CLEVELAND, Ohio — Jeremy Taylor and Jimmy Brookins are getting to know the streets of Cleveland better than most of the city’s politicians.
With an iPad in hand, they are walking every street, and photographing every house, business and empty lot in search of abandoned properties. They are also recording information – such as the condition of the roofs and porches — and assigning a letter grade to each house. The information is uploaded instantly to a cloud-based database.
Taylor and Brookins, who both live in Cleveland and are in their 20s, are one of eight pairs of people, or teams, pounding the pavement every day for about seven hours. The teams hope to visit all of the city’s 158,000 properties by the end of September, which means they collectively need to check more than 2,000 properties a day. They started this week on the city’s East Side, in North Collinwood, and are working west.
The information they collect will produce Cleveland’s first-ever citywide property survey that is based on visual inspections rather than solely on property records.
The purpose is to give the city a more accurate picture of how many abandoned properties haunt its streets and the condition of the surrounding homes. With such information, the city can better spend limited demolition money, especially with the larger neighborhood in mind.
I’m typically skeptical of surveys, studies and reports. Taxpayers pay thousands for reports that are often poorly conceived and quickly forgotten. I believe this one is simple enough to actually be useful, if only to give us the a real number of abandoned properties.
I’ve heard city housing officials and experts say the number of abandoned properties in the city ranges from 8,000 to 15,000. And Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration has done several of its own surveys of abandoned properties in the city. But these are based largely on city information kept in-house, such as which properties have no utilities connected.
The organization conducting the latest survey is the nonprofit Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which has conducted similar on-the-ground surveys in Akron, Lorain, East Cleveland and elsewhere through its Thriving Communities Institute. The conservancy believes the information about abandoned properties is so important that it launched the Cleveland survey before fully raising the more than $200,000 needed to cover the costs. The Cleveland Foundation has made a sizable commitment to the project. The City of Cleveland doesn’t have any money to kick in, but the city’s Building and Housing Department is lending its expertise by, among other things, helping to train the survey takers on how to evaluate properties.
Jim Rokakis, who is director of the conservancy’s Thriving Community Initiative and has become a prophet of sorts on the housing crisis, said demolitions are critical to a city’s rebirth.
“As demolitions go up, foreclosures go down,” he said, drawing two imaginary lines in the air to simulate a graph.
To see things for myself, I caught up with Taylor and Brookins on Wednesday morning, in Collinwood, on Alhambra Avenue. As they worked the street in bright orange T-Shirts with the words “Cleveland Street Survey,” people on porches wanted to know why they were photographing houses. The explanation triggered enthusiasm.
Seventeen-year resident Vanessa Windham said she is happy someone is paying attention. She then told Brookins about the raccoons that live in the abandoned house next to hers and pointed out another abandoned house a few doors down.
As I looked at the houses, some signs of abandonment were obvious, such as boarded windows and busted front doors. But other rundown homes were harder to evaluate. I kept thinking that one man’s sagging soffits and damaged roof is another man’s castle.
Making that right call will be key to creating an accurate database and that’s why the survey takers received training.
Even with training, Taylor and Brookins and the others house counters have a long road ahead of them.
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