fix up the homes so that they are in good condition.”
WIN has been instrumental in this process helping residents to prepare for homeownership. Though it may take years before some are ready, the long-term goal is to help families and neighborhoods become stable by getting people to participate in the system as much as they can. “People ask if we give away homes; we don’t give away homes,” S. Barbara says, “we help families get bankable. At WIN we want people (whether they buy a home or whether they just get their finances in order) to be in a position where they can do what they want to do with the money they have and know they have choices. We provide the services to help families empower themselves. If we teach parents, they will teach their children. We are now seeing second generations purchase homes.”
“We want everyone to be in good shape,” adds S. Barbara. “These folks never thought they had a chance. They didn’t start saving money nor had a large income to start with; landlords kept raising their rent, so the money they did have went right to rent.” The Port is keeping rent low and selling houses at a lower amount so it’s possible for families to purchase homes. And, if they don’t want to own a home, they will be in a better place to rent. With the help of WIN and The Port, families will have the ability to make the choices that are best for them.
S. Barbara and her staff of 18 at WIN believe that housing is key to opportunity. Through its financial literacy training, community building and housing development, WIN will not stop working to better communities and educate residents to improve their lives and the neighborhoods they live in. Research shows that homeownership improves health and education outcomes, community safety and stability. “That’s what we want for every family,” says S. Barbara, “opportunity for themselves and for their children and for the generations that follow them. That’s why we do what we do.”