Tuesday, June 04, 2002

Rich fringe belies a bit faded center

Census: Living on the edge is pretty good

By Ken Alltucker and John Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A decade of prosperity wasn't enough to lift the economic prospects of Hamilton County and Cincinnati residents, but suburbanites notched some of the best financial gains in three states, new Census data released Monday shows.

  Click here to see census statistics for Tristate counties and communities.
Butler County
Clermont County
Hamilton County
Warren County
Boone County
Campbell County
Kenton County
Dearborn County
        Cincinnati's income growth trailed the typical Ohio family's, and Hamilton County's gains lagged even more. The picture was rosier for Clermont, Warren and Butler County residents, who earned bigger paychecks, owned more expensive homes and drove more cars than the typical Cincinnati or Ohio resident.

        The Ohio data released Monday completes a detailed economic snapshot of 13-county Greater Cincinnati culled from the Census long form mailed to one in six U.S. households during the 2000 head count.

        What emerges is a metropolitan region that is home to two of Ohio's wealthiest communities, but also a central city where nearly one in three children lives in poverty. It shows growing numbers of suburbanites spending more of their take-home pay on mortgages.

        The nation's longest economic boom largely skipped the older suburbs hugging the city, where incomes barely kept pace with inflation and poverty jumped.

Tristate view - click to view infographic.
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Boom times in the Tristate - click to view infographic.
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        “You are seeing substantial growth outward that does not match the population growth,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune. “More important, we are seeing a lot of the wealth moving out of the urban core, which creates problems for the city and county.”

        Not all news for Cincinnati was bad. The city outperformed Hamilton County, Dayton and Toledo with median household income jumping an inflation-adjusted rate of 8.2 percent to $29,493; but it fell short of income gains achieved by Cleveland, Akron and Columbus.

        Hamilton County's income was up 7 percent to $40,964.

        Greater Cincinnati counties posted strong education gains, too. Nearly one in five Warren County residents age 25 or older has at least a four-year degree, the fourth highest rate in Ohio. Hamilton County (18.5 percent), Clermont County (14 percent) and Butler County (15.4 percent) also made gains in adults with at least a bachelor's degree.

        Income gains and sweeping policy changes in low-income housing combined to chip away at the city's poverty rate, which declined 2.4 percentage points to 21.9 percent. Many poor families now have the option of using portable rent vouchers to move from impoverished neighborhoods near downtown.

        More detailed Census figures on income and poverty for city neighborhoods won't be available until summer, so it's too early to tell how different sections of the city fared.

        Economists also warn that the data doesn't take into account the state's economic recession, which likely has eroded some income gains and inflated poverty rates.

        For instance, Ohio jobless claims have increased for 11 consecutive weeks, said George Zeller, senior researcher with the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland.

        The data clearly shows not all parts of Greater Cincinnati shared the boom times equally.

        From Butler County's cornfields has emerged Ohio's second-richest community, Wetherington — a location in West Chester Township that didn't exist in the last census and now is even more exclusive than the Village of Indian Hill, Greater Cincinnati's traditional measure of wealth and privilege.

        The '90s were a very good decade for the residents of Wetherington, who earned a median household income of $161,448. That was topped only by a Cuyahoga County suburb, Hunting Valley, whose residents fetched a $200,001 median income. Indian Hill ranked No. 4 in Ohio at $158,742.

        Wetherington was similar to many communities in Ohio and Kentucky that made great gains in the 1990s. Many of those communities were newer suburbs that accumulated home value, cars and income at a much faster rate than their peers.

        Tom Lutz, a retired steel company owner, moved to Wetherington in 1995 to take advantage of the community's luxurious housing, amenities and location just off Interstate 75.

        “I heard from my loan officer more than once that there were more entrepreneurs and new money in Wetherington than anywhere in the city,” Mr. Lutz said. “It's a bonding place, unlike any other neighborhood we've lived in.”

