Cleveland’s Dilemma: Rehab or Demo

Cleveland   Every month in Cleveland, the Vacant & Abandoned Property Action Council, convenes. All the seats around the giant meeting room of the Neighborhood Housing Services were filled with rows of chairs surrounding them, packed as well. Sandwiches and cookies were available, but this was not a group of people who were there for the lunch choices. This was a who’s who assemblage of people from the city, county, Federal Reserve, legal offices, community developers, neighborhood organizations, and nonprofits of all shapes and sizes who had an interest in what was happening to property in Cleveland from soup to nuts.

I was honored to be invited to talk about the ACORN Home Savers Campaign, because the group was discussing various proposals for action on land contracts at the local level in places like Youngstown as well as amendments for legislation proposed in Columbus to reform the existing laws. The “Bad Apples” Committee that was looking into rouge real estate operators had changed its name to the Investors Committee, and their work was exhaustive.

All of that was good stuff, but the most interesting pieces of the puzzle that were beginning to fall in place for me, as I listened to the back and forth in the meeting to the discussion, was the interchange between committee members and a member of the county council’s staff on the budget issues involving demolition funds for dilapidated housing. There was a $9 million dollar item, ostensibly for demolition on the 2019 budget line, but some the group wanted to know if that could be spent in 2018, and if so could they tap into another source lying in reserve if they exhausted that allocation. The spokesperson for the County, trying to navigate his way through the questions, assured them that the number was a placeholder and was a 2-year number for expenditure in both years, but was also clear that the council was increasingly looking at the issue, which meant feeling the pressure, to use a pile of the money for rehabilitation of houses as well.

Talking to organizers in the neighborhoods, this was an issue as well with them leaning increasingly towards rehab at this point. Reading the reports from the Thriving Communities Institute provided the background data became clearer for me. Of the existing vacant housing stock of more than 15,000 houses, recent reports by Frank Ford, their senior analyst, put the number that could be rehabbed at over 8000 with the other roughly 7000needing to be demolished. Other reports by the Institute made the case more dramatically that they believed that demolition was the first order of business in saving a neighborhood with rehab following behind, based on their analysis of what moved property values and tax revenues. Not to put too sharp a point on the debate, but their argument was protect the demo money for demo, and go raise other money for renovation. I should add, “if you can.”

Perhaps they are right on the numbers, but it’s easy to understand from the politicians perspective and the neighborhood-based organizations that are dealing with residents every day, asking them to wait to see progress on their own homes, where getting loans for rehab is almost impossible statistically, for some hope in the future by and by, while they watch – and wait – as more houses are reduced to rubble, creating more vacant lots, is not a winner unless some realistic balance is achieved ASAP.


Going House to House in Cleveland with the Western Reserve Thriving Communities Institute


Cleveland    When you sit down with Jim Rokakis, who directs the Thriving Communities Institute as part of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, and his chief lieutenants, Frank Ford, Senior Policy Adviser and numbers cruncher, and Special Project chief, Jay Westbrook, you realize there’s over a 100 years of experience in wrestling with the problems – and the potential – of rebuilding cities, in their case Cleveland and other communities in Ohio from the ground up, including the bare bones of houses and neighborhoods long neglected and misunderstood. Quickly, one realizes these are people who are veterans of the hammer and tong fights involved in city and state government as well as organizing among consumers and communities. It took us a while to stop telling old stories of comrades in arms and those now gone in order to get down to serious business.

And, the Thriving Communities Institute is serious business. Without pretending to have my arms around all of their operations, it is clear that starting from one small land bank operation they have have fostered the building of a network of land banks in Ohio first in the northeast and now in a majority of countries through the state. The land banks are as diverse as the communities where they are located, but in the urban areas of Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, and similar cities, where the heart beats the fastest when talking to Jim and his crew, is when they are talking about rebuilding neighborhoods in communities once you get past the gallows humor of comparing 76,000 vacant land bank properties in Detroit’s Wayne County to the “only” 26,000 or so in Cleveland.

The scope of their work is a template for many communities in other ways as well. Leaving they gave me one of the last copies of their data book, Cleveland Neighborhoods: By the Numbers, which I started reading after the ACORN Canada year end meetings drew to a close later that night. They had managed to finance and implement, with the help of the City of Cleveland and others, a massive property inventory of all 158,000 parcels in the city in 2015. I remember well the scale of the effort ACORN did with Professor Ken Reardon, then of Cornell, and many others and a small army of students of all of the properties in the 9th ward of New Orleans in order to make our “peoples’ plan for rebuilding New Orleans” after Katrina, so I know well what it takes to pull off and how essential it is in making the case and forcing change. In our case, it literally saved the lower 9th ward. In this case, it’s still a fight being waged.

To give an example of the value of this kind of work, take the case of “unoccupied structures,” which are often the bane of neighborhood existence and the rock in the road to revival. Thanks to their work, you can quickly determine that in 2015 of the 12,144 such structures almost 7500 are classified A to C, being there is either a great or a fair chance of total rehabilitation. In the F category, 1600 might end up demolished, but there is a fighting chance with vision, organizing, and of course resources for recovery.

This is the kind of road map that we need in every city in the country where neighborhoods are facing deterioration and abandonment, and the Thriving Communities Institute is creating a model worth close examination.

There’s a lot of be excited about in Cleveland.