The Good, the Bad & the Blighted

Cleveland tries to reverse the downward spiral of its housing stock.

Someone Like You
Carnelle Switzer inspects 500 homes a year, down - from an absurd 1,000 in 1999. - Walter  Novak
Carnelle Switzer inspects 500 homes a year, down from an absurd 1,000 in 1999.
Tucked between quaint Larchmere and stately Ludlow is a wrinkle of a neighborhood the city nearly forgot. Known as Little Hungary from 1900 to 1930, the Buckeye neighborhood began losing its population and pastry shops 40 years ago. Age and neglect ravaged the pretty homes left behind. Paint peeled. Yards filled with debris. New residents signed leases instead of mortgages.

Homeowners managed to save many houses from decline. Street clubs and development organizations sprouted up around weedy lots and rental properties. Residents repaired neighborhood spirit, along with collapsing roofs and sloughing siding. In the end, two Buckeyes emerged from one: the good neighborhood and the blighted one.

No train tracks separate the two. No river or highway. Across the street or even next door to each other, the handsome and the tattered coexist in anything but harmony. On East 122nd Street, Van Glen Neal wages a one-man war against a paint-bare, tree-obscured house. On East 126th Street, 20-year resident Lou Owens calls the police on his drug-dealing neighbors. At street club meetings, the atmosphere can get more contentious than court, as residents levy charges of property abuse against absentee -- or just lazy -- homeowners.

"We won't stop until this community is transformed into a neighborhood like Larchmere," declares Bob Render, East 128th Street Club president.

While the law is on the residents' side, they know they can't enforce it on their own. They need the city's help.

Enter housing inspector Carnelle Switzer, Buckeye's referee in the showdown between good and blight. It's a thankless job, burdened by a never-ending cycle of complaint and counter-complaint. Those who've sought to improve the neighborhood complain about those who haven't. The housing inspector issues citations, which often are ignored. Then neighbors complain about the housing inspector. When it comes to his job, Switzer is a modern-day Sisyphus, forever pushing his boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down again.

But after years of being overworked and underappreciated, housing inspectors have finally found a powerful advocate in Mayor Michael White. Despite a tight budget year and a hiring freeze on all but critical positions, White wants 20 new housing inspectors on the street -- an expenditure of just under $1 million.

Instead of applauding the proposal -- which still needs city council approval -- neighborhood activists ponder the mayor's motivation. Does it stem from a new commitment to their communities? Or is it more than coincidence that the proposal comes at the dawn of an election year?

After all, they've been shouting for new inspectors for as long as White has been building stadiums. As early as 1993, a special task force recommended major changes to the city Division of Building and Housing. But nothing much changed until the mayor unveiled his "Neighborhoods First" agenda in January of last year.

"The city's allowed the neighborhoods to fall into disrepair while building stadiums," says Neal, president of the Buckeye Community Action Council. "Now it's an election year, and he's focused on the neighborhoods."

Neal may be suspicious, but he'll take as many new inspectors as he can get. The Cleveland Clinic police officer admits he has a long history of complaining about the city's housing efforts or lack thereof. But he knows the city needs more inspectors to monitor its 200,000 homes.

Before last year, there were only 40 inspectors. Now there are 60. Soon, if council agrees to the mayor's proposal, there will be 80. To say that enforcing the housing code in Cleveland is a challenge would be an understatement. The housing stock's median age is 80 years old. Seventeen percent is either "substandard" or "condemnable," according to one report. And that's based just on exterior inspections. If interior exams were done, the number of substandard houses would be twice that, the city speculates. In short: One-third of Cleveland's homes are in a very bad way.

Unfortunately, many of them appear to be in Switzer's enforcement area. Dressed in a blue jacket with "housing inspector" emblazoned on the back, Switzer patrols the neighborhood like a beat cop. On a 20-degree day in late February, he points to several houses so deteriorated they require no explanation of their deficiencies.

In the backyard of an eyesore on East 121st Street, Switzer steps lightly between discarded liquor bottles and planks of rotted wood with two-inch nails sticking out from them. He does not linger outside the doorway of a sickly green house. There is no door.

"Hello! Hello! Hello!" he calls out as a potential warning to squatters. He pushes forward into the dark hallway. Wires protrude from the wall. Windows are boarded up, and the floor has worn away in places. It's been this way for about a year, Switzer says. The owner tried to fix it, then ran out of money. It's condemned, but someone still may buy it. Structurally, it remains sound. All he can do is board it up.

After jotting a few notes, Switzer's off to the next building, a battered beige house on East 122nd with the words "Drug Free" spray-painted on the door. Switzer sighs. Neighbors, including Neal, complained about the house incessantly until police finally raided it last summer. The owner is dead. Foreclosure proceedings are in progress. And the house remains in probate court, becoming more dilapidated by the day. A menacing assortment of stray cats has taken up residence on the front porch.

It's the kind of house that pits neighbor against inspector. The city can't tear it down just because it wrecks the neighborhood aesthetic, Switzer explains. Owners need to be found -- or in this case determined -- then warned, then given a chance to bring the property back into compliance. Housing inspectors often have difficulty even finding owners. And when they do, owners routinely ignore violation notices and court dates. Others claim they don't have the money for repairs.

Yet critics say inspectors need to enforce the law more doggedly and use nuisance abatement -- a civil action -- instead of relying solely on criminal charges to bring violators back into compliance. Nuisance abatement forgoes the need to drag a violator to housing court. It allows the city to make the necessary repairs, then recoup the costs through a tax assessment.

Inspectors are also frequently criticized for failing to follow up with violators.

"I'm dealing with the same properties for 10 years," says Cleveland City Council President Mike Polensek. "If this were Cleveland Heights or Shaker Heights or another place that puts a priority on this, it wouldn't take 10 years. It would take 10 months."

But Cleveland is no less diligent, insists Community Development Director Linda Hudecek. Nor is the mayor's recent focus on housing a campaign ploy, she says. "Anybody who's ever worked for the mayor knows that he has been demanding a better performance out of building and housing since he became mayor."

Indeed, Cleveland's housing woes have been decades in the making, and the department has been the target of complaints for just as long.

When Polensek was elected to council in the 1970s, the division was highly politicized, he says. Enforcement was selective and lax, while the city's housing deteriorated. In 1992, "Annual inspections of rental properties were years behind schedule," according to the 1993 Building and Housing Task Force Report. "Employees felt demoralized, inspection staff was without resources to do its job, and customers responded angrily to delays or perceptions of delays."

Yet it took six years for the mayor to institute the report's suggested overhaul. Task Force Chairwoman Mikelann Ward Rensel, now executive director of the Cleveland Neighborhood Development Corporation, says she doesn't blame the mayor for the delay. "This is a huge bureaucracy. Some of the inspectors were there a long, long time. The desire to change wasn't there."

Hudecek insists change is finally on the way. Greater emphasis has been placed on tracking violations and ensuring cases are closed in a timely manner. In addition to the 20 new inspectors, the city proposes to hire 9 senior clerks to help process violations. It also wants council to pass an ordinance making it easier to employ nuisance abatement.

Under Hudecek's watch, the department has already completed a major reorganization. As late as 1999, Switzer was charged with inspecting 1,000 homes -- a near-impossible task. After last year's reorganization, he was down to 500. Even though his enforcement area is smaller, his workload has increased. Instead of simply responding to complaints, he has become proactive. Anytime he's on his turf, he flips through the code-enforcement book in his head, noting gutters that need cleaning or junked cars that require ticketing.

Switzer says he could use more support staff and less paperwork. But he's pleased with the progress being made. If only neighbors could see it.

Neal and Render say residents aren't blind to the progress, just focused. Another day. Another house. Another attempt to fuse two Buckeye neighborhoods back into one. Meanwhile, the city still gets verbally abused at the street club meetings. Residents call Switzer at all hours to complain. One time, a violator even tried to wrestle his walkie-talkie from his hands.

Yet Switzer pushes on.

"I do feel caught in the middle. I got the little old lady screaming at me . . . I got the councilman screaming at me. I got the tenant screaming at me. But I have to be the enforcer," he sighs. "It all comes back to me."

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