Council of Cleveland Neighborhoods presents concerns to mayoral candidates
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, November 2021) With the majority of registered Cleveland voters staying home and choosing not to vote in the mayoral primary, it remains uncertain whether they’ll decide to cast a vote in the general election on November 2 for either Justin Bibb or Kevin Kelley. But their earlier mandate was clear: 85% of registered voters want neither of them.
A low level of public engagement in municipal elections is not new. Some blame the mayor for low voter turnout. When Mayor Frank Jackson came to office sixteen years ago, Cleveland experienced the highest poverty rate among American cities with populations of 250,000 or more, according to a U. S. Census Bureau analysis. Nearly a third of the city’s population and half of children qualified as impoverished in 2005, with an estimated 31 percent of its people living in poverty.
By 2020, nothing has changed. Cleveland has the highest poverty rate among large American cities with 30.8 percent and ranks last among large cities in child poverty, with 46.1 percent of children in the city living in poverty. The minority poverty rate is 36.3 percent.
Holding elections concurrently with state and federal elections could increase municipal turnout. A recent study showed that in 2011, Baltimore mayoral election was 13% of registered voters. But turnout grew to 60% in 2016, when the city held its mayoral election at the same time as the presidential election.
In response to growing concerns about neighborhood issues, the Council of Cleveland Neighborhoods (CCN) held a Mayoral Forum at Alta House in Little Italy. CCN is a deliberative body of Cleveland homeowners and residents that seeks agreement on issues facing neighborhoods. Independent of the CDC’s, government, the non-profits and real estate development industries, the role of CCN is to improve the process by which neighborhood residents engage with city boards, investors and developers.
Representatives attended the forum from Mt. Pleasant, Old Brooklyn, Glenville (including Wade Park), Brooklyn Center, Tremont, Little Italy, Ohio City, Hough, Buckeye, and North Collinwood. Representatives from each neighborhood gave testimony about issues of concern in their neighborhood to mayoral candidate Justin Bibb and Ward 6 Councilman Blaine Griffin represented mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley.
David Ellison, a resident of Ohio City, and a founding member of the Council of Cleveland Neighborhoods, alternately known as the Cleveland Neighborhood Council, said that fighting the city one battle at a time wasn’t working. Neighborhoods needed to organize.
“We need to cross the river and go beyond our CDC service areas, to talk to people who may not look like us but share the same concerns and problems,” Ellison said. “We have to find a way to deal with the city that is more inclusive and responsive to citizen interests.”
CCN was seeking answers from Kelley and Bibb, he added, about a fair and inclusive process for evaluating development proposals and projects based upon neighborhood goals including historic preservation. While Cleveland shows no signs of a housing shortage, in fact, the city continues a steady decline in population with over 6 percent less residents than ten years ago, construction of new and expensive condominiums and apartments continues to expand especially in high profitability neighborhoods. Residents see no end in sight, said Ellison. As for affordable housing, there’s simply not enough.
Each CCN representative was given a chance to report on activities taking place within their neighborhood in an attempt to voice concerns and dissatisfaction with the city administration. Most complained that the Board of Zoning Appeals (BOZA) was doing a poor job vetting new building projects.
“The BOZA chairperson discounted our concerns and interrupted neighbors during a meeting when we tried to speak up about our issues,” said Marie Anderson-Miller, a resident of Dorchester Drive in North Collingwood, where a controversially private residence was proposed on a site across the street from her homemade headlines last year.
“They were generally sarcastic, dismissive, and at times appeared defensive,” she said.
Despite opposition to the project by Ward 8 Councilman Polensek, developers were given the green light by BOZA. Carol Poh, a historical consultant and member of Cleveland’s design review advisory committees, resigned in protest over the decision citing political favoritism that failed to uphold the protections of the zoning code for citizens.
Fay Harris, a resident of Ohio City for thirty-four years, said the low-income housing assistance program for senior citizens was disgraceful. With a budget of $280,000, only forty to fifty applications were being processed a year. The program failed to serve the most vulnerable residents of the city.
“The director of the Department of Aging is too afraid during budget hearings to ask for more money to combat the problem,” said Harris. “We have one grant writer covering the East side and another on the West side. Two grant writers for the entire city. It’s simply not enough.”
Reports from Little Italy called the CDC’s counterproductive to the interests of residents, while the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corporation (BSSDC) went into receivership by the city causing several Black owned businesses to close.
In Old Brooklyn property taxes have skyrocketed forcing some longtime residents from their homes, raising questions about reviewing the tax policies in favor of the Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP), a Real Estate Tax relief program for eligible homeowners.
Julie Patton, an artist and community activist from Glennville, cited the city for not intervening on developers’ overreach in her neighborhood. “Developers must put a fence around their construction site to protect the integrity of the residents living near the project,” Patton said. “Construction crews use our private property to gain access and leave debris in the wake of construction.”
Representatives from Wade Park and Hessler Road agreed that poor planning and egregious development causes more harm than good. Neighborhoods are under attack by profit seeking developers. Bibb was quick to reply.
“The mayor seat does not belong to one man or one woman, it belongs to all of us,” he said. “But I’ll be very honest with you. I don’t have all of the answers today.”
Bibb vowed to work with CCN as an active partner to address their issues in collaboration with city council. He committed to contacting CCN within 60 days of inauguration. Every employee at City Hall, and people he appoints to city boards, will have mandatory customer care training, he said, and if elected, he plans to instill a common set of core values throughout his administration. City employees will be subject to performance reviews to measure the quality of services. He promised to increase transparency and review current zoning codes.
“Our zoning code is a key process to make sure we have inclusive economic development across our city. The way we do economic and community development is broken,” Bibb said before whisking off to another campaign event without taking questions.
Griffin said he could not make a commitment for Kelley, but said he, Griffin, would meet with CCN within the first few months of Kelley’s administration, if Kelley is elected mayor. There are too many incentives in place for developers but not enough to make sure that historical districts are protected, he said.
“Kelley believes that a form-based zoning code can be phased in for new projects or redesign of current spaces. (A form-based code is a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form as the organizing principle for the code.) Developers find it too easy to work around current zoning codes. Form-based codes will help us with that.”
Griffin, representing Kelley, fielded questions about property taxes and failed attempts by the city to address residents’ concerns. After an hour, he finally appeared to have had enough. The crowd was ready to disperse but not before vowing to hold Griffin to a higher standard of response.
“I’ll make sure Council President Kelley and fellow my council persons hear you,” he said, adding, “I’ve been married for twenty-five years and if I don’t get home to take my wife out for Sweetest Day dinner, there might not be another twenty-five years.”