Talk of the Town Community Conversation at Franklin Circle Christian Church
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, April 2020) Providing affordable housing is a critical need as real estate development expansion continues in neighborhoods once considered low to moderate income like Ohio City and Tremont. To address the issue, Ohio City Incorporated (OCI) hosted the first Talk of the Town Community Conversation on February 25th at Franklin Circle Christian Church with event facilitators Mark McDermott, Enterprise Community Partners; Khalid Hawthorne, Tremont West Development Corporation; and Khrys Shefton, Famicos Foundation.
More than fifty local residents were treated to pizza from Ohio City Pizzeria and snacks as they crowded into the church basement for the early evening meeting. They sat in a semicircle while Whitnye Long-Jones, Community Engagement Organizer at OCI, laid the ground rules for participation asking everyone to listen and take turns talking.
“This is a very touchy subject,” she said. “We wanted everyone to come to get your take on the issues of affordability, gentrification, and displacement.”
“One of the things that attracts people to this neighborhood is the sense of community and connectedness,” added Kerri Miller, Associated Director of Operations for OCI. “One of the things that’s chipping away at the sense of the community is the misunderstandings around some of these issues.”
Following an informal around-the-room first name introduction, Miller asked residents why they chose to live where they live. Responses varied from the vibrancy of the neighborhood to its location and proximity to downtown, and the many amenities that come with living in the city versus the suburbs.
“We have watched this neighborhood change over 17 years and it hasn’t been a disaster,” Judy Comeau-Hart said after the informal introductions, adding, “Does OCI have any control over the developers coming into our community in terms of what kind of housing they want?”
Miller was the first to respond, answering the question by pointing out that OCI had little authority or control over real estate development in the area. OCI is the voice of the community, according to Miller, with little political power to change housing development policy.
“There’s a defined process for how these things work through city politics and role of the CDC (Community Development Corporation) within that process,” Long-Jones added. “The City looks to us to be a voice of the community. We gather feedback around projects but outside of that, it’s up to them.”
Former Congresswoman and lifelong resident of Ohio City Mary Rose Oakar disagreed with Long-Jones.
“I don’t agree with everything you said,” Oakar said while listing her experience as a former member of Cleveland City Council. “If a councilperson doesn’t want a developer to get variances and zoning, they can stop it,” she added to applause from the crowd. “Developers have tremendous power. OCI can do more.”
Three breakout sessions followed opening remarks with topics covering affordability, displacement, and gentrification. Mark McDermott, VP and Market Leader at Enterprise Community Partnership, began the conversation by providing an overview explaining that housing affordability, as defined by the federal government, refers to housing units that are affordable by that section of society whose income is below the median household income. The federal government considers housing affordable when a person or family is spending no more than one-third of their income on rent or a mortgage plus utilities. Affordable housing is defined by percentage of the area median income (AMI) which for the Greater Cleveland region is $70,000 annually for a family of four. Most federal programs require 80% of the AMI to quality for affordable housing. Low income, on the other hand, is 30% of the AMI or $21,000 annually for a family of four.
“Our country is not set up to do this,” McDermott said referring to the federal government’s ability to provide affordable housing for low income families. “In Ohio, we’re between a rock and hard place with limited resources.”
Building affordable housing is difficult and expensive. The Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA) awards tax credits to developers of affordable rental housing projects to incentivize building projects. Developers generally sell the credits to private investors to obtain funding.
In 2019, OHFA awarded over $28 million in 10-year federal housing tax credits to 34 developments to create 2,198 apartments serving families, seniors and individuals with disabilities. In Cuyahoga County awardees included Longfellow School, Slavic Village Gateway, and SW Detroit Shoreway Homes, a 30-unit, single-family project on vacant lots formerly held by the City land banks.
