Unpleasant Meadows 

A development battle exposes the racial divide in Cuyahoga Falls -- where today's ally is tomorrow's enemy.

They call it Caucasian Falls.

No one knows exactly how the name arose, but no one seems offended by it either. It is, after all, a white town. Former Mayor Bob Quirk taught in the Cuyahoga Falls schools for years and never had a black student.

Today, the city is about the size of Lakewood, and just as white, with fewer than 1,000 black residents. But while Lakewood's whiteness seems benign, Akronites have long viewed Cuyahoga Falls much as Clevelanders do Parma. Blacks used to joke that driving through Cuyahoga Falls meant automatically being pulled over. When a black friend asked how he could help Quirk's campaign, Quirk had a ready quip: "Campaign for my opponent!"

Mark Anderson understands the sentiment. In April, Anderson was relaxing at home when a Cuyahoga Falls policeman saw an open door and burst in, believing something was amiss. The cop interrogated him aggressively, refusing to leave until Anderson pulled out his badge, says attorney John Scanlon. Anderson just happens to be black -- and a Summit County Sheriff's deputy.

When Anderson called the city to discuss the incident, Scanlon says, he was ignored. So he filed suit, alleging false imprisonment triggered by racism.

Tellingly, Cuyahoga Falls sought to move the suit to federal court. "We think they're looking for a jury pool from a larger area, so they can find people who don't have preconceived notions about the city," Scanlon says. "Hey, I was born and raised in west Akron. I've heard about Cuyahoga Falls all my life."

Former state Representative Wayne Jones, a lifelong resident, shares that perspective. The city's racism is nothing overt, he says, but "you don't need to come out and say it. People know. There are certain buzzwords. They know how to use them."

Jones recalls how his 1997 mayoral bid was sabotaged by a whisper campaign indicating that -- horror of horrors -- he wanted to integrate the city. "I couldn't tell you the things my kids were called," Jones says, wincing. "N-- lover, things like that."

Jones has since left politics. "I'll never put my family through that kind of attack," he says.

The Buckeye Community Hope Foundation knew none of this when it chose to build a low-income apartment complex in Cuyahoga Falls. It was the Columbus non-profit's first foray into Greater Cleveland, and it was still fairly new to the housing game. "We didn't know about Cuyahoga Falls," says Executive Director Gil Barno. "We didn't know it had been 'Caucasian Falls' for generations."

Buckeye's education would be brutal.

It all started in 1995, with six wooded acres and a $300,000 mortgage. The land was tucked into the part of Cuyahoga Falls still known as Northampton, named for the township that once held it. While Cuyahoga Falls is suburban at its core, Northampton feels rural, with twisting two-lane roads and farmhouses.

At the time, Buckeye was just finding its niche in Ohio's tax-credit housing program. The state issues tax-free bonds, which developers sell to investors to cover construction costs. In exchange, developers agree to restrict their complexes to people who earn less than the county's median income.

Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Robart didn't seem concerned when Buckeye President Steve Boone sent him details of his plan to build a 72-unit complex called Pleasant Meadows. When Boone called Robart to see if his package arrived, the mayor seemed nice enough. So Buckeye charged ahead. In November 1995, it secured a loan with National City Bank; in January, Ohio awarded the project $3.1 million in tax credits. (Robart did not return repeated calls for comment.)

The city's planning director recommended approval, but Councilman George Potts began distributing fliers around Northampton, advising residents of upcoming hearings on the project, which, to his understanding, would be developed with "federal funding."

Potts may have been off on the details, but his flier seemed to announce, in Caucasian Falls code, something Robart apparently missed: The tenants wouldn't be wealthy, and not all of them would be white.

That changed everything. On any given day, someone in some suburb is fighting a development. No one wants to see his home investment erode, or his little piece of paradise invaded by newcomers. But public housing is a different battle entirely. To a certain brand of suburbanite, it means "black." And in Caucasian Falls, black ain't pretty.

Akron's biggest neighbor is a mix of affluent commuters and blue-collar workers who are born here, stay here, and polish traditional prejudices like family heirlooms.

They packed the city's hearing for Pleasant Meadows. "We walked into a hornet's nest, in terms of the room was full of people who did not want our development," Boone would later recall in court. "And it was pretty -- it got pretty ugly at times."

The buzzwords Jones cites were in full supply, all recorded for posterity in council minutes:

"They know what kind of element is going to move in there."

"There will be a different class of people living there."

"This project is already being called Pleasant Ghetto . . . You know I do not want that in my community anymore. We already have enough of that."

"I do not see that our school system is correct for these children that would be there."

