Grassroots group challenges City of Cleveland officials to better address vacant houses in Ward 14

by Joe Narkin

(Plain Press, June 2011) Ward 14 has been slighted by the City of Cleveland in the inspection, condemnation, and demolition of vacant and abandoned properties, according to a group of 70 residents who gathered at St. Rocco’s Church on May 11, 2008 to hold to account Building and Housing Director Ed Rybka and Director of Community Development Daryl Rush for a perceived lack of performance.

“I would like to say that the system is broken; I am just appalled about how broken the system is and (how) it goes all the way to the top,” said Kate Dupuis, co-founder, with Rebecca Kempton, of the grassroots Stockyards, Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn Centre Housing Committee. “About three months ago, we began driving around the neighborhoods and it was horrifying; I knew it was bad, but I did not know it was as bad as it is,” said Dupuis.

There are over 700 vacant houses in Ward 14, according to a report developed by the Stockyards, Clark-Fulton, and Brooklyn Centre Community Development Office. While 206 of these vacant properties already have been condemned, with 34 properties on the city schedule for demolition, the number of properties warranting condemnation is approximately 400, according to Ward 14 Councilperson Brian Cummins.

“We do not feel, based upon the statistics, that we (Ward 14) are getting our fair share,” said Dupuis, noting that, during 2010, there were 124 demolitions in the Slavic Village and Broadway neighborhoods of Ward 12, while there were only 24 demolitions in Ward 14.

“West Park (Ward 17) had more demolitions overall (than Ward 14) over a four-year period,” said Dupuis, citing an extract of data from the Cleveland Building and Housing Department presented by committee member Alan Foreman. “Between 2007 and 2010, ten wards received 76% of demolition dollars, while Ward 14 received only 4%,” said Foreman.

“This ward, essentially the (geographic) heart of the city, has been neglected for the past fifteen years,” said committee co-founder Kempton, attributing much of this neglect to the failed leadership of former Ward 14 councilmen Joe Santiago and Nelson Cintron.

“People are simply worn out with battle fatigue and shell shock; so they hunker down, take care of their property, and pray for better times,” said Dupuis. “Our neighborhood is at a tipping point,” she said.

Kivin Bauzo of West 33rd Street (between Sackett and Trowbridge) agreed with Dupuis in her belief that Ward 14 neighborhoods are at a crossroad between despair and hope. “Everybody is leaving; everybody wants to sell and at some level I want to sell,” said Bauzo, the President of the West 33rd Street Block Club, who, despite obvious frustration, sees hope in the fact that five of the ten owner-occupants on his street were in attendance at the meeting.

Bauzo’s block on West 33rd Street would seem to offer a case study of the difficulties and opportunities presented by the housing stock within Ward 14. Interspersed between well-kept homes along Bauzo’s block are eight vacant and abandoned properties.  Most have been stripped out. A vacant property on the northeast end of the street was burned-out around four months ago and, since it has not yet been boarded up, represents an ongoing safety hazard. One property has been vacant for nine years, said Bauzo.

During a recent spring clean up, the West 33rd Street Block Club, with the assistance of youth and adult supervisors of the Nehemiah Mission, painted the boards covering the windows of vacant properties with bright domestic scenes to symbolize the life that once existed in these homes and the life that continues to exist in the neighborhood in the midst of desolation, said Bauzo. They also removed two truckloads of litter and debris.

The West 33rd Street Block Club has also been awarded a Community Connections Grant, which will be used to paint the houses of vulnerable owner-occupants on the street and to continue debris clean-up efforts.

“It is no consolation to you all, but foreclosure and abandoned houses have hammered Cleveland and cities across the country, and we are still in the process of recovering from this calamity,” said Cleveland Community Development Director Daryl Rush, adding that on ongoing reduction in federal block grant funding is also “a calamity for neighborhoods and cities.”

Between 2002 and 2010, Community Development Block Grant Funding has been reduced from $38 million to $25 million, a reduction of 34%.

But, demolitions are just part of the solution, according to Rush. “How we move forward is not (just) demolitions, although houses have to come down, but in building permits; we are not focusing on new construction, but renovation has to be part of the equation,” said Rush. In a depressed housing market with a declining population, however, there is a surplus of housing and weak market for rehabilitation of properties in Cleveland.

