Maple Heights Mayor Annette Blackwell on the Successes and Struggles of One of the Region's Oldest Suburbs

click to enlarge Maple Heights Mayor Annette Blackwell on the Successes and Struggles of One of the Region's Oldest Suburbs
Photo by Emanuel Wallace

At the end of our 90-minute interview in her Maple Heights office, Mayor Annette Blackwell says there's one more thing she wants to show me. It's in council chambers.

The municipal building isn't large, so the walk takes less than a minute. She leads me through a row of green chairs and to the back wall where the photos of each Maple Heights mayor are hung.

Fifteen white men. One black woman.

It's a strong, visual symbol of the changes the community has undergone over the past few decades, and why representation at the top truly matters. The image speaks volumes, but Blackwell can sum it up in just a few words.

"Maple Heights has struggled because 'diversity and inclusion' have been elusive for a long time."

* * *

Maple Heights, like many inner-ring suburban communities, has undergone significant social, economic and demographic changes over the past several decades. The city was incorporated in 1915, and like many other communities that surround older, central cities, it was designed to be a residential escape from the so-called ills of urbanity ... and from the communities of color that were moving into Cleveland.

However, several decades ago, the community began to change. Middle-class black families moved into the city from Cleveland and other surrounding areas. In response, white families of means left for other neighboring suburbs.

Since the 1970s, Maple Heights has lost more than a third of its population. Economic stagnation, and that loss of population, led to a steady decline toward fiscal instability. Twenty-two percent of its 22,000 residents now live beneath the poverty line, while the rest of suburban Cuyahoga County averages 10.9 percent.

And even as its demographics shifted over the decades — 40 percent African-American two decades ago; a 70-percent minority population as of the last census — leadership remained white. That is, until Blackwell won the mayor's seat in 2016, becoming both the first black and first female mayor of the suburb.

While Blackwell's victory can be seen as a sign of progress, there's something else she sees behind the numbers.

"Black leadership gets these cities when they're broken," she says. "That's when it becomes our city to fix."

Blackwell says in trying to fix things, the key is not to avoid problems or pretend it's going to be easy, but rather, to face every challenge head-on.

"Everything we do is extremely hard," she says.

Blackwell has spoken at length about the work that needs to be done to rectify the legacy of racism, which in its institutional and systemic nature has created and maintained spatial and social inequality.

"I'm only two generations from sharecroppers," Blackwell says. Though born near Selma, Alabama, Blackwell and her family moved to the St. Clair area of Cleveland when she was 2 years old. Growing up in Cleveland in the 1970s, Blackwell not only saw but experienced the political, social and cultural shifts in the county. When she moved to Maple Heights, the city had significantly less poverty and instability than it has today.

The legacy of racism, to Blackwell's frustration, has also driven the dominant narratives that surround places like Maple Heights.

"I'm saddened by the brush that we're painted with because we're a city that has challenges," says Blackwell. "Cities that turn brown or black are already just written off as being less desirable because, 'They all live there.' Well, we're all here because racism has persisted in this country way too long and no one takes responsibility for it."

There was a time, when the state declared the city to be in fiscal emergency and it was $2.7 million in debt, that some thought Maple Heights would be the next East Cleveland. Blackwell has led the charge back, and Maple Heights has rounded the corner from being on the brink.

That progress is reflected in the slogan with which she has branded her community: "Maple Heights – A Winning City."

But its story isn't just that turnaround. It's about what can happen when communities are led by people who can see them, understand them, and advocate for them. It's also a cautionary tale about how cities like Maple Heights and their turnarounds are constantly constrained by existing systems that continue to alienate them, and how collaboration is the only way to ensure progress going forward.

* * *

Only a few seconds after sitting down in her office, Blackwell jumps right into one of the key issues facing her community: the low-rated public school system. Only a few days before, the state released school district report cards, grading every school system on an A-to-F scale.

Maple Heights earned a D.

Blackwell knows exactly what these scores measure.

"Social concerns, that's it," she says. "Got a lot of kids in your school [who are] living in poverty, with family issues, and it doesn't matter what they're teaching or how incredible the teachers are. You'll get a D."

Sitting in her office, I see several pictures of Blackwell's daughter, a product of the Maple Heights school system. Blackwell tells me that people like her daughter, "overlooked gems" as she calls them, are seen as exceptions. However, Blackwell argues that many students who've been in the district since first grade are doing well. They get good grades, take on extra-curriculars, and many go to college. It's the students who transition in and out of the school system, moving constantly from one area of the county to another, that struggle the most.

Blackwell points again to her daughter, now a senior at Ohio State University and a product of Maple Heights schools. Unlike many of her high school peers, she never went to school hungry or without an adult to see her off. Her parents could afford to launder her clothing regularly and purchase additional supplies and resources needed to be successful within the school system. "Some will say, 'Oh, excuses, excuses,'" Blackwell says. "I don't think it's excuses. I think it's reality."