"When they get that boom box going, it will be loud."

"We have all read the police blotter. We all know the number of calls that come out of Prange Drive and some of the other places," said Mayor Robart, referring to a neighborhood with public housing and the city's only concentrated minority population.

"Lord knows that the social engineers back 20 or 25 years ago brought us busing. That was a wonderful project in Cleveland, wasn't it? We all know now that Cleveland has the worst school district probably in the country. We went down that road, didn't we?"

But Pleasant Meadows fit the zoning code. Planning commission members believed they had no other option, so they approved it.

The proposal went to city council. Again, the room was packed. Again, it was ugly. "They were spilling out into the hallway," Boone would later recall. "It was just a lot of -- anger would be a good word, and hatred."

At one point, a resident suggested throwing Boone out the window. ("I'm just fortunate we were on the first floor," he joked.)

Council delayed the vote for two meetings. Finally, at the third, members bit the bullet and gave Pleasant Meadows its approval.

They were less than effusive. "I would hate like hell to have to look you all in the eyes and vote yes for this project," said Councilman Sandy Rubino. "But unless I hear something to the contrary from the law department, I do not have any choice."

Yet Mayor Robart still wanted to play hardball, lawyers be damned. "The reason I recommend that we turn this down is because then the ball is in Mr. Boone's court," he said. "Will he sue? I do not know. A couple things we know. If he sues, guess what? We have got an in-house law department.

"Now I would doubt Mr. Boone has an on-staff law department to file a lawsuit. Which means what? He has to spend dollars. Well, if he has to spend dollars, he has to make a decision as to how long does he want to pursue this thing."

Residents took his words to heart. Soon after council's decision, a group gathered petitions, demanding a referendum to let voters decide Pleasant Meadows' fate. The city, in turn, halted all building permits.

So Buckeye sued, just as Robart predicted. What Robart didn't foresee: The nonprofit would find a lawyer willing to handle the case free of charge.

Buckeye didn't ask for a trial. It just asked Summit County Common Pleas Judge John Murphy to issue building permits. The facts: City council had approved the project, and citizens didn't have a right to challenge that.

Murphy, not surprisingly, refused to halt the referendum. Thwarting constituents' right to vote -- besides seeming downright un-American -- isn't good business for an elected official. And the law was also murkier than Buckeye wanted to admit.

Indeed, the appeals court, which Buckeye petitioned immediately after Murphy's decision, didn't buy its argument either. In December 1996, one month after voters rejected Pleasant Meadows by a large majority, appellate judges ruled the petitions legal. The vote would stand.

Buckeye headed to the Ohio Supreme Court. At first, the justices issued a decision agreeing with the two lower courts, but at Buckeye's request, they reexamined their decision two months later. This time, Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton changed her mind.

Forcing voters to decide Buckeye's fate, Stratton wrote, was deferring "the minutiae of everyday administrative decision-making to the whim of the voter at the moment. The unpopular development, the disfavored contract with a school principal, the neighbor's new garage approval, or any other decision could be subject to voter disapproval if an angered voter was organized or well-funded enough."

That, she wrote, could be disastrous: "Chaos and instability could result."

Stratton's flip meant a 4-3 Buckeye victory. Cuyahoga Falls was forced to issue permits. Four years after buying the land, Buckeye finally started construction.

Pleasant Meadows was finished by 2000. The place proved neither scary nor remarkable -- just a block of two-story townhouses, brick on bottom, pale gray siding on top. But the conflict wasn't over.

Buckeye had filed a second lawsuit at the same time as the first, this one in federal court, seeking cash for the delay. Its argument was novel: Cuyahoga Falls' recalcitrance discriminated against the African Americans and families who would live in the complex, a violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The tactic was the brainchild of Diane Citrino, a senior attorney at Housing Advocates Inc. The nonprofit firm agreed to handle the case on a contingency basis. If Buckeye lost, the firm made nothing. If it won, the city would have to pay its legal fees.

It wasn't immediately clear if Citrino's strategy had legal merit. But the three-year delay had certainly hurt Buckeye. The foundation almost went bankrupt. "We had all our seed money tied up in this," Barno says. There was a mortgage to pay, but the land was generating no cash. "We were dead."

State financing rules were another problem; they forbid developers to receive new project money until past projects are complete. For three years, Buckeye couldn't recoup start-up costs, nor could it start other projects. And under the rules, the foundation had just two years to use or lose its bonds.

"They're a good developer, who's done good work throughout the state," says Rita Parise, a director at the Ohio Housing Finance Agency. "What happened was clearly an unintended consequence."

