What can Cleveland do to be a more welcoming city to low-income families with children?
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, April 2021) Cleveland has an opportunity to create a more just society within our borders. A unique time has come when we, with proper planning, can take advantage of federal dollars and address the needs of Cleveland’s many families with children that are living with incomes below the federal poverty line.
President Joe Biden’s administration’s American Rescue Plan beginning this July will provide low-income families with children with monthly refundable child tax credit cash payments of $300 for each child age 5 and under, and $250 for each child age 6 to 17. These payments are designed to help lift families out of poverty. The American Rescue Plan promises to have a greater impact on the City of Cleveland than on any big city in the country. The simple reason is that Cleveland has the highest child poverty rate in the country.
While the program is a temporary one-year program, if it were to become permanent, would the City of Cleveland be able to meet the needs of young families that will have the means to look for better housing and will be seeking to live in neighborhoods with amenities that are family friendly? Will City of Cleveland planners be able to meet the needs of families with young children?
For many years now, the efforts of Cleveland planners have been aimed primarily at attracting people who don’t live in Cleveland to move into the City of Cleveland. They have offered 15-year tax abatements to residents moving into new or substantially rehabilitated housing. So intense is the city’s pursuit of new residents, that existing residents’ concerns and needs are often given little consideration.
These new or rehabbed tax abated properties often involve raising property values in a neighborhood and causing hardship when existing neighbors receive higher property tax bills. Sometimes the substantial rehab of a house involves evicting a current tenant and rehabbing the house, not to repair any structural damage, but to put in modern amenities so a higher rent can be charged – rent the previous tenant cannot afford. Such practices not only make housing less affordable to existing residents, but also defer property taxes that should go to pay for school programs, library services and city services such as staffing at playgrounds and recreation centers – all services that benefit families with children.
Developers in recent years have begun building a substantial number of one-and-two-bedroom apartments and townhouses. Generally large structures that receive tax abatements, they have rents or sale prices so high they are unaffordable to Clevelanders living in poverty (income less than $26,500 for a family of four). Also, many of these units would not be conducive to families with children because of the size of the units, or their lack of yards in which children can play.
In some neighborhoods in Cleveland prized by developers, such as Tremont, Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway, University Circle and Little Italy, developers are putting up units on every possible empty lot or buying up existing structures to substantially rehab or tear down for new construction. These developments generally do not result in housing that is suitable or affordable for Cleveland’s low-income families. Planners justify such projects in the name of building density in Cleveland.
But is this really the case? Is a housing policy devised to attract single people, retired empty nesters and young couples without children a way to build density? Is giving away the property tax from this new housing a way to provide services needed to keep and retain families with children?
If families have an increase in income that will allow them to purchase a modestly priced house, will Cleveland be the place they chose to live? Will the Say Yes to Cleveland College Scholarships available to Cleveland students be enough to keep families in the city? Will there be enough houses that are both affordable and suitable to raise a family? Have we addressed the lead problem in many of our affordable older homes? Do we have the high quality educational and childhood programs in our schools, libraries and recreation centers that these families need? Will we have neighborhoods that are built to be people centered, with space and amenities to attract children and families?
Currently the answer to having enough affordable housing and enough amenities for families is “no”. We as a society subsidize our wealthiest residents and wealthy developers with tax abatements, while many of our poorest residents struggle to pay rents in overpriced apartments.
Developers are free to build to maximize profit rather than livability for residents and neighbors. Trees and green space are removed to maximize the number of units that can be placed on a parcel. Tall structures crowd out the light from neighboring houses and yards. Rather than creating a warm human centered environment, developers are putting oversized structures on lots with no consideration for the surrounding properties and neighborhood. This is not a path to residential density, but rather a path to a more transient population. When young couples among these new residents decide to have children, will the city be able to offer educational and child centered amenities that will persuade them to stay?
The growth in our population is more likely if we help to stabilize families that already live in Cleveland. To do that, we need programs that help low-income families to purchase houses, make them livable and lead safe. Doing just necessary repairs, rather than substantially rehabilitating properties, will keep houses affordable.
We need new and current residents that pay property taxes that fund quality schools and programs for children and families to enjoy. Such policies will make Cleveland grow at a faster rate than the many tax abated one-and-two-bedroom apartments that are being subsidized and fast tracked for development by Cleveland city planners now. Funds from the City of Cleveland’s portion of property taxes on new developments could be used to develop housing programs that benefit low-income families. With increased property tax revenue, the City of Cleveland could provide funds to community organizations to purchase houses to sell to low-income families, or to help create a fund to help those families to pay property taxes.
It is time for Cleveland to end its reign as the city with the highest child poverty rate in the country. Offering stable housing to families will provide families an opportunity to build a better future for their children. It will help Cleveland to become a more just society.