According to an analysis completed in May 2011 by Clear Capital, the metropolitan statistical area that includes Cleveland is the fourth weakest housing market in the nation and the overall nationwide housing market is in double-dip decline, having been forced downward by a stockpile of properties available on the market due to foreclosure or threat of foreclosure.

Rush indicated that a third phase of the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) should be of some help to the city in meeting both rehabilitation and demolition costs citywide. And part of the apparent inequity of resources between wards may lie in the fact that the second phase of NSP did not include funds for Ward 14, except for a small part of the ward in Tremont, said Rush. “When NSP was first authorized by Congress, it did not include funds for demolition,” he said, noting that the City of Cleveland was successful in a lobbying effort to allow municipalities to spend three-fifths of the funds in the first phase of NSP for demolition.

“The expectation is that city government should clean up this mess (vacant and abandoned houses) and the administration has accepted that challenge,” said Cleveland Building and Housing Director Ed Rybka. “Based upon survey of one, two, and three family housing units, there are 7,067 structures in the state of being distressed, boarded up, and neglected,” he said. Over 5,000 properties have been demolished in the past 5-½ years, according to Rybka.

According to a May 2011 report, Big Bank Foreclosures in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, of the National People’s Action Committee, 19.3% (or one out of every five) of all housing units in Cleveland are currently vacant, an increase of 65.2% since the year 2000.

Rybka noted, however, that due to the retirement of a staff member and the unexpected illness of another,” the number of demolition contracts issued by the city has been “very limited since March”

Part of the reason that the process of condemning a property can be such a lengthy process is that the Cleveland Housing Court will forebear with property owners who indicate a need for more time to renovate a property, according to Rybka. “More often than not, they (the Housing Court) will grant the property owner time to rehab a property, but this is often just a delaying tactic that only delays the inevitable,” he said.

“The city is very aggressive in trying to recover demolition costs and has hired outside attorneys; we have filed 2,000 cases against negligent property owners and will go after their assets to recover,” said Rybka.

Of $20 million in contempt of court fines issued by the Cleveland Housing Court, the Cleveland Clerk of Courts Office has collected less than $10,000, according to a report in the November 22, 2010 issue of the Plain Dealer written by Sandra Livingston.

Rybka indicated a belief that the rate of foreclosures in Cleveland is “finally slowing down, and we believe that we are getting ahead of this game.”

While there was a decrease in foreclosure rates nationwide during 2010, most analysts believe that this is only temporary phenomenon resulting from a nationwide suspension of foreclosures by several major banks in response to accusations that they were robo-signing during the review process. Now that banks are beginning to clear their backlog of files, many experts predict that the number of foreclosure cases will rapidly increase in the months ahead. Currently, 4% of all housing units in Cleveland are currently bank owned following foreclosure.

“There are clearly inequitable resources that we did not receive; I am going to be pushing these two directors (Rybka and Rush) to allocate 10% of (available demolition) monies to the ward, monies that we are owed for catch-up,” said Councilperson Cummins.

Dupuis and Kempton, co-chairpersons of the Stockyards, Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn Centre Housing Committee, pledged to keep up the pressure on this city to address the vacancy problem in Ward 14. “We did not want a meeting where we would bark and go away; we want to do something that has an impact,” said Kempton. “We are inexperienced and idealistic, but we are committed,” said Dupuis.

And Kempton and Dupuis are basing their efforts on the success of a model established by the Detroit-Shoreway Block Club Housing Coalition, a grassroots advocacy project spearheaded by community activist Gloria Aron. Under this coalition, the number of demolitions in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood increased from 21 during 2009 to 116 in 2010.

“I don’t see how the city can be rebuilt if the housing stock is depleted; vacant houses have a horrifying impact,” said Kempton.

PHOTO BY JOE NARKIN Friday, May 13, 2011; Ductwork and gasline pipes appear to be staged for removal by illegal scrappers within the dining room of an unlocked, vacant house at 3359 West 33rd Street.
PHOTO BY JOE NARKIN Friday, May 13, 2011; This burned-out double at 5469 West 33rd Street has stood open to the elements since a fire several months ago despite numerous complaints to city officials.


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