The agency would eventually make an exception, the so-called Buckeye Rule. If courts rule that a tax-credit project is stalled through no fault of its own, developers can get their original award without reentering the competitive process.

Buckeye received full financing after the Ohio Supreme Court's flip-flop, with $800,000 in added bonds to cover rising construction costs. Yet the company still thought Cuyahoga Falls should pay. "The city took them out of the pipeline for years," Citrino says. "This was their life. This is what they did, and they couldn't do it."

A U.S. District judge ruled against Buckeye without a trial, but a three-judge circuit court reversed the call in August, deciding Buckeye deserved a trial.

The judges homed in on comments made by residents at public meetings. Some, they acknowledged, could be referring to lower economic status. However, "These statements can just as easily be seen as expressions of racial bias against blacks, especially given the fact that racial stereotypes prevalent in our society associate blacks with crime, drugs, and lower-class status."

Cuyahoga Falls Law Director Virgil Arrington is confident he can prevail in court. But in his mind, the case could trigger a dark future of citizens' rights curtailed, free speech in tatters, and the end of democracy. So he fired off a Hail Mary appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court agrees to hear only a fraction of the petitions it receives, but the justices saw something in Arrington's plea. They accepted the case, which will be heard early next year.

Much is at stake, Citrino says. "For the whole greater Ohio community, affordable housing is a major problem. To stop something like that is a tragedy." Worst of all, she says, was the city's motivation: racism.

It's hard to find anyone who believes opposition to Pleasant Meadows wasn't based at least partly on prejudice.

That may be because the likely suspects are silent. Arrington has warned city council not to talk to the media. And petition gatherers, who long insisted their fight was about crime and property values, not race, no longer seem interested in discussing the matter.

But even Arrington doesn't defend the city's reputation. Instead, he opts to defend residents' right to be racist. "I hate to put it this way, but even bigots have a right to free speech," he says, shrugging.

Buckeye's argument rests on two things: racial code words, and the impact of the city's rejection on minorities and families.

Neither is a slam-dunk. Technically, it was citizens who made racist statements, not city officials, but Buckeye isn't suing residents. The developer's target is the city. All the city did was allow a vote to go forward -- a vote that never mentioned race.

Buckeye's view also implies that cities are responsible for the actions of their residents, says Arrington: "If the city can be held liable for one comment, the city has liability for one citizen expressing his right to free speech."

Yet Citrino argues that Robart was quietly involved in the referendum -- hand-in-glove trickery that allowed the city to keep officially clean while residents did the dirty work.

Robart's own words may be Citrino's best argument. In front of his constituents, he often postured as if he had done everything he could to derail the project -- and paid the price. As he reminded residents, "My council, they turned pale and ran, and I'm the only one hanging out there with a $50,000 lawsuit on my head."

His campaign tactics against Jones in 1997 didn't help. As a state rep, Jones co-sponsored a constitutional amendment allowing Ohio to sell bonds for affordable housing. It wasn't controversial; voters approved it by a quarter-million votes.

But weeks before the election, Robart plastered Cuyahoga Falls with brochures, the message clear even in its clumsiness: "How Did Wayne Jones Vote in Columbus for Helping Put More Low-Income Housing Projects in Cuyahoga Falls and Other Suburbs?"

Then came the follow-up phone calls. You know Wayne Jones supports low-income housing, don't you? Some listeners heard a more explicit message: It will bring minorities to Cuyahoga Falls.

"People said, 'If you vote for Wayne Jones, you'll let the coloreds in,'" says Lynn Clark, executive director of the Fair Housing Contact Service in Akron and a co-plaintiff with Buckeye.

Residents quietly told her the petitioners opposed Pleasant Meadows because they didn't want black neighbors, Clark says. "But they won't testify to that, because they have to live here."

It's been two years since Pleasant Meadows came to Cuyahoga Falls. Arrington says delicately that the complex "has not been without problems." Police reports indicate several domestic scuffles, but few reports of drugs or vandalism. Code enforcement officer Ted Williams received a complaint this summer about the grass being too high. That's about it. In other words, its problems seem no greater than most complexes of its size.

Neighbors who pushed the city's anti-Buckeye battle are now quiet. Petitioner Lee Minier did not return repeated calls. Other neighbors decline to talk. Even those living in the complex's shadow have little to say. Neighbor Timothy Lee claimed in 1996 that the complex would produce drugs, crime, and boom boxes. He's more conciliatory today.

"We're far enough away, it hasn't bothered us at all," he says.

What about drugs? Or noise? "Thank the Lord, we're far enough away. I wouldn't know."

