Homesteading plan to offer abandoned homes to refugees

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Homesteading plan to offer abandoned homes to refugees

December 13, 2011 [Robert L. Smith, The Plain Dealer]

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Within the collection of abandoned houses haunting the region stand some unpolished gems, sturdy structures that lack only a caring family to again become a home. Where will those families come from?

They’re already here.

That’s what the International Services Center told leaders of the Cuyahoga County land bank, sparