In April, as part of the Human Services Program of Leadership Cincinnati, the class was divided into 10 groups and fanned out to meet with people served by different agencies. One group visited with a Sister’s Circle in Winton Terrace supported by St. Vincent de Paul.

After their visit, several members of the class commented on the sense of isolation that exists in Winton Terrace. The complex of apartments and townhouses is seemingly hidden away in a valley north of Spring Grove Village and sandwiched between Winton Road and the old City Landfill, with only two points of entry and exit. The women have internalized a sense of isolation.

What these members of Leadership Cincinnati experienced was a slice of the rich, but complex, history of low-income housing in Cincinnati.

When Ohio voters sent Robert A. Taft to the U.S. Senate in 1938, he quickly emerged as the leading voice of conservative opposition to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. He not only attacked specific programs, but he also vehemently criticized deficit spending, high farm subsidies and labor policies that he thought tilted unfairly in favor of unions as dangerous steps towards socialism. On the other hand, Taft supported publicly funded low-income housing.

In 1949 Sen. Taft joined forces with liberal New York Democrat Robert Wagner and Louisiana’s Allen Ellender to sponsor a major housing bill.

Taft argued that slum housing was a “deterrent to the development of sound citizenry,” and laid the groundwork for the spread of socialism. Federally funded quality housing for the poor gave, on the other hand, “all children the opportunity to get a start in life.”

Why did Taft break his anti-New Deal stance on the question of public housing? It is plausible to argue that Taft’s support was a product of the senator’s experience in Cincinnati and the example set by Jacob Schmidlapp.

Schmidlapp built his fortune as a distiller, the founder of the Union Savings Bank, and as an investor. He adopted Andrew Carnegie’s belief that a person should give away their wealth during their lifetime.

While serving as a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s Committee on Industrial Welfare and Housing and a trustee of the McCall Colored Industrial School, Schmidlapp became particularly concerned about housing for poor blacks, a concern that was rarely a priority for other reformers. In 1911, he began by building 96 units in Walnut Hills, Oakley, Avondale and Norwood designed to bring worker housing closer to the new factories and growing number of manufacturing jobs.

Recognizing he could only accomplish a limited amount on his own, Schmidlapp sought partners using the philosophy of “philanthropy plus 5 percent.” He knew wealthy investors expected at least a modest return on their funds.

In 1914, Schmidlapp formed Cincinnati Model Homes Company, which developed 402 units in Washington Terrace (Interstate 71 now cuts through the center of this development just north of Taft Road). More than a collection of houses, Washington Terrace was the first example in the region of a housing development grounded in a community vision. “The very grouping of our houses suggests a community life and a community interest,” Schmidlapp commented. Washington Terrace offered a cooperative store, community gardens, recreational facilities and an assembly hall. The Company created community clubs for both men and women and expected all of the tenants to join a club, with the hope that residents would learn the principles of participatory democracy.

When the Great Depression undermined private development of low-income housing, the federal government stepped into the gulf. Local planners insisted that federally funded public housing focus not only on structures and architecture, but also be attentive to the development of community.

When Robert Taft co-sponsored the 1949 federal public housing bill, he was not only voting for better housing in the narrow physical/architectural sense, but for a vision of community housing that held out the promise of making low-income Americans better citizens.

The problem was that over time, real estate and other interests insisted that public housing be built only on sites in which commercial developers had no interest—what were called “waste spaces.” It is that counterweight that largely explains why neighborhoods like Winton Terrace are so isolated, and have become destructive of healthy community building.

Taft’s leadership on publicly funded low-income housing came with a significant price tag. Some Republicans complained that “Mr. Republican” was “becoming a socialist.” But Taft persevered.

When Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy published Profiles in Courage in 1955, he included a chapter on Robert Taft. Kennedy cited Taft’s commitment to stand on principle on public housing even when it was politically inconvenient and undermined his chances of being nominated for president in 1952.

Dan Hurley is an historian and the Director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.