Jim Menough, who lives across the street, has seen a problem or two. He mentions tall grass and kids skateboarding. Their manners leave something to be desired, and some nearby condo owners worry about finding buyers when the time to sell arrives.

"We really don't like them there," he admits. "Now, we don't get up every day and think about it first thing . . ."

Two distinct ironies have developed in the years since Pleasant Meadows opened. One is that neighbors don't find the place all that terrible. The other is that tenants do.

Allegations of racism, in fact, have shifted away from the city. They now target Buckeye.

Janet Hutchins, a feisty single mother who left a nursing job to get her master's degree at Case Western Reserve, thought she'd live in Pleasant Meadows while in school to save money.

Hutchins, who is black, didn't like what she'd heard about Cuyahoga Falls, and she wasn't too happy when a police officer followed her through the city to keep an eye on her. But her anger pales next to what she now feels for Buckeye.

The problems began with her chair, which she set in front of her house to watch her little girls play. In April, the chair disappeared. A neighbor said the apartment manager removed it.

Hutchins trotted over to the manager's office. According to the complaint she would later file, Hutchins was told that "You people need to be more responsible" and "I don't want you people to have chairs in front of your houses." The manager's husband then pushed Hutchins out the door; she ran home and called police. When she filed a complaint with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, she got an eviction notice -- a fact she refuses to chalk up to coincidence. (Hutchins never pressed charges, and the company later dropped the eviction.)

Since then, Hutchins has filed three additional complaints and encouraged neighbors to do the same. Eight others have done so, charging discrimination because they are disabled, because they are black, even because they are white. One white man, Joey Moore, claims an apartment manager called several black residents "niggers." Others claim they've been discriminated against for having children, a charge apparently triggered by management's attempt to ban skateboarding. Most focus on retaliation: After they filed their complaints, residents say, they received eviction notices.

In the city's fight with Buckeye, residents have turned against the developer. "They did things wrong, and they're not paying us anything," says Dennis Ryan, who has filed several complaints. "Why should the City of Cuyahoga Falls have to pay them anything?"

Hutchins's latest complaint is against Clark, the fair-housing director. She claims that Clark tried to dissuade her from filing a claim because of Buckeye's suit against the city. "She said, 'You don't want to see Cuyahoga Falls get away with this.' I was like 'Screw your case, what about me?'"

Hutchins chortles, then turns serious. "I know Cuyahoga Falls is prejudiced, but this company should not get a penny, because of how they treat people. What makes it right for you to sue someone when you're just as corrupt as the person you're suing?"

Vincent Curry, executive director of the Fair Housing Advocates Association in Akron, says Buckeye has a right to ban skateboarding. But retaliating against tenants who complain is illegal. It's also stupid.

"Instead of trying to suppress these complaints, they should know the residents have a right to file them, just like they have the right to go against Cuyahoga Falls," Curry says. "That's what they don't get."

Barno says the complaints are money-motivated. Buckeye gave a cash settlement to a wheelchair-bound resident who filed a complaint over accessibility last year. Since then, he says, everyone's been filing. "It's been my experience that low-income people are pretty good at playing the systems they come into contact with. This may be one of those cases."

When pressed for evidence, Barno defers to another staffer. Then he calls back shortly to decline all comment.

Citrino is none too worried. "Any 72-unit complex is going to have people who are unhappy. That goes with the territory."

Arrington is amused by the complaints. "People have said it's like the pot calling the kettle black," he admits. A Republican whose idea of an insult is calling his opponents "flaming liberals," he's pleased to be on the other end of racial allegations for once.

But none of this will matter when he reaches the Supreme Court. Each side gets 30 minutes for arguments; there's no time to mention what the residents think. "It's not going to make a difference," Arrington says. "If it ever got to trial, maybe then it could."

Nor will it matter that neighbors' fears proved to be unfounded. "This is a very intellectual argument," Citrino admits.

If it were up to the neighbors who started it, the suit would have ended long ago. And the people who live in Pleasant Meadows now, the ones who benefited from Buckeye's struggle, would like nothing more than to sabotage it.

Yet the politicians and lawyers are still going strong. Their eyes are on the principle, and that has little to do with these 72 apartments or even the money to be won or lost. It's about racism, free speech, and property rights. Political hay must be made. Affordable housing must be defended. The right precedent must be set.

Even Robart, who suggested dragging out the battle in 1996, couldn't have known the controversy would become this big. "He didn't realize how stubborn we could be when faced with an injustice," Barno says.

Unfortunately for Buckeye, the city still known as Caucasian Falls has proved itself pretty stubborn, too.


More by Sarah Fenske


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