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


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.