by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, June 2022) The Ohio Fair Lending Coalition, a collaboration of organizations across the state of Ohio banding together to address fair lending and banking issues, sponsored a forum featuring the newly elected Cleveland City Council members Deborah Gray, Ward 4; Richard Starr, Ward 5; Stephanie Howse, Ward 7; and Kris Harsh, Ward 13. Dr. Roland Anglin, Dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, was the moderator.
Among many pressing issues facing Cleveland, newly elected council members will decide how to allocate American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. In 2021, the City of Cleveland received the eighth largest allocation of ARPA funds in the U.S., totaling $512 million over two years. Cleveland received over $250 million in 2021, allocated late last year under the former Mayor and City Council, and will receive the remainder in 2022. It is unclear how much of that funding remains. Mayor Justin Bibb released a Rescue & Transformation Plan outlining priorities and a process for maximizing the use of the federal fund. The plan includes spending ARPA money, the Infrastructure Innovation and Jobs Act (IIJA), and other legislation still under development.
“Our playbook for investing these dollars must be organized, transparent, equitable, deliberate, and purposeful,” said Mayor Bibb in a press release. “We are not interested in one-off projects. We are focused on the big picture and on projects and initiatives that tangibly impact Clevelanders.”
The priorities include: stabilizing the budget, housing for all, violence prevention and public safety, lead-safe Cleveland, and a civic participation fund where wards can identify important neighborhood projects and advocate for change at the hyper-local level in partnership with City Council.
In his introduction to the forum, Charles Bromley, Director, Ohio Fair Lending Coalition, said nothing is more important than a councilperson to connect government to its leadership.
“We call upon our councilpersons for answers when we have problems,” he said before turning the forum over to Anglin.
Anglin asked the councilpersons to explain how they got into public service. Councilwoman Stephanie Howse was the first to respond, saying that growing up in a civic-minded home gave her a sense of community. Her mother was president of their street block club and a precinct committee person. Lessons of civic engagement meant that she and her cousins were handing out leaflets with information to help people during summer parades and cookouts.
“I found in politics a place where people could help each other,” said Howse. “It set me on the journey to get involved with school government while in college. I knew from an early age that public service was going to be a large part of my life.”
Councilman Harsh said that his journey into public service began when he canceled post-secondary plans to get involved with several grassroots activist organizations. He was a member of Food Not Bombs, an all-volunteer movement recovering food that would otherwise be discarded and providing food and supplies to the survivors of natural disasters and people participating in occupations. Harsh spent a lot of time protesting war and militarism until protests against the war in Iraq fell flat. He turned his attention elsewhere.
“I wandered into community organizing after the activism stopped working for me,” said Harsh. “Instead, I focused on housing issues while working for Metro West Community Development Organization. When former council president Kevin Kelley vacated his seat last year to run for Mayor, I threw my hat into the city council ring.”
For Councilman Starr, public service was not initially in the cards. He had no desire to be in politics. While growing up in the Central neighborhood, with over 45 percent of the population living in poverty, Starr witnessed firsthand the struggles and hardships of residents. With a need for equitable representation in the city council, several key members of his community reached out to ask if he would be interested in running for office. He accepted the challenge but lost a close race to Phyllis Cleveland in 2017. In 2021, Cleveland City Council unanimously approved Delores Gray as a replacement for Phyllis Cleveland, who resigned her seat after 16 years on council. Last month, the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections dismissed a challenge filed against Starr by Gray, who lost the Ward 5 seat to Starr in the November election.
“The work I have done previously, learning about the issues that affect our youth and neighborhood, led me to want to help the community,” said Starr. “It was the residents of Ward 5 that persuaded me to run for office. I am here to work for them.”
Ward 4 Councilwoman Deborah Gray, known for her efforts to clean up abandoned buildings, help neighbors secure fresh food, and replace burned-out streetlights, beat out Erick B. Walker, the senior clerk for government documents at the Cleveland Public Library, with 670 votes to his 478 votes. Before the election, community activist Marion Anita Gardner replaced former Councilman Ken Johnson in June 2021. Johnson was found guilty on 15 counts of federal corruption, sentenced to six years in prison, and ordered to pay more than $740,000 in restitution. Gardner did not seek election.
Gray said that her priorities for the City Council include creating sustainable housing for Ward 4 residents, which includes the neighborhoods of Shaker Square and portions of the Buckeye-Shaker, Woodland Hills, and Mount Pleasant. Safety is critically important. Cleveland ended 2021 with 170 homicides, the second-worst year for homicides in the city since 1991, according to cleveland.com. With over 39% of children in Ward 4 living in poverty, Gray believes City Council can help navigate and understand how the system works.
“People need to know where to find help,” Gray said. “With so many problems at hand, they do not know who to call. Residents have difficulty navigating the social support system.”
Market-orientated community development dominated much of the forum conversation, with each councilperson adding to a list of issues to tackle in the coming months at City Council. An equity planning solution should include a commitment to affordable housing, said Howse, adding that affordable housing means homes costing between $45,000 and $85,000. Clevelanders need an opportunity to own a home, based on their income, not corporate and real estate investor profits.
“We cannot continue to beg and plead with real estate developers for affordable housing. They have repeatedly shown a lack of interest,” said Howse. “We must have a positive working connection to our lending institutions for people to get loans and access to this housing market for new construction and repairs to their existing homes. Financial institutions have been despicable.”
Harsh pointed out that Cleveland has a functioning market development strategy in neighborhoods where private developers have built market-rate condominiums and apartments like downtown, Detroit Shoreway, Tremont, and Ohio City. He was glad to see construction cranes in the Cleveland skyline with new residential buildings leased even before the promotional pamphlets hit the ground. The functioning part of the market works, he said.
“Figuring out how to get more affordable housing into the market should be our priority,” said Harsh.
Mayor Bibb plans to launch the Center for Economic Recovery (CER), a strategic policy team to engage with Cleveland City Council to shape and evaluate ideas for ARPA-funded projects. CER will review requests for funding based on the same set of evaluation principles to ensure all decisions are made strategically, equitably, and transparently with a renewed interest in affordable housing and investments that drive wealth creation and homeownership.
Mayor Bibb recently introduced legislation seeking to change the tax abatement program suggesting that a new policy would improve the current one-size-fits-all approach, which will expire on June 4th. Residential tax abatement is a sore issue for residents in high development neighborhoods, where property taxes have doubled or tripled in recent years.
City Council President Blaine Griffin has vowed to work with Mayor Bibb and Cleveland City Council to support the new legislation to encourage investment in blighted neighborhoods that have not seen growth in recent years and create more affordable housing.