Big Thinkers: Michelle Dillingham

“Big Thinkers” is a series designed to get me out from behind my computer to mix it up with other brains in Cincinnati about our built environment. I’m picking leaders in the community who don’t usually get asked about real estate development to share their unique perspectives on what makes a great city, one that will serve us well for the next thirty or forty years.

But I didn’t want to start with Michelle Dillingham.


Michelle (on the left) out doing what Michelle does: standing up for decent wages for everybody

I wanted somebody easier. More traditional. Which means somebody who wears a suit and works in an office tower.  Somebody with a more similar background to mine.

Michelle is the Director of Education for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, a social worker by training and legislative aide to former Council member, David Crowley for four years.  She astonished everyone in politics with a 12th place finish her first time on the ballot as a candidate for City Council last November and is known for her outspoken views on raising the minimum wage and more affordable housing options. Michelle is anything but traditional.

But Michelle was the first interview who could work me into her busy schedule.  Besides her full-time job, she serves on 5 non-profit boards, has children at home, and is extremely active on the Kennedy Heights community council. Even though we got together for coffee almost two weeks ago – and I’ve talked to several other fascinating subjects since then – I’ve come up with excuse after excuse to avoid writing about our conversation, stuck between raging curiosity (about what I would say. . .how it all fits) and paralyzing fear (about what I would say . . . how it all fits).

Because if you talk to Michelle, you have to talk about poor people. About how many families call the Coalition these days looking for someplace, anyplace to stay because they are desperate, living in their cars and they have no idea where to go, what to do.  About what it’s like to try to live on $7.25 an hour before taxes.

And that’s hard to talk about. It’s so much more fun to write about transit options, the changing nature of retail, or why Millennials have embraced the urban lifestyle with such enthusiasm.

Regardless of how scary it is, here’s the reason we have to start with Michelle Dillingham, whether I want to or not:

More than 30% of the residents of our city live below the poverty line.

The average household income in Cincinnati  is $24,543.

Let me repeat that for emphasis, so we can’t just skim over those difficult, painful statistics and move on to the next paragraph: The average HOUSEHOLD income is $24,543.

We are not a rich community, not those of us who actually live within the city limits and we have to stop pretending we are, like the situation is going to magically “trickle down” to acceptable as those of us who are lucky enough to be living above the poverty line adjust our blinders yet again and go on as though those numbers don’t have anything to do with the city that is us.

Media personalities, national preservation organizations, and young, attractive urbanists – really all of us who have grown-up in this city and built our lives here – we look at Over-the-Rhine these days and see the miraculous transformation that has taken place in one short decade. We ‘re not afraid to go there after dark anymore or walk the streets by ourselves.  Can you believe it?   There’s a waiting list of people looking for apartments in Over-the-Rhine.   On weekends it can take a couple of hours to get a table at one of the hot new restaurants on Vine.

But when Michelle walks out the door of her office at the Coalition for the Homeless on 12th St., that’s not what she sees. She sees ‘renoviction’. – 3CDC relocating entire buildings of residents to upgrade properties and increase rents.  She sees sky-rocketing homelessness.  She sees families who have to spend 80% of their income to pay the average $750 a month rent for a 2 bedroom apartment.  She sees the community vegetable gardens she worked so hard to create  destroyed for more profitable development, places where lower income residents could grow their own healthy food and earn a little money selling their extra produce at Findlay Market .  When Michelle Dillingham walks out her door in Over-the Rhine, she sees everything that this neighborhood has lost and she sees a crisis, a crisis she works to change every minute of every day of her life.

Michelle isn’t wrong.  And neither are the rest of us who look with pride on the new energy in our urban core.  Change does not come without costs, great costs, and the world is changing so fast these days.  The reason gentrification is hard for us to talk about is because we’re afraid.  We know this is not what a healthy community looks like.   Poverty is not something people do  to themselves on purpose and it’s hard and messy and complicated.  But nobody is going to tell me that Cincinnati doesn’t have the imagination and compassion to include everybody in our Renaissance. We can do it, Cincinnati – and maybe the first step is for more of us to listen to Michelle Dillingham talk about it.

3 thoughts on “Big Thinkers: Michelle Dillingham

  1. cranewoods

    Please donate to: Tender Mercies, Freestore Foodbank and Planned Parenthood. All three help the “less fortunate than us.” Tender Mercies does amazing things: permanent housing for people who would otherwise be living under bridges the rest of their lives AND people who are homeless and just need a temporary respite to get back on their feet. Freestore Foodbank feeds a lot of hungry people in Cincinnati. Planned Parenthood provides critical health services and counseling.

  2. Bill Collins

    The conversation about gentrification in this City needs to become more sophisticated.

    In various cities — in the Midwest, the South and the Northeast — during my 62 years, I have lived in and around both neighborhoods that have declined (de-gentrified) and ones that have gentrified. Behind it all — especially since the late 1970s — has been a decline in the size of the U.S. middle class and a decline in the economic security of the middle class. Obviously, as capital has moved jobs (especially manufacturing jobs_ out of the Northeastern and Midwestern cities, and then later out of the USA entirely, a lot of suffering has happened.

    In this suffering, the people who have suffered the most have been poor people.

    But, for folks who care about all of these things — care about the poor but also care about middle class and working-class people — we need to develop an approach that does not stigmatize college-educated young people like the ones who are now moving into OTR in large numbers. These young folks — strapped as many of them are to pay for college loans while also hoping to own homes some day — are our future, too.

    During my 26 years in Cincinnati, much of the discussion about OTR — both back in the days when Buddy Gray dominated the discussion and today when young people are embracing OTR — has missed the point. I’m not 100% sure of what the point is. But, as much as I like Michelle — and on 90% of the issues she and I are together — I would hope that in her new role as a housing activist she gives some thought to the fact the Cincinnati is not Boston. The way the housing markets move here are very, very different from Boston where she grew up.

    The Gentrification that is happening here is very limited, and has less potential to expand dramatically in the future as it has in Boston. Ohio is the “rust belt.” Yes, the Boston area used to be a Rust Belt, from the 1950s through the 1970s, but it isn’t a Rust Belt today.

    Ohio needs more young professional talent to stay here, and not flee for other states. We need to find attractive, affordable housing for these young people so that they will stay here, find jobs here, start businesses and families here, and buy houses here. To me, all public policy in Ohio starts with this understanding.

    It is, I would argue, in this context that we need to look at the question of homelessless and helping poor people. Without an expanding middle class in Ohio, I shudder to think what life and opportunity would look like for poor people in Ohio.

    1. executivedreamer Post author

      Tough issue, isn’t it? My sense is that we should let ourselves feel a great deal of pride in the rebirth of Over-the-Rhine exactly as it is with all those gorgeous, talented young people living there now. But at the same time acknowledge we have failed (to date) as a community to improve opportunities for low income residents. 2 separate issues. It’s amazing what we accomplished with the built environment in OTR. Now let’s pull together to develop strategies to reduce the number of families living below the poverty line in Cincinnati. There’s really no choice, is there? Besides, I know those young people in the city center. And they care about everybody who lives in this city, not just themselves. They’re good people.


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