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

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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."

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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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