The Contradictions Embedded in East Cleveland

possible in Cleveland

Cleveland  In several meetings with community development and housing experts in Cleveland, they kept pointing us east. Not just to the east side of Cleveland which had historically housed the largest African-American communities in the city, but to the near suburb and separate city of East Cleveland, so with an organizer from ACORN Canada’s Ottawa office, we hit the doors for several hours while driving around the area to get the measure of the area.

According to census figures, East Cleveland is now about 94.5% African-American in a population that has dropped to less than 18,000 from almost 40,000 in 1970. The median household income is now $20,660 compared to almost $49,000 statewide in Ohio with a poverty rate over 42% compared to almost 16% statewide. The median home value is just shy of $37,000 with 65% renters and a general housing vacancy rate of over 37%. The school district regularly ranks as the lowest in the state of Ohio, and the city has been on the verge of bankruptcy for years, unable to pay police and fire personnel.

On the other hand it is hardly a mile from the expanding campus of Case Western University, museums, the botanical garden, and hospitals associated with the world-famous Cleveland Clinic. Part of the area was the Forest Hills estate of John D. Rockefeller who built the Standard Oil monopoly in Cleveland and lived here. Some of the houses and apartment complexes in the area are huge, both occupied and abandoned. There are case studies that argue that this contradiction was not just deindustrialization and white flight, but a more systematic result of governmental racial housing discrimination over years of the type brought to attention more recently in Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law.

The Thriving Communities Institute has made East Cleveland a poster child. A $100 million fund diverted from the state of Ohio’s foreclosure relief money was earmarked for demolitions, but excluded multi-family dwellings. They argue that a 20-acre tract is hopeless and should be cleared for development and housing. The Institute, which supports land banks, chafes at criticism that it is only about demolitions, and claims that they rehab one house for every three they take down.

Driving through East Cleveland and visiting with families there, it was easier to see the demolitions, and in fact when looking for dumpsters which are the markers for rehab, we saw none. But, visiting with families, ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign was impressed with the enthusiasm that families had for the area, and their commitment to owning their homes, even though they were now on land contracts. Of five families, we met four who were African-American, one white, and one Hispanic. They weren’t running. They were hunkering down. Their repair projects were serious, but the gains were palpable in the large two-story houses with basements that they were trying to make their own.

The economics are brutal though, because for homes that most were contracting to buy for $25,000 or so, the Institute’s back-of-the-envelope figures spitballed at me in various meetings meant that $20,000 in repairs might only increase the value by $5000 in the home on the general sales market, hardly moving the needle on tax revenues and not offering much in collateral for bank loans. In a scary way, this is almost an argument for land contracts to implement rehabilitation, but in another way, it is also an argument for government to step in to create the long term fix that it helped create and that short term capitalist calculations are continuing to enforce.

demo in Cleveland

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Buying, Rather than Building, Affordable Housing

demo3-460x250Ottawa   In one city after another we’re getting closer to winning landlord-leasing rules, some rent controls, and inclusionary zoning programs. But, even as victories come closer to hand, the scale of the need for affordable housing is overwhelming our capacity to deliver change. It is not that our eyes are bigger than our stomach anymore. Our stomachs are ravenous and are outstripping the vision we can see with our eyes.

Social Policy does a trade-out with Shelterforce, and I happened to have a recent copy in the stack of things I brought to read on the plane and started flipping through it over breakfast at Carleton University before the beginning of the ACORN Canada national board and annual general meetings. Some of the pieces were a bit out of my league. I wasn’t sure what to make of something called “trauma-informed community building” or TICB, as they proceeded to call it, but I knew I was uncomfortable having poverty medicalized, no matter how good the intentions

On the other hand there was a fascinating piece by Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and the National Housing Institute that looked at a different direction that the French had taken to developing affordable and mixed-income housing. They were buying it, rather than building it. Mallach discussed the disastrous and well-documented French housing policy in the 1970s when many projects were built on the outskirts of the city and went down from there. The good news, according to Mallach, is that the French learned something from the experience that might teach us something in the United States and Canada as well.

“Now, when French developers build subdivisions or condo projects, nonprofit housing corporations enter into turnkey contracts with the developer to buy blocs of apartments or houses, up to a maximum of 50 percent of the units in the development. Based on those contracts, the nonprofits apply for a package of government loans, grants, and tax breaks so they can both buy the units and make sure they remain affordable. When the projects are completed, the nonprofit buys the units and operates them as affordable rental housing.”

In transferring the French lessons to the USA, Mallach made a couple of comments that made sense in many cities. First, he noted that “most parts of the United States have large inventories of good-quality existing housing available.” If Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) funds could be utilized by nonprofit housing developers to buy blocks of these houses either from developers or on the market and convert and manage them as affordable housing, it would both save money, and immeasurably diversity communities, benefiting our families, and potentially serve as a bulwark against blight as well by keeping the housing maintained, viable, and affordable. He also made the case that private sector market developers can create reasonably good quality housing for a price point that is often significantly lower than nonprofit developers utilizing LIHTC monies. Maybe so? Maybe no? I haven’t really looked at that closely, but where I think he is absolutely right is that buying existing housing stock or buying into developments already in motion, drastically reduces the lead time and opportunity cost, meaning more affordable housing is developed now. And, now is when we need it!

This is worth a good look in a lot of places.

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Please enjoy Eric Clapton’s Alabama Woman Blues. Thanks to KABF.

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