No Room at the Inn

REV. SUSAN QUINN BRYAN walked into a meeting of the Friends of the Anna Louise Inn fully prepared for a room brimming with people. Instead, Bryan and the five other Presbyterian pastors she had brought with her doubled the meeting’s total attendance. Bryan was stupefied.

When she moved to Cincinnati in 2005 to pastor Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, several of her congregants had taken her to the Anna Louise Inn, claiming it as one of the things they loved most about the city. And yet, in its time of need, hardly anyone had come to the Inn’s rescue. It would take several minutes before an even more startling realization came to Bryan.

“As [people] began talking, I thought, ‘Where’s the church? How can the church stand silent while this is happening?’” she said. “So I organized a breakfast and just sent out emails to all the clergy I could find.”

About 25 Cincinnati faith leaders came to Bryan’s breakfast, and out of it emerged an ecumenical force, crossing denominational divides to rally behind one of Cincinnati’s most revered institutions.

THE BATTLE FOR the Anna Louise Inn began in 2007 after Cincinnati Union Bethel (CUB), the social service agency that operates the Inn, decided the Inn needed updated facilities.

The Anna Louise Inn has provided housing for single women since the turn of the 20th century, when women from rural areas began migrating to cities for work. In Cincinnati, single women faced rent discrimination from landlords who would charge them more for extra security and for the use of a bathroom apart from the one used by male tenants. Other housing was available, but it was usually in unsafe neighborhoods.

Cincinnati Union Bethel, which had been addressing urban issues in the Queen City since 1830, saw the need for safe and affordable housing for women and—with a donation of land from Charles P. Taft, President William Howard Taft’s son—opened the Anna Louise Inn in May 1909 in the neighborhood now known as Lytle Park. Named after Taft’s daughter, the new, five-story building provided housing for 120 women and was immediately at full occupancy.

Today, the Anna Louise Inn continues to provide affordable housing for single women, with monthly rent ranging from $60 to $72. Additionally, in 2006, CUB began Off the Streets, a rehabilitation program for prostitutes that offers housing, substance abuse counseling, and employment assistance.

Robin Howard, 55, moved into the Inn nearly three years ago after being evicted from her home, and she said being able to stay there has been a blessing. “It meant a lot to me—knowing that I didn’t have to worry,” she said. “I didn’t have insurance, but there’s a medicine van that comes who will see anyone. I can see the doctor and get my medicines without paying anything.”

Furthermore, Howard said the culture of the Inn helps the women emotionally. “You are never really alone. You have a lot of other women that you get close to,” she said. “It’s like a little support system.”

Currently, the Inn’s layout resembles that of a college dorm—each room is furnished with a bed, desk, dresser, and chair. Some rooms also contain a mini-fridge and an air conditioning unit, but the women share a dining space, and there are no private bathrooms. And although Howard said she loves her life at the Anna Louise Inn, she admitted the living situation can be difficult.

“It would be lovely to have privacy as far as the bathroom,” she told Sojourners. “And I’d like to be able to cook in my own kitchen. That would be a dream come true.”

Sought-after updates to the facility would give each woman her own apartment, complete with a kitchenette and a bathroom. CUB formed a board committee to examine the best possible way to make this happen—including the possibility of selling the Anna Louise Inn in order to buy a new building.

In 2007, the neighboring Western & Southern Financial Group wrote to CUB, expressing interest in buying the Inn. Although the Hamilton County auditor valued the property at $4 million, Cincinnati Union Bethel offered to sell for $3 million. Western & Southern counteroffered $1.8 million.

“When Western & Southern said they could do the $1.8 million, we were not upset or disappointed,” said Mary Carol Melton, CUB’s executive vice president. “We said that was fine, and that we would continue to explore our other options.” CUB continued negotiating with Western & Southern, but the company said it could not afford more than what it had offered. “We could never get even close to an amount of money that would make that feasible [for the sale] to happen,” Melton said.

Then, in 2010, CUB received $12.4 million in tax credits and a loan from Cincinnati’s Home Fund to remodel the existing building into apartment-style residences while maintaining its historic exterior.

But Western & Southern was not about to back down. The Fortune 500 company—which already owns luxury apartments and a hotel in the neighborhood—had already made plans to convert the Inn into high-end condos. The company began a smear campaign against the women of the Inn in an attempt to turn public opinion against the renovation project. In a letter to the city council, Mario San Marco, president of Eagle Realty Group, Western & Southern’s real estate arm, wrote: “The population to be housed at the ALI ... a shelter for homeless and prostitutes, would amount to approximately 50% of the total population of Lytle Park, effectively dooming prospects to transform Lytle Park into a revitalized ‘gas light’ destination.”

