A Property Assessment Survey and the Future of Cleveland's Battered Housing Stock

Demolition derby

A Property Assessment Survey and the Future of Cleveland's Battered Housing Stock

Right now, as you leaf through this edition over coffee or your morning RTA commute, 16 contract employees in orange shirts are taking inventory of every parcel of land in Cleveland. All 159,000 of them. They are the foot soldiers in an ongoing housing-crisis war. The war's opposing sides: People vs. Blight.

The latest stealth tactic from the People's high command involves getting to know the enemy. More specifically, it involves a data-driven, geographic information system (GIS) survey lately undertaken by the Thriving Communities Institute, the urban branch of the rural-exurban Western Reserve Land Conservancy, the war's local vanguard and stumping financier.  The goal of the survey is to accumulate current, comprehensive data. Command wants a visually assessed, letter-graded account of Cleveland's housing stock, its vacant lots and its commercial and industrial properties.  They want to know where to attack.

The 16 orange-shirted foot soldiers are a demographically motley crew.  They've been contracted by TCI and serve under the daily management of Adrian Maldonado, of Adrian Maldonado & Associates, a "diverse services company." They hoof it eight hours per day in two-person teams along and athwart back-, side- and main streets, entering basic visual info about every lot they pass into a GIS database. (Is there a "For Sale / For Rent" sign in the yard? Y/N.  Is the roof collapsing? Y/N. Are the windows boarded up? Y/N.)  

That database is uniquely tailored from the GIS gold-standard software ESRI and monitored at intervals by TCI's GIS and conservation planning specialist Paul Boehnlein.

The per-person per-day survey goal is 150 properties.   

It should go without saying that the foot soldiers' footwear is extremely sporty.

As of late June, which it now is, the foot soldiers are edging up on 25-percent coverage, having swept through Collinwood and the city's far northeast, combing through Glenville and then moving west and south toward downtown and the industrial valley.

Their temporary HQ is the Famicos Foundation, a Glenville CDC housed in the gothically significant former Lulu Diehl School on Ansel Road. It's where the foot soldiers meet every morning to discuss routes and suss out issues and where they reconvene every afternoon to gauge progress.

This morning, June 23, the talk is all tech glitches. Gesturing with their mobile devices, worn around their necks on black Lifeproof-brand lanyards, the foot soldiers try to explain to P. Boehnlein why their numbers are slightly down:  

The signals are flaky.

The iPads get really hot when the battery is low.

The signals are fickle. (This vocab courtesy of Adrian Maldonado himself, who occasionally interjects or rephrases remarks from his team.)

When you zoom out, you can't see the parcel lines.

Sometimes there are multiple properties per parcel.

But when you zoom in you can't see the precinct lines.

Sometimes there are families on the porch.

Sometimes the street names are improperly labeled on the app.

The app won't let you delete a photo.

What the signals are, really, is finnicky.

Boehnlein (BAYN-line) is outfitted in a black polo and olive green pants in some sort of really comfortable-looking tech material. He's at the front of the basement room, a room typically used for tax-preparation assistance, and he's fielding questions with tremendous poise — an even-keeled lieutenant for the People, if ever there was one.

What he's stressing to the foot soldiers (who, in their blaring orange "CLEVELAND PROPERTY SURVEY" tees, can't do much to ward off inmate associations) is that a photo is critical.

"Especially with the vacant and distressed properties," Boehnlein says. "It's really important to validate the data. For those, we need to be really careful and make sure we're getting that photograph."

Boehnlein seldom shortens "application" to "app" as he walks the foot soldiers through the process of saving photos to their devices' camera roll and then properly labeling them. He suggests exporting the photos to ESRI back at Famicos, using the stronger local Wi-Fi.

"To a certain extent, you just need to be patient with the technology," Boehnlein says, after Maldonado waxes tragic on the pitilessness of Wi-Fi towers and the limitations of bandwidth in general.

The past few days, mostly because of the glitches indexed above, the survey team has been averaging about 2,000 parcels per day (a tad off the ideal 2,400 per day pace), but Boehnlein says he's nonetheless really happy with the progress they're all making.  

