The foreclosure crisis has been a housing boom for nature's most loathed creature

Not far from Broadway Avenue, Wiley Hardy steps from a no-frills city sedan with a broomstick and a white bucket of poison. He's dressed in dungarees. His partner, fellow health inspector Mike Debs, is in business casual and carries a clipboard and a stack of bright-orange door hangers. Good cop and bad cop, for rats. The duo heads up Dolloff Road, door-to-door, hole-to-hole, for yet another afternoon of embarrassing and occasionally wretch-inducing confrontations.

The first house makes them beam patriotically. "See how the cans are all up and covered?" notes Hardy. "They've even got the recycling cans. The grass is cut. Weeds: pulled. Nice. Why's a rat gonna want up in there?"

Especially when the next house is so close.

It's a foreclosure, paint peeled and windows boarded up, except for a few where the wood's been pried away and glass daggers are showing. The grass is cut, though. Hardy says they're not going to find that many rat holes there, anyway — not enough food and water immediately at hand. Or maybe there is.

Next door again, the smell of cat pee stops Hardy in his tracks. He knows that people and their garbage can't be far. The house after that has lush flowerbeds at the head of a cluttered driveway leading to a garage that belches debris, the door resting half-open onto several comically overflowing garbage cans. Hardy pokes around with his stick at some old cat food and a Cheetos bag through the slats on the front stoop as Debs knocks. No answer. He tags the door. Do this, that and everything else that stinks of urine in 30 days, it reads, or pay $75 and live to not give a shit another day.

"See?" says Hardy, pointing his stick at the garage. "Rats would stay there because they're hiding, and they got food and nobody's looking back there. Obviously."

He asks Debs how many babies to a mother. "There can be 20," says Debs. Hardy adds, "And every two months or so."

Ugh. Every so often, they get to clean up after a hoarder who's turned his house into an enclosed landfill, where rats hunt roaches in a miniature circle of life. Or they'll help an old person haul crap to the curb, after baiting holes that were hissing back. One old woman's house had rats still living in the trees and windowsills, dead all through the driveway and basement. And the glory of all rat anecdotes: A few times a year, the city fields calls from citizens in a fit about a most inopportune visit.

"They're real good swimmers," says Hardy. "So they just swim up from where they're at in the sewer and then just climb right up into the toilet."

Back in the trunk, they've got bait that comes in a big block and lasts for years that they hang from the sewer grates. Some of the rats eat the poison and bleed to death inside. Most don't touch the stuff. And since they don't usually come out until dark, Debs doesn't always know for sure if they're even in the hole he's baiting. But other times, like last year, Debs found 60 holes in and around Public Square, and the poison was a success. (It probably didn't hurt that cops booted all the homeless too, and the parks department plucked all the bushes that pedestrians used as trash cans.)

Rats thrive among homo slobbians.

Debs turns another corner, and this time, the smell that stops him is more exotic: stale beer, dirty diapers and a little rotten meat for texture. "Here we go right here," he says, thwacking his stick against the ground hard as he heads up a gravel driveway strewn with refuse. An algae-slicked kiddie pool waits for mosquito eggs beside an old pickup piled like Sanford and Sons' — with even more garbage and seemingly useless debris. Debs knocks. Hardy thinks he sees a rat scurry from one of several wide cracks in the foundation. Then a middle-aged woman is at the door with a big dog barking from somewhere behind her.

"Put the dog away, ma'am," Hardy tells her as he inches from the property. He doesn't like hearing that anymore. The woman complies, tells a little girl to "Get in the house!" and begins her spiel about how the rats are everyone else's fault.

"It looks like they're living here, under the porch," says Debs matter-of-factly. "What about all your garbage here?" adds Hardy.

"Tomorrow's garbage day," she says.

"Not today, though, right?" says Debs, too quietly for her to hear. They give her 30 days and a compliment on how nice her tomato plants are looking.

Nobody ever wants to claim the rat, says Hardy. "It's the landlord not doing something, or it's the neighbors problem. It's never them."

In five houses, they're at the end of the block. Every other lot is empty. They cross the road and head back toward the car, expecting a lot more of the same until quitting time comes.

About a month ago, a rat as big as Andre the Giant's shoe lay dead in the street by the Detroit-Superior Bridge. One of several disgusted passersby, a 20-ish woman with a lapdog on a leash, stopped to say, "Jesus, right?" "Not quite," I said, shooting a picture, with my lighter added for perspective.

It wasn't the first. There were three in the ditch down by the Rapid station. These reportedly were not the first sightings either, and every one appears to be more sensational than the last! Stay tuned for updates.