Additionally, according to CityBeat, a weekly Cincinnati newsmagazine, an employee of Realty Eagle Group, writing as a “concerned citizen,” told the Cincinnati police chief he had seen Inn residents doing drugs and performing sex acts in the park in front of the Inn—an allegation Melton flatly denies.

“When we were informed of it, our CEO wrote back to him personally, and said if he had any questions or concerns about the Anna Louise Inn, he would be very welcome to talk to us. And we never heard from him,” she said.

Meanwhile, Western & Southern upped its offer on the building to $3 million, but CUB refused. So just as renovations were to begin, Western & Southern sued CUB, citing zoning violations, which put a halt to construction work. The result has been two years of legal run-around while the Inn remains unrenovated.

In May 2012, a court found that some uses of the Inn meant that it was improperly zoned, and the case was remanded back to the city’s zoning process. CUB appealed the ruling, and in February the appeals court sent the case back to the trial court—concluding, in short, that parts of the initial ruling were valid while some were not.

“[Western & Southern] could have been heroes in this; that’s what so troubling,” Rev. Bryan said. “They have enough money that, early in this, they could have gone to CUB and said, ‘We have enough money to help you buy a new facility. We will be your patrons to make this happen.’ But they didn’t do that. And they are so close to the Taft family who modeled what wealthy people with a heart can do.”

And, indeed, it seems Western & Southern is using its billions to push its own agenda. Both Bryan and Melton believe Western & Southern’s strategy is to drag out a legal battle it knows it cannot win but that will deplete CUB’s resources, forcing them to sell the Anna Louise Inn for next to nothing. “They want to steal the Inn,” Bryan said.

BUT BRYAN AND the faith community are fighting back. In the last several years, this ad hoc faith coalition has tried to convince Western & Southern to “sow seeds of justice rather than seeds of oppression” by organizing prayer vigils at the courthouse and by writing letters to Western & Southern’s CEO, John Barrett.

Last July, the group staged a rally and live nativity in the park where Western & Southern sponsors its annual nativity scene, highlighting what they see as irony given that the company refuses to make room for the women of the Anna Louise Inn. The group has also held fundraisers to help cover CUB’s legal fees.

Sister Monica McGloin, a Dominican Sister of Hope who joined the movement at Bryan’s invitation, views the fight for the Anna Louise Inn as both an extension of her order’s values and as a more general Christian duty to fight the evils of excess and corporate greed. “What’s happening in general in society, this inequality, where some people have so much while some people are barely surviving, is just wrong,” she said. “And it’s inconsistent with the gospel, as far as I understand the gospel. When are we going to recognize that just because you have money, that doesn’t mean you know what’s best for everybody?”

For Rev. Nelson Pierce Jr., pastor of Beloved Community Church, the theological mandate to support the Anna Louise Inn is clear. “If you’ve heard the story of what’s happening to the Anna Louise Inn and know the story of King Ahab and Naboth, it’s clearly similar,” he said. “Any time we use our money and power for abuse, I believe that God has something to say about that.”

Additionally, Pierce believes Western & Southern’s actions demonstrate a societal tendency to devalue women. “The way they’ve gone about slandering the women, accusing them of prostitution in the park—that type of malicious slander, targeted toward women, is part of what’s broken in our society,” he said. “And we need our business leaders to be about making our society better and not about increasing the oppression and degradation of people in our country.”

The faith coalition recognizes it is a David fighting Goliath, but members are optimistic, if for no other reason than the interdenominational unity that has come as a result.

“One of the things this has done, it’s brought together people who ordinarily would not be working together on social justice,” said Bryan. “It’s started something profound in Cincinnati.”

Sister McGloin agrees. “I think more and more, we as church people are working together. And I think that’s a good sign,” she said. “We may have different beliefs, we may have different doctrines we adhere to, but when it comes down to it, everyone believes in justice.”
Dawn Araujo is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

Update: While the June issue of Sojourners was at the printer, Cincinnati Union Bethel announced they have agreed to sell the Anna Louise Inn to Western & Southern for $4 million. They plan to build a new facility in Cincinnati’s Mt. Auburn neighborhood. You can read their statement here.

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