Across the room at another breakout session, Khrys Shefto, Director of Real Estate Development, Famicos Foundation, led a discussion on gentrification. She assured residents that gentrification does not always lead to displacement, as some might suspect, especially in cities like Cleveland where it’s reshaping neighborhoods. Shefton talked about the possibility of building 300 square-foot micro-units as a way of luring private investment into affordable housing. Monthly rents for a micro-unit could be well below $700 month.
“You can also build affordable housing using the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits,” Shelton said. “But since we have a lot of affordable housing in Ohio City compared to other cities in Ohio, attracting new tax credits is difficult.”
The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) was created by the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and gives State and local LIHTC-allocating agencies close to $8 billion in annual budget authority to issue tax credits for the acquisition, rehabilitation, or new construction of rental housing targeted to lower-income households.
Ohio is the second-most affordable state, with the second-best housing affordability and one of the lowest costs of living, according to a US News study conducted in 2019.
But zoning restrictions and cumbersome regulatory processes combined with record high construction costs as a result of the trade wars affecting commodity prices has made affordabile housing less accessible than ever. NPR’s program Here and Now recently reported that in hard costs, developers cannot produce housing for many working families. The federal government provides only about 1/5 of the resources needed to serve the families of the most limited needs. Private investment is being asked to pick up the difference.
A few local developers are trying. The Snavely Group, responsible for Quarter Luxury Apartments at the corner of W 25th Street and Detroit Ave, is renovating the historic Forest City Bank Building into 38 affordable apartments with a maximum monthly rent of $785 per month. The $10.8 million apartment project received Ohio tax-credits and City of Cleveland incentives including tax-increment financing for up 30 years on non-school taxes. The measure allows the Snavely Group to make payments to the project in lieu of the tax payments on the improvements. Forest City Square Apartments Phase 2 is nearing completion where a 473-square foot studio apartment with 1 bath is expected to start at $645 a month.
Khalid Hawthorne, Housing & Economic Development Director at Tremont West Development Corporation, was standing next to a large notepad in the opposite corner of the room with the word ‘displacement’ written in bold letters across the top. A dozen residents were listening to him describe ways to provide support services for the homeless and housing distressed, and a need to build community consensus to address the issue around displacement.
“You don’t want to create enclaves where the poor people live,” he said. “We have to make sure there’s a mix of different residents when we’re planning for the community. We don’t want to create silos.”
Community building is always central to any conversion about population displacement, Hawthorne stressed, pointing to recent developments in Tremont and Ohio City where people are concerned about rising property taxes and their ability to stay in their homes.
“We have to approach this issue as a community.”
The overarching theme for the night was finding various options for affordable housing including types of housing construction, assistance and flexibility in the process, creating a housing trust fund, and helping people with home ownership. Housing options that meet specific needs and life circumstances of residents like housing coops, for example, or creating a neighborhood for the elderly, teachers, restaurant workers, and families, were also discussed.
Increases in rent and property taxes, a loss of a job, or a natural disaster such as a fire could create fiscal and economic displacement, according to McDermott. Cultural and social displacement takes place when a new development lacks sensitivity to the neighborhood.
“Poor planning by the City of Cleveland, homelessness, and lack of affordable housing encourages further displacement,” he said.
Enlightened gentrification versus unenlightened gentrification, and housing for people from all incomes were added points of interest along with social values like connectivity and what it means to belong to a diverse and proactive community.
As organizers of the community meeting brought the two-hour session to a close, a few people reached for their coats and jackets, and headed for the door. But before anyone could exit, Debbie Stephens, a resident of Fairview Gardens, spoke out.
“I’m sure these affordable apartments are affordable to the developer but they’re not affordable to us,” she said standing up to address the group. “All of these things are nice but are we being represented to the City and by our councilman?”
A burst of applause filled the room.
“We don’t hear anything from our mayor,” Stephens added. “Where’s Mayor Jackson? Why isn’t he here? What do we have to do to be heard?”
“Get a new mayor,” someone yelled from the back of the room.