"Some of them are eating pretty good, definitely," says Larry Jewett, the supervisor of the local inspection program, who started out a few decades ago on a six-man Rat Patrol with Debs. He now dispatches three two-man nuisance teams to different problem spots all over the city every workday. Whether they're aborting mosquito larvae or surveying the city's worst neighborhoods, they're the outmatched but stalwart frontline soldiers in Mayor Frank Jackson's Clean Cleveland initiative to beautify the city by making all of the city's departments actually work together as a team.

Matt Carroll, Jackson's director of public health, acknowledges a spike in nuisance complaints — including rats — that coincided with the rise in foreclosures. (Newspapers from other wracked regions like Phoenix, Baltimore and North Jersey all say the same.) But Carroll points to evidence of a breakthrough: Though the number of nuisances has pretty much held steady — about 17,000 in '08, of which rat calls were a small percentage — maps showing the number of rat baitings over the past two years indicate a dramatic improvement. Or rats on the run.

"The city is systematically and consistently 'swept' with these departments working together," writes Carroll in an e-mail. "There are more eyes on these issues than there were before." Survey teams are more visible. Parks department crews are managing to mow more vacant plots than ever, despite steep cutbacks. "And less high grass and trash = less rodents," notes Carroll.

But nobody's under any illusions. On a visit to Dolloff Road, Jewett says, "Rats aren't the biggest problem with poverty — they're just living off of it."

"But before, we didn't hit the streets like we do now," adds Debs. "We went on complaints. It took an effort from the mayor to say, 'I want people out there every day.'"

All three agree. But Hardy, who lives in this Broadway neighborhood, mentions how one person's solution can sometimes be another person's poison. They still get between two and a dozen calls a day from people with rats all over the place.

"We can't eliminate this," says Hardy. "We just have to do our best to stay on top of them, in front of them. Some people, they be mad. The value of their property is going down. There's a [block] on East 54th — there used to be 25 houses. Now there's six. That's on one of the blocks. It's a whole chain. They've lost like 80 houses on that street. Demo crews are always over there. And so when they tear those houses down, the rats go running. You get rid of one problem and another one comes up."

That's how Sarah Jackson feels about the city she's lived in for all her 80 years. Try telling her that things are getting better. A few weeks ago, she called the city to her East 123rd Street home when she started hearing scurrying at night and noticing droppings in the garage. It took three calls and a whole bunch of railing before a team came out and baited the holes.

"I really have seen a big increase," she says about the rats. "A lot of homes around here are empty. But they put down poison, so I don't see that many now. I'm not saying they're not out there, but ... You gotta raise your voice."

A few weeks before that, over on Lamontier Avenue, 56-year-old Yvonne Jackson (no relation) called the city when she started seeing a succession of fat rats coming from the vacant house next door to feast on her garbage and dig at cracks around her foundation. Her son-in-law saw a rat "as big as his foot" out in the garage. Like many others, she's thought hard about leaving Cleveland for good, after spending 35 years here watching her neighborhood slowly ravaged, "but I can't just leave like that."

"They came out and put bait around my home and around the garage, but it doesn't do any good when there's a vacant house next door and across the street," she says.

Jackson lobbied for two years to have the long-vacant drug den across the street razed. The inhabitants torched the place a year back, and not until last month did the city get the clearance and the money to tear down the charred husk. When they did, Jackson saw another spike in the free-roving rat population. She turned her sights on the house next door. She hopes that, pretty soon, it won't just be her and the rats.

Barbara Diggs, 60, remembers a Cleveland where citizens of even the most unsavory of neighborhoods would get badgered for little things like littering and loitering. "Now, people are just throwing garbage out on the streets," she says. "That's how the rats eat."

And don't even get her started on all the foreclosures that are starting to creep up her street from down at the other end. But her biggest worry is her hygiene-challenged next-door neighbor. Diggs called the city a few months back to complain about all the rats she alleged were coming over from the neighbors' backyard. Two big barking dogs are kept over there in pens, while the rats eat all their food and feces (yes, rats eat dog feces). She tried telling them to clean up in as nice a voice as possible, but when she didn't feel heard, she had to call in reinforcements.

"The woman from the city came out to have them clean up, because of the waste and everything, and she must have sent them a letter, because the other day, both of them were out there cleaning up."

She wonders how long before that house is empty.

"I don't understand," she says. "If these houses they've known that they're foreclosed, but they're all tore up and raggedy, why don't they just get rid of them all?"

They're on it. At about $10,000 per demolition, and an estimated 15,000 across the city just waiting in line, a lot of time and money will be spent to rearrange all the holes. And no one knows how many rats will scurry from one abandoned structure to another in the meantime.

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