        The golf-and-country club community features white picket fencing, fountains, a private lake and a wrought-iron gate that keeps outsiders away.

        It wasn't the only neighborhood that grew measureably richer over the '90s. Communities such as Mason, Fairfield Township, Turtlecreek Township and Union joined this exclusive club with inflation-adjusted income gains of at least 20 percent to more than $59,000.

        All sprinted past Ohio's median household income gain of 9.9 percent to $40,956.

        A little further south along Interstate 75, several cities and villages developed more problems than answers in the 1990s.

        Communities such as North College Hill largely missed out on the good times. Incomes barely increased and housing values trailed newer suburbs. North College Hill's median household income, $37,776, inched up just 1.7 percent from 1990 when inflation is factored.

        People living in North College Hill and other suburbs hugging Cincinnati shared many characteristics — stagnant incomes and housing values, coupled with low education gains and rising poverty rates.

        Donna Hollis, who works at a dog grooming shop on Galbraith Road, North College Hill's main drag, said it seems fewer and fewer people are using her service.

        Dog grooming doesn't often top the list of critical household needs, she said, and those who scrimp to pay other bills often forego the service.

        “If money is short, the dog is the last one to get groomed,” Ms. Hollis said, stroking a gray poodle, Dutch. “That affects my paycheck.”

        During the '90s, two other competing dog groomers closed shop in North College Hill, Ms. Hollis said. That's good for her business, but it's also an indication that many residents are struggling to make ends meet.

        North College Hill bucked the statewide trend of declining poverty. Ohio's poverty rate — defined as a family of four earning $16,954 or less — dropped to 10.6 percent from 12.5 percent in 1990.

        In North College Hill, poverty climbed 2.8 percentage points to 8.7 percent. Springdale had the largest poverty jump among Greater Cincinnati cities, from 4 percent in 1990 to 8.9 percent in 2000. Other older suburbs with little income gain and rising poverty include Columbia Township, St. Bernard, Deer Park, Finneytown, Fort Mitchell and Greenhills.

        Many of these communities share a common bond of older, often deteriorating housing, dwindling tax bases and rising poverty. There's little available property to build new housing or land commercial office developments to bolster taxes.

        “The decline in neighborhoods is no longer a central-city phenomenon exclusively,” Mr. Zeller said.

        A group of 15 Hamilton County suburbs have formed the First Suburbs Consortium headed by Tom Moeller, city manager of Madeira.

        The group lobbied Mr. Portune and his colleagues to adopt a Cuyahoga County program offering low-interest, home-improvement loans to county residents. The program, which aims to keep wealthier residents in Hamilton County, starts this week.

        “The people who can afford to move out take income with them and it leaves a hole for people that can't afford to move,” Mr. Moeller said.

        Another emerging trend revealed by Census figures is the growing number of people spending more money on their mortgages. The number of families that are spending at least 35 percent of their income on mortgages and other household costs has doubled in booming communities such as Crescent Springs, Newtown, Southgate and Crestview Hills.

        Mary Hurlburt, of Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Greater Cincinnati, said many new homeowners take on larger mortgages than they can reasonably afford because they think they'll get steady wage increases.

        “We went through a time when things were so good, that we just assumed things would continue that way,” Ms. Hurlburt said.

        That hasn't been the case. The recession has stalled wage increases, leaving many homeowners in a difficult financial spot .

        Cincinnati and older suburbs have an even higher rate of stressed homeowners. The percentage of Cincinnati homeowners spending at least 35 percent of their incomes on their mortgages and household costs surged 7.1 percentage points to 16.6 percent. In Lincoln Heights, more than one in five homeowners spend at least 35 percent on their mortgage.

       E-mail kalltucker@enquirer.com and jbyczkowski@enquirer.com

        • Wetherington tops Indian Hill as richest community
        • German identity lower in census
        • Ohio improves in higher ed, income
        • Census Top 10 lists
        • PULFER: Wetherington

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