If not for an offer by the Hamilton Community Foundation to help pay off student loans for recent college graduates who move into Hamilton’s core, Nick Brehm probably would never have considered living in the city.
But Brehm, who enjoys things like craft breweries, food trucks, music venues and quality architecture, has been living in Hamilton since April, in an apartment he says he could never afford in trendy Cincinnati places like downtown and Clifton.
Brehm, 32, grew up locally and attended Lakota East High School, but Hamilton wasn’t on his list of places to live.
“My only association with it then was I had a couple of friends who had lived there that I knew in high school, and they didn’t paint a terribly positive picture of the area, if I’m being completely honest,” he said.
But a colleague where he works, who lives in Seven Mile and used to live in Hamilton, told him about the loan payoff program and encouraged him to consider the city. He is carrying about $75,000 in student-loan debt.
Brehm attended the University of Cincinnati, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in neuroscience (2013) and clinical psychology (2014). He then earned a master’s there in human resources and business administration in 2015.
Brehm is the practice manager and human resources director at Liberty Veterinary Hospital on Yankee Road in Liberty Twp., which celebrated its 20th anniversary in October. He has worked there almost constantly since age 15, when he was a kennel assistant. He likes that the commute there from Hamilton is about half as long as if he lived in Mount Healthy and Clifton.
The Hamilton Community Foundation announced plans for the scholarship program in early 2018 and launched the program in March. To qualify, people must have graduated within the past seven years from college with a STEAM program, meaning either Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts or Mathematics. They also must have at least $5,000 in outstanding student debt.
So far, 62 have started the process of applying. Three have been awarded the “reverse scholarships” — Brehm, a teacher for Hamilton City Schools, and an employee of the Liferay software company in Hamilton. One of the others lives in the new Marcum Apartments, the other in the downtown Mercantile Lofts residences.
Recipients must move into Hamilton’s urban core, which includes the specific neighborhoods of Downtown/Central Business District, Riverview, German Village, Dayton Lane or Rossville. They also must demonstrate employment within Butler County.
People who move in from other parts of Butler County — or even elsewhere in the city of Hamilton — can qualify for the program, which pays off $200 per month over 25 months.
“You can live on the West Side of Hamilton and move to the core,” said Katie Braswell, vice president of the Hamilton Community Foundation. “We’re wanting people to move to the core.”
To apply for scholarships, complete an online application at www.hamiltonfoundation.org/scholarship.
Brehm, who lives in the historic Dayton Lane neighborhood, says the help with loans has been “humongous.”
The debt “is a major point of anxiety, particularly when you parse it out, that’s the better part of a home,” he said. “I’m renting an apartment instead of being a homeowner because I chose to get a higher education and attempt to better myself.”
Brehm, who wears about a foot-long, well-groomed dark beard, is delighted by the architecture of the former mansions and churches of the Dayton Lane neighborhood.
“I’ve got a couple of very nice churches right around me, so if I’m lucky and I sit out on the patio at the right time, I hear the organ music piping in from the old churches,” he said.
He also likes that he lives in an area without cookie-cutter subdivisions or “McMansions.”
“I stumbled upon one of the older historic mansions that his since been turned into a duplex,” he said. “I get a floor all to myself — hardwood floors, vaulted ceilings, gorgeous place. It’s been really nice.”
“I do not feel it would have been possible to have found the kind of space, in the kind of building, in the kind of atmosphere that I have in Hamilton, in Cincinnati, for something I would have been able to afford.”
He enjoys having friends visit the apartment and Hamilton — especially people who haven’t been in the city for many years, he said. He also enjoys things like Hamilton’s Independence Day parade for its small-town feel, and the city’s various festivals.
“It’s nice to be able to show off the area, particularly some of my friends who have associations with the area that might be a little bit less favorable, from 20-30 years ago.”
He thoroughly enjoys Hamilton’s RiversEdge amphitheater downtown, which he calls a mini-Riverbend where almost all shows are free.
“The last event that we went to there, we got a little group of us together, walked from my place to Municipal Brew Works, had a drink and got some street tacos, and walked over to RiversEdge, and had a really nice evening of it,” he said.
Braswell said many cities across the country have called her, investigating ways to create similar programs. Hamilton’s program, based on one in St. Clair County, Mich., started with $50,000 for the scholarship program that has grown to $55,000, thanks to another donor. Other donations are welcome and may be made through the www.hamiltonfoundation.org site. Braswell ultimately would like to raise the $5,000 in loan repayments to $10,000, she said.
The idea for the loan payments was sparked by the idea of luring young professionals to the urban core, Braswell said.
People have applied with anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 in debt, said Braswell.
Americans as of 2017 carried about $1.4 trillion in debt, with Ohio ranking third-highest in loan indebtedness.
Mayor Pat Moeller is pleased with the program.
“The whole idea of helping people pay off their student loans, I think it’s a great idea,” Moeller said. “The fact that we are thinking so much out of the box, of ‘How can we help people come to our city, see what we have?’ and also get some kind of benefit through the reverse-scholarships.”
Braswell said it was a natural progression from one of the other thing the foundation does: providing scholarships for preschool through adults who are going back to college.
The foundation is working with Miami University to publicize the program with its students and alumni.
Brehm is grateful his friend mentioned the Hamilton program.
“I feel very fortunate, very graced, very blessed that that opportunity was afforded me to give the area a second look, because I’ve not just grown accustomed to it, but I enjoy it — I like what’s there to offer. I like the random encounters you have with people on the street.”
“There’s always somebody with something going on, if you take the time to take a look,” he said. “In Hamilton now, you only have to be as bored as you choose to be.”
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