Back at the People's tactical base, (TCI offices on the corner of Lorain and West 25th), Jim Rokakis apprises Scene of the relevant wartime financials.

"This is going to be a loss, I fear," Rokakis says. Rokakis is, of course, the former city councilman and county treasurer who now, at 60, serves as the director of TCI and VP of the Land Conservancy. "We've known all along that there were going to be some projects where we had to rely on the philanthropy of others or of the Conservancy itself.  We haven't raised 200 grand."

Two-hundred grand is the projected cost, and even after a "big grant" from the Cleveland Foundation, and $20,000 from City Council (specifically, casino revenue funds designated for Tony Brancatelli's Ward 12 and Kevin Kelley's Ward 13) — in large part, according to Rokakis, because city legislators wanted commercial and industrial properties surveyed alongside residential ones — some expenses remain. WRLC is paying the balance out of its own pocket.

Why? Because obtaining current, survey-based housing data is important to TCI, which has helped set up land banks in counties all over Ohio. That's become, shall we say, the organization's bread and butter, even though the land conservancy's 17-county footprint is technically only in the northeastern part of the state.

Paul Boehnlein, for instance, is down in Dayton during the last week in June setting up a concurrent GIS survey there. (He tells Scene he'll be as responsive as he can be to the Cleveland team by phone and email.) TCI has already conducted surveys for the cities of Akron, Oberlin, East Cleveland and parts of southeast Cleveland through a grant from the St. Luke's Foundation.

"And we have interest in getting this done in Columbus," says Rokakis. "We want to build a database that can be statewide, to give us a sense of just how serious the problem is. Part of why we do a lot of this is the fact that cities are broke. They can't do it. They don't have the money."

Rokakis means that cities don't have the money to act on survey results, i.e., they don't have the money for demolition, to stick it to Blight in a way that might turn the tide of the conflict.

Lieutenant P. Boehnlein is very careful to say that the survey, which grades properties on a traditional A-to-F scale, isn't recommending demolitions. (It's not as if all the vacant Ds and Fs will be flagged). It's purely observational. It's recon.

But Jim Rokakis isn't shy about stating his ultimate goals. In addition to fathering Ohio's land bank movement, he has also long campaigned for demolition-as-neighborhood-revitalization, and he's got persuasive stats. TCI has produced a report that shows a direct correlation between demolition and home values —Rokakis is fond of demonstrating the graphic relationship with his arms — and another report, "The Cost of Vacancy: Everybody Pays," which points out that as urban and inner-ring suburban home values go down, a greater tax burden must be shouldered by homeowners in the outer rings.

He uses those reports to mobilize support for demolition dollars. And if demos are your thing, Rokakis has done a bang-up job. Through lobbying and hardcore advocacy, he's managed to secure funding from three primary sources.

1) State attorney general Mike DeWine: After receiving $93 million from a massive national robo-signing settlement with five banks, DeWine allocated $75 million for demolitions. That $75 million leveraged an additional $47 million, Rokakis says. And though that pot has dried up, it was responsible for the demo of 14,500 properties statewide.

2) The "Hardest Hit Fund": Moneys from this special U.S. Treasury Department pool were intended to be disbursed by state agencies to fight and fend off foreclosure. (The housing-crisis war's most treacherous salient was Northeast Ohio, but it's a nationwide fight, make no mistake.) Rokakis produced a study, which itself cost $140,000, and which was shared with the White House at its request, to prove that when demolitions go up, foreclosures go down. Evidence thus provided, the funds were made available for demo. A total of $66 million was distributed by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA) to Ohio counties in which land banks had already been established. The thinking there was that land banks were the most effective vehicle for fund disbursement at the county level.

3) Cuyahoga County itself: Though Rokakis professes not to have much of a relationship with former county executive Ed FitzGerald, he met with FitzGerald's staff to sound the alarm. At the 2014 State of the County address, FitzGerald announced that he'd be providing $50 million for demolition countywide, of which $13 million has already been made available.

"But it's not enough," Rokakis says. "It's not close."  

To the natural question, "Why is so much money required?" recall, first off, that the problem is enormous. Recall that Cleveland was the proverbial "ground zero" of the foreclosure crisis, a crisis during which thousands of residents abandoned homes they couldn't pay for. It remains an important sphere in the nation's housing-crisis war.

