As this region battles the ongoing effects of the foreclosure crisis, no topics have received more discussion than vacancy and demolition. Should we demolish, mothball or preserve? Can a neighborhood retain its identity if many of the structures that helped shape that identity are gone?
As the organizer of county land banks in more than a dozen communities around Ohio, I can tell you this is not just a Cleveland problem: It is a problem communities in the industrial Midwest struggle with every day.
Of course, the issues related to what to do with vacancy aren’t just practical; they’re also emotional. People with roots in struggling Cleveland neighborhoods are generally distressed by the decline of the community where they, their parents or even their grandparents were raised. But we need to check our emotions when dealing with these problems and agree on certain irrefutable facts that can help guide us as we prepare struggling communities for their next phase of development. Here are a few of those facts:
• First, there are thousands of homes beyond repair in Cuyahoga County, primarily in Cleveland and East Cleveland, which need to come down. They are neither historic nor positioned to operate functionally in the housing market. These homes are severely blighted, stripped of all their mechanical systems and are a public health nuisance.
• Second, according to studies done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, vacant structures lower values of surrounding properties. And while vacancies have devastated the local property tax base, studies have shown that demolition helps restore the tax base. A well-known study, “Economic Impacts of Residential Property Abandonment” in Flint, Mich., proved that $3.4 million worth of demolition increased surrounding property values by $114 million.
• Third, vacant properties increase the likelihood of localized crime. Not only does research suggest that, but anecdotal evidence is prevalent. For instance, The Plain Dealer reported that on March 30, a man abducted a woman on East 116th Street and attempted to drag her into a vacant house to rape her. The Plain Dealer also reported that, a week before, a 20-year-old woman was found murdered under the porch of a vacant home on East 93rd Street.
• Lastly, Cleveland currently has approximately 380,000 residents — a loss of 58 percent since 1950. There’s much more supply than demand, with market saturation exacerbating declining property values and increasing vacancies. Still, this does not mean Cleveland is destined to suffer a planned shrinkage: Demographers tell us that 90 million additional people will be living in this country by 2050. It is only to say that prospective residents will not choose cities consumed by vacant and abandoned buildings. They will be attracted to affordable communities that have dealt with blight issues by becoming “cleaner and greener.” In fact, I feel that many Cleveland neighborhoods are primed for a demographic turnaround, be it Hough and St. Clair-Superior on the East Side or Detroit Shoreway and Bellaire-Puritas on the West Side. To get there, these communities deserve some help.
Thankfully, local Congress members have stepped up to the plate, with U.S. Reps. David Joyce, Marcia Fudge and Marcy Kaptur having co-sponsored two bills. One will create tax credits for states to do demolition. The other will allow for the re-purposing of some money set aside for the foreclosure prevention program known as the “Hardest Hit Funds.”
The White House has begun to address this issue, as well. I am part of a group that is in ongoing contact with a team of White House Economic Policy advisers who are attempting to identify and dedicate a stream of revenue to the removal of blight. They now understand that vacancy abatement is a national priority, as the government, because of the 2008 collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, now backstops nine out of 10 mortgages in this country.
While the housing crisis plaguing the industrial Midwest has torn apart our great cities, it has united us as a region. It is time for all of us to speak with one voice so the decision-makers in Washington and our state capitals understand the severity of this problem. The alternative is not an option. We have been living it — or, in the case of vacancy, beside it.
Jim Rokakis is the director of the Thriving Communities Institute and a vice president of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.
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