Many families in the Maple Heights school district, like those in similar school districts across the state, struggle to make ends meet every month. Blackwell has seen first hand what many education policy scholars continue to find: grading schools based on various performance measures only captures the wealth and cultural elements of a community, not the value of the school district. (Not surprisingly, median household income is an almost direct predictor of a district's grade.) And these grades certainly don't consider diversity and inclusion to be of great value.

Blackwell notes that this is directly contradictory to the private sector, where diversity and inclusion, she argues, are considered key factors in determining whether a workplace is highly-ranked in its industry or region.

"It is paramount to being on the [top] '100 places to work' lists — you better have a plan for diversity and inclusion or you'll never make it," Blackwell says. But, this value doesn't often extend to the banking or governmental sectors, she tells me. "It is in terms of who they hire, which employment opportunities they have, but it doesn't extend to the people they serve. Why doesn't diversity and inclusion meet the loan officer's desk? Why doesn't diversity and inclusion meet the department of education? In banking, why isn't the formula adjusted to send money where there is the most need?"

Blackwell knows why, of course. It's because systems of opportunity, value, resources and rights are inherently unequal and tied to race and place. Things we love to talk about — to host forums on, to discuss over lunch. But not things we often tackle head on.

* * *

What's that thing called when a city government proactively takes responsibility for its future by engaging constituents and using resident knowledge to improve local practices? Ah yes, it's called "governing," that frequently tricky, sometimes difficult practice of recognizing trade-offs and choosing to act in the best interests of the communities you serve. Governing, right.

Blackwell has made it a priority.

Cities across the region have looked to business development as the primary model to drive economic activity. Blackwell has done some of that work, and has drawn on her professional experience as a commercial property tax evaluator in that regard, but she sees economic development as tied primarily to the economic stability and well-being of the residents who live in her community, specifically in regard to home ownership.

As a bedroom community, most of the city's services rely on the value of housing stock and the personal income levels of residents. In other words, without a significant number of local employers, the city has historically been funded through personal wealth. Blackwell knew early on that a key element of the city's revitalization would be securing homes for folks who could afford them. So she sought to better understand which barriers might prevent people from achieving homeownership and whether or how she could alleviate those concerns.

One issue she discovered was related to code violations.

When a home is sold, code violations need to be resolved either by the seller or by the home buyer. If the homebuyer agrees to resolve the violations, they will likely have only several months to do so. But here's the kicker: When Blackwell first entered office, the city's legislation required that anyone who purchased a home that included violations had to place an estimated sum into escrow, then fix the violations before getting the money back out of escrow. Residents told Blackwell that the practice required them to have twice the amount ready from the get-go, which was often a near-impossible feat for people who were scraping together money for a mortgage and down payment. So she went to city council and asked them to halt the practice, at least for a year. Council agreed.

Since then, the change has added to the rapid sales of homes across the city, now at over 400 in the past few years.

Blackwell recalls the story of one mom who closed on her house right before Christmas. She had told her kids there wouldn't be Christmas because she had to put so much money into escrow. However, when she came to the building department, they told her the good news: There was a waiver for the escrow amount. All she had to do was sign an affidavit saying she'd take care of the violations. She and her children burst into tears right then and there. They could have Christmas. The young mom asked the department employees if she could hug the mayor. Blackwell was not in the building at the time but vividly recalls the story.

"No one had told her; the realtor didn't tell her," she says.

After a year, council reapproved the program.

Blackwell has also helped create the Maple Heights Homeownership program, which works with the Slavic Village CDC and the Cuyahoga County Land Bank to sell homes that had previously undergone tax foreclosure.

By going through the state Board of Revisions, they've been able to eliminate the tax issues and resell the homes. To ensure that the investment is worthwhile, the sale comes with a two-year restricted deed. According to Blackwell, they've sold about 20 homes through this program, with folks leaning on family and other communal support systems to raise the down payment amounts. Several of the homes have already been redone, a welcome change to what would have been foreclosed, vacant and abandoned structures.

Blackwell has also worked with investors in the city to ensure that rehabbed homes are high quality and long lasting. Blackwell tells me that she welcomes those who want to come in and build nice homes and sell them for market value. But, while she's not anti-investor, she's "pro-homeowner," in her words.

"I'm anti-investors that put in something substandard, that they themselves wouldn't even live in."

That's because what she wants for her community is what middle-class, white communities have had for decades: a chance to use the housing market to create generational wealth.

"We don't start at 10," she says. "We start at zero."

The lack of financial education and literacy along with few opportunities to secure wealth, recreate systems that ensure generations of poverty and insecurity. She asks me whether I've heard about the mother who was found dead on Libby Road several weeks ago. I had not. Without any life insurance or family planning efforts, the women's children had to set up a GoFundMe page to bury her. Blackwell explains why these events create larger issues down the line.

"If we all have to help bury mama, well, I don't want to be the daughter that doesn't help bury my mama, so I give my light money because we've got to bury her," she says. "It sounds so silly, but it's so true."