Vacant structures — and Rokakis isn't the only one preaching this gospel — are magnets for crime. A policy paper on land banks published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland in January 2009 claimed that fires in vacant structures cause millions of dollars in damage every year. But even more importantly, vacant properties signal the decline of a neighborhood; they "undermine a neighborhood's sense of community and discourage further investment."

Frank Jackson has already demolished 8,000 properties in Cleveland since he took office in 2005, according to Ron O'Leary, the city's director of building and housing.  The cost per demolished property? Roughly $10,000.

At least 8,000 distressed properties remain.  

"Distressed" though, as Scene was somewhat surprised to learn, isn't just a municipal euphemism for "to be demolished."

"It's more of a non-technical term," O'Leary says, "meaning it has some significant deterioration."  

The goal of the current recon survey, then, is to get more specific, actionable intel. The city conducted housing surveys in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, but Ron O'Leary says those surveys didn't employ an A-to-F grading scale. Rather, they focused mostly on whether a property was vacant or occupied and whether it was "distressed or non-distressed."

"That's one of the strengths of this type of survey," O'Leary says. "Thriving Communities is going to be doing quality control. It's basically a blind evaluation, where they can pull samples from all over the city and say, 'Do I agree that this is an A or a B or a D?'"

Frank Ford, WRLC' s senior policy adviser and chair of its Vacant and Abandoned Property Action Council (VAPAC) says that a survey like this one additionally helps lobbying organizations such as theirs quantify their needs, especially as beaucoup dollars from bank settlements in 2013 and 2014 are being made available to land banks.  

"Without the survey we can only estimate that there are about 8,000 structures in Cleveland that will require demolition, and probably another 2,000 in the balance of the county," Ford writes Scene in an email. "All-in that's a $100 million problem.  The survey will help convert the Cleveland estimate of 8,000 into a more concrete and reliable number."

But what if it's more like 14,000, Rokakis asks Scene rhetorically, and then answers.

"Then it's a $140 million problem."

For some statistical perspective: Among the 13,000 parcels within the surveyed portions of the Mount Pleasant and Buckeye neighborhoods, about 1,100 "need to come down," in Rokakis' view. In Akron, for comparison, of the 97,000 properties citywide, only about 700 require demolition.

On this particular battleground, though, not every commander agrees on tactics. City councilman Jeff Johnson, a warrior against Blight if ever there was one, says that every vacant property doesn't need to be demolished — in fact, that's ludicrous.  

 "This is one of the fundamental philosophical differences between Jim Rokakis and me: his definition of blight," says Johnson from his Glenville ward office. "It's irritating that he lumps everything together. An empty house is not necessarily blight. An empty house is an empty house. The question, ultimately, should be 'What is in the best interest of that neighborhood?'"

Johnson, along with councilman Zack Reed, have been Rokakis' most vocal opponents on City Council. And it's true that Rokakis tends to use "removing blight" and "demolishing houses" interchangeably. Johnson served with Rokakis on council back in the '80s and says he knows "Jimmy" is passionate about housing, as is he; they just have serious differences of opinion on how to tackle the problem.

"They always point to the impact on the values of surrounding homes," Johnson says. "They did a study to argue that point, that a demolished home improves the value of the surrounding homes. (Referenced supra). But a rehabbed home does more for a neighbor than a vacant lot with a garden."

Rokakis argues that it costs much more money to rehab a house than it does to demolish one — this is true, and Johnson doesn't argue that point — and that, right now, the ratio in Cleveland for homes that should be demolished vs. rehabbed is about 3 to 1.  

"That's really the proportion until we stabilize," says Rokakis. "And it's market driven."

Johnson counters that the market-driven approach makes him question his former colleague's empathy for minority communities who are disproportionately affected, a charge Rokakis would vigorously dispute.

"Underpinning his philosophy," Johnson says, "is this belief that ain't nobody coming back to this city.  They're gone and not coming back. And there's some truth to that, but there is not a true, sincere, holistic approach to housing in this region."

Johnson says that Rokakis' efforts with TCI and the County Land Bank have created an imbalance in how we manage our response to the housing crisis.

