Blight and home abandonment now a persistent drag on Greater Cleveland's economy: Brent Larkin

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Blight and home abandonment now a persistent drag on Greater Cleveland’s economy: Brent Larkin

June 27, 2014 [Brent Larkin,]

In a meeting with about 60 senior citizens at the Cleveland branch library in Glenville the night of May 28, Councilman Kevin Conwell asked for a show of hands from residents who felt trapped in houses that have plummeted in value.

Every person in the room raised their hand.

Conwell, joined by Councilmen Mike Polensek and T.J. Dow, had invited seniors to discuss what he calls “shelter poverty,” people stuck in houses they can’t afford to leave, in neighborhoods overwhelmed by blight.

“Too many of our residents are surrounded by boarded-up homes, crime, poverty and hopelessness,” said Conwell. “Taxes and the price of government are high. Services are low. And their houses are now worth so little they can’t afford to fix them up.”

In many Cleveland neighborhoods, it’s every bit that bad.

A study of property records in Cleveland and five contiguous communities shows the median sale price of existing homes dropped an astonishing 62 percent (from about $86,000 to about $33,000) between 2006 and 2013. Those prices do not include nontraditional low-value transfers such as sheriff sales, quit claims and forfeitures.

In Cleveland, sale prices dropped 63.4 percent. They dropped 80.9 percent in East Cleveland, 67.5 percent in Maple Heights, 67.3 percent in Garfield Heights, 62.3 percent in Euclid and 58.9 percent in Newburgh Heights.

Median sales prices for homes in Cuyahoga County’s other 53 municipalities dropped 21 percent ($154,000 to $121,000) during the same seven-year period.

The study, which used home-transfer data and assessed property valuations, was conducted by the nonprofit Thriving Communities Institute, with backing from Cleveland City Council, Neighborhood Progress Inc. and the Cuyahoga County Land Bank. It was completed in March.

Entitled “The Cost of Vacancy – Everybody Pays,” the report also explained why the dramatic drop in sale prices should bother every resident of Cuyahoga County, not just those in Cleveland and the five contiguous communities.

Declining property values in Cleveland and its inner ring have shifted nearly $45 million in property tax burdens to the more prosperous suburbs – meaning that taxpayers in outer-ring suburbs pay more to fund levies for things like county social programs, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, Cuyahoga Community College and the Cleveland Metroparks.

Countywide tax levies are based on assessed property values and paid by the property owners. In 2006, property owners in the outer-ring suburbs were responsible for paying 79.2 percent of the county’s property tax bill. By 2012 that figure had grown to 83.5 percent.

Lots of good things are happening in a few parts of Cleveland, but the threat that the inexorable spread of blight poses to this community cannot be overstated. That spread – and the crime and human misery that follow it – will not stop until those vacant buildings come down.

It is no coincidence that the primary recommendation of the task force convened by the Obama administration to attack the blight in bankrupt Detroit was to raise the $850 million needed to quickly demolish 40,000 empty buildings.

“Blight is a cancer,” said task force chairman and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert when the group issued its report in late May. It “sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.”

With a nearby view of what happened a few miles to the north, the Toledo Blade has launched an ongoing series of front-page stories entitled, “The Ugly Truth about Toledo.” The series focuses on the spread of blight and the urgent need to demolish at least 5,000 structures.

Closer to home, the latest figures kept by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy show that, as of June 19, there were a minimum of 9,430 vacant structures in Cleveland and 19,644 countywide.

At the present rate, the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium estimates that by 2040 an additional 175,000 homes will be abandoned in the 12-county region. The cost to take them down: nearly $2 billion.

“It’s a no-win situation: Ignore the problem and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money you don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and business away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse,” wrote Jason Segedy, director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, in a report that can be found at

The most blighted communities are tearing down as many structures as possible. And County Executive Ed FitzGerald wisely wants to spend $50 million on clearing blighted neighborhoods. But because demolition is costly (about $10,000 for a single-family home), it’s not nearly enough.

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley knows that.

“This is a horrible problem,” said Kelley. “And it’s an expensive one. But these structures absolutely have to come down. “

For several years, the loudest voice on this issue has belonged to Jim Rokakis, director of the Thriving Communities Institute and a former Cleveland councilman and county treasurer.

“We can fix this problem,” he insisted. “If we as a community come together with the determination to take down these structures, clean up the soil and make land green – if we do that in a holistic way – we can actually turn a negative into a positive.

“It takes will. And it’s not as exciting as a chandelier in Playhouse Square or a new restaurant in Ohio City. I get all that. But if we don’t do anything about it, things will only get worse.”

That may seem to some like a prediction. It’s actually a fact.