In contrast, Blackwell says that when her children's father died a few months ago, people told her she was lucky that he had insurance. It's not luck, she assures me.

"It's education and the way you're socialized," she says. "When you grow up with a lack of financial education, you need to learn these things." Blackwell would like to see her community learn more and improve their practices. And it's for this reason that the city has social workers available for assistance. But the issues are cyclical, and even a one-time heating and energy payment won't prevent future needs, particularly when costs are so great and wages so insufficient. But there's more than just individual or even communal practices at play. Success can be stymied by factors outside of Blackwell's control, especially those tied to other governing systems.

* * *

There are at least two additional housing needs Blackwell would like to see filled in her community: senior housing and multi-generational housing. Neither has gained the support needed to be immediately actionable. Blackwell thinks much of the issue is related to the small size of many suburban communities as well as the prevailing narrative around suburbs.

Inner-ring suburban communities haven't been discussed enough, Blackwell tells me. They're struggling now, sometimes more so than city neighborhoods, yet many continue to assume they aren't in need of assistance. However, Blackwell knows it goes deeper than that. It's also about the ways we perceive those who live in struggling communities. Got a good idea in Westlake? It's progressive, exciting, and sure to get the attention of a developer and the media. But, "if it just [happens in] Maple Heights," Blackwell tells me, "people will say, 'Oh, they do that because they're poor.'"

The Wallick Homes project is a good example of the first concern. Homes owned by long-time, older residents are selling quickly in the city, Blackwell reports, because they've been well-maintained. But many Maple Heights seniors don't want to move. "But, the minute mom falls going from the basement to the freezer, [the kids] move her out because there's [no senior housing] here. But mom's church is here, grocery store is here, friends are here and she wants to stay."

The city submitted a plan for a senior living facility to the Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA) to qualify for low-income housing tax credits, a common incentive program used to encourage developers to take on such projects. Blackwell shows me the application. The glossy photos reveal a well-planned facility that seems likely to appeal to elderly folks and their families. It's an exciting project and one that would be beneficial for her constituents. But as I leaf through it, Blackwell shares the unfortunate news. The application was denied. With fewer than 50 units, OHFA decided the project was not worth the undertaking.

When it comes to multi-generational housing, Blackwell doesn't yet have a concrete plan, but her concerns around the issue relate to the second topic: perception. Multi-generational housing allows for community care and intergenerational interactions. Blackwell is open with me about how important these elements are, not only to societies, but especially within African-American communities. Housing that supports social, economic and familial exchanges can encourage more sharing of oral histories, a greater capacity to pool resources, and family systems of childcare. But without others on board, she fears Maple Heights won't get the support needed to build such housing.

"We need talking heads and policy makers to talk about it and introduce these ideas," she says, preferably at the county level. "People don't want to be different because then it brings finger pointing and isolation."

In both cases, collaboration across communities seems key to drawing additional resources. If struggling communities will get denied tax credits because their projects are too small, perhaps a regional project, divided between multiple communities, could capture someone's attention. If poverty and stigma limit the ability of a community to invest in housing best suited for that community, perhaps policymakers across the region can work together to support these efforts.

"I can't do it on my own," Blackwell says to me, "because then it would be something poor people do. But if it's cool ... then all of a sudden banks [are] selling it, putting together a loan product that can make it attractive and affordable."

* * *

Suburban communities might not come to the front of our minds when we consider social concerns and municipal struggles. In fact, most research on local governance not only focuses on large cities, but prioritizes large central cities, those core cities in a metropolitan region. But many suburban communities include units of government that must provide quality services, respond to resident concerns and attempt to plan for the future. Resource constraints limit the capacity to do these things and a continuous state of austerity has a multiplying effect.

The Maple Heights that used to exist is still enshrined in the posts of a Facebook page titled, "Mourning Maple Heights." The page provides a platform for those who seek to "cherish its past and damn its current state." Blackwell knows about the page and what those people are really saying. The city hasn't moved, but the white middle-class families have.

Like other communities across the region, the steady stream of white flight along with the region's declining economy and national housing trends have left the city with fewer tax dollars and greater service needs.

But, as Blackwell puts it, "People are still choosing Maple Heights." Despite what the Facebook page might suggest, Maple Heights can be a sustainable community, Blackwell argues, if it diversifies its housing, which is its primary asset. Blackwell, who notes that in the most recent property reappraisal by Cuyahoga County, residential values in Maple Heights had climbed 7.2 percent, wants to see every sort of housing in her community.

"We get those and we are on our way," she says. "Can you imagine how many people would want to live here?"

If that sounds overly hopeful, maybe it is. Blackwell is only one politician, a single individual limited to the systems around her, and not impervious to the real and constant threats to her, or anyone's, capacity to govern and create change. But in her actions, she's been an exemplar, a valuable reminder of the fact that success can be tied to diversity and inclusion, when those words are meaningfully applied, when the leadership in a city is representative of that community.

The sixteenth photo in the back of council chambers is just the start.

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