"The analysis should be different on streets with only one or two vacant homes than streets with 10. It's like a tooth missing in a smile," he says. "Unless it reaches the point where the roof has fallen in, you mothball it, you cut the grass, you stabilize it, you clean it up, and you watch it while you seek investors. Then when you rehab the house, it brings back the smile.  

"We need scalpels and we need money," Johnson continues. "I need his power and his relationships to make that argument. There needs to be a pool of rehab money so we can go in with our scalpels and surgically improve streets and neighborhoods. In other areas, we may need a meat cleaver, sure. But that discussion hasn't happened at the Land Bank. They believe that if a house is on their books too long, it has to go."

Johnson says he's supportive of the property survey in principal, but again, wishes there was a rehab component of the post-study process.

"When it comes to the ultimate interests of different neighborhoods, it might be to remove, rehab, or hold houses. It's a toolbox," Johnson says. "Jimmy's got one tool in his toolbox and he goes to raise money for that one tool. And that tool is: If there's an empty house, tear it down."

Regarding imminent strategy, Rokakis says that once the survey is complete, he'll present findings to Cleveland City Council, and the information will be overlaid with Cleveland's health and crime data and subjected to "multiple reports and analysis."  

"We hope to prove that wide-scale vacancy not only affects property values but makes neighborhoods less safe and has adverse impacts on the health of people who live in that community," says Rokakis. "Our goal is to make another run at unspent TARP funds [from which the Hardest Hit Fund is drawn] in Washington as well as looking to the state of Ohio for help."

Another significant challenge — and perhaps the most significant, once the bloodiest battles have been fought — will be finding ways to inject life into housing markets on Cleveland's east side. One unfortunate piece of data in TCI's report on demolition and home values is that a demolition of a vacant, distressed property in stable neighborhoods has a positive impact. In slightly less stable neighborhoods, the impact is smaller.

"And then the bottom falls out," says Rokakis. "In much of the east side, if your house was worth $10,000 before the houses around you were demo'd, it's still only worth $10,000. I think the markets have been virtually destroyed there."

Out in Little Italy, in the Mayfield Road voting precinct which foot soldiers Kyle Wilson and Bart Lydic are tasked with surveying today, the properties are in pretty decent shape. But as with almost any street in town, there are signs of deterioration if you've got your eye out for them.

"Look at that property right behind you," says Lydic, on East 125th Street, off Mayfield. "The porches are damaged, obviously, but they've got flowers in their front yard, they've got a little spinner in the yard. People are doing what they can. The perception in the media is that people in Cleveland are sitting on their hands, stuck here, and that's just not the truth."

That's the biggest message that Wilson and Lydic have received while walking the city's streets: People are struggling and they're doing everything in their power to make the most of a bad situation. Lydic says that when people are outside, the most common misperception is that the orange shirts have arrived to cite homes for code violations.

"And we say no, we're with the Cleveland Property Survey. We're here to get an accurate count of how many properties need to come down." (It's noted by this war correspondent that the foot soldiers have embraced, and indeed promulgate, the demolition-first philosophy of TCI.) "And the first thing people do is start pointing. That one needs to come down, that one needs to come down. The one around the corner needs to come down."

Kyle Wilson says that it's been eye-opening. Having grown up in Cleveland, near Shaker Square, he says he cares deeply about this issue because he's seen "the good, the bad and the ugly" of Cleveland's housing crisis.  He says that for this job, he finds himself walking down streets he's always known but never experienced in such detail, and that it's giving him a broader perspective.

"I got into this because I'm passionate about seeing these communities thrive," the 30-year-old Wilson says. "Truth be told, this is probably the first initiative I've run into where I actually have pride in my job. You're getting paid to work toward something better in the community. I wish there were a lot more jobs like that. A lot of them will blow smoke up your behind: They say it's about this or they're doing that, and then three weeks later you realize what the real issue is. This is the first job where what they said at the beginning is actually what it has been through the entire program."   

Lydic, who used to work in mortgages, says he feels similarly and has gained even more compassion for the people he considers victims of the foreclosure crisis: those left behind.

"You can't make a $15,000 home repair on $500 a month." he says. "But it's not like people aren't trying."

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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