by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, November 2021) The City of Cleveland Department of Community Development recently released a draft of the Ten-Year Cleveland Housing and Investment Plan. Working with an advisory committee made up of city officials, for- and non-profit developers, housing service providers, funders, and residents, the goal of the Ten-Year Housing and Investment Plan is to ensure everyone has access to a decent home, provide housing options for existing residents, and attract new residents to Cleveland’s neighborhoods. The Cleveland Ten Year Housing Plan will create a blueprint for programs, policies, and investment tools to achieve this goal, according to city officials.
A consultant team from the University of Pennsylvania worked with local partners Kirby Date from KM Date Community Planning, Tracey Nichols of Project Management Consultants and Kaela Geschke of Neighborhood Connections.
The yearlong planning process was launched in July 2020 and continued through July 2021. The process reportedly engaged a broad coalition of stakeholders and residents through working groups, interviews, and surveys. Public meetings were held regularly. Participants were encouraged to leave comments on a community board. The HUD five-year action plan, submitted this summer, provided an opportunity to assess whether Cleveland is deploying federal funds for housing and community development in a way that serves the fundamental needs of our community, according to the advisory committee.
In Cleveland, about 9,300 homeowner households and 26,300 renter households pay over half of their income for housing each month. In addition, the report states that 55,600 currently habitable homes will need substantial repairs by 2030, and 20,000 units would need to be built to replace those lost to severe deterioration. A continuing decline in population suggests that, without new investments in homes and neighborhoods, the city will lose 310 households every year between 2020 and 2030.
The 41-page report is filled with statistics and charts. A glossary is provided to define terms specific to the report and an appendix contains Community Engagement Overview (Including Working Group Recommendations), Analysis of Resident Surveys and Developer Surveys, Review of Existing Housing Programs in Cleveland, and a Report on Existing Housing Conditions in Cleveland.
“The report shows more international migration into the city than people know about or expect, especially immigrants,” said Claudia Aiken, Director of the Housing Initiative at PennParxis.
Aiken suggests that better leverage of city resources is needed to address housing issues and implement the plan. Difficulty in applying for programs slows down the process for many residents. It needs to be smoother, according to her.
“Applying for the Repair-A-Home (RAH) program is very difficult to navigate,” she said. “We need to make it as easy as possible especially for people facing the digital divide or have other barriers to get the assistance they need.”
Repair-A-Home (RAH) program helps homeowners repair Cleveland homes by offering low-interest loans ranging from 0% to 3%, determined by total household income. These loans are only for code related repairs, mechanical repairs or health and safety repairs, according to the City of Cleveland Division of Neighborhoods website.
Aiken blames City Hall for a disorganized application process. The City needs to handle decisions more quickly. The approval process for how the funds are spent should be streamlined, she said, adding to her complaint about a smoother transition from application to implementation.
The Ten-Year Housing and Investment Plan is meant to promote increased awareness of, and access to, Cleveland’s housing programs. Listening sessions with residents and other stakeholders show that many of Cleveland’s housing programs are underutilized because of a lack of outreach, and difficulties completing complex applications. Lack of coordination between city departments and external partners slows down the delivery of assistance. A more collaborative ecosystem of service providers can maximize Cleveland’s capacity to manage outreach, intake, and delivery of housing resources, the report states.
The plan suggests an effective neighborhood-based outreach strategy modeled on the COVID-19 vaccination campaign will increase awareness of available housing resources. Partnering with United Way 2-1-1 to create and maintain a comprehensive housing resource directory that is accessible to all residents via the 2-1-1 system will better integrate data gathered via 2-1-1 to understand residents’ most pressing housing needs and to inform responses.
During a public meeting for feedback on the Ten Year Housing Plan via Zoom, Jim Cutrone, a resident of W. 76 Street across from Battery Park for the last thirty-two years, asked about property values. His property taxes increased 60 percent three years ago; this year, his taxes increased another 30 percent. He asked the committee to explain the process of development evenly across the city. He pointed to the Netherlands as an example of layered development where every city has a percentage of high, medium, and low-income properties mandated for a particular development. What the process does, he explained, is keep the wealthy from segregating themselves from less wealthy individuals.
“Skyrocketing property taxes is the motivation behind recommendations to provide tax relief especially where taxes are going up quickly and affecting vulnerable homeowners,” said Aiken. “If you’re overly prescriptive to developers, they might go elsewhere. Cleveland is a very divided city. Developers take advantage of the easy places to build.”
The plan acknowledges the problem of incentivizing development where the city wants it, she explained, and includes the requirements to develop affordable housing in places where the market is strong and development is taking place.
Kaela Geschke of Neighborhood Connections said the Department of Community Development directed the working draft. The full department including mid-level directors were involved in weekly meetings. While there are no plans to present a resolution recommendation to Cleveland City Council for adoption and passage, advocates for equitable housing will have to ensure, following the election, that the new city administration reviews the Ten-Year Cleveland Housing and Investment Plan. The mayor has final approval, according to her.
“The timing of the plan is fortuitous,” said Aiken. “Cleveland and other cities across the country are getting a lot of federal money to spend on housing right now. There’s a real need to have a plan on how to spend that money. The Ten-Year Cleveland Housing and Investment Plan helps direct how those resources will get spent.”
Critics point to the overly broad and general recommendations for rebuilding neighborhoods like southeast Cleveland and Hough with a one-plan fits all. Every neighborhood has a specific set of problems and unique character. Rebuilding requires an understanding of the people living there. Building from the needs of the community, not building from the developer’s financial interest, is a better policy, they point out. The risk, of course, is that investors might decide to go elsewhere.
Both Aiken and Geschke acknowledge the shortcomings.
“It’s a very broad city plan,” responded Aiken. “It does not get to that level of detail. Not every recommendation is appropriate for every neighborhood.”
Geschke suggested filling in the details once funding sources are identified.
“Putting the equity framework on the plan will help to decide what will work where,” she said. “We have to decide what resources will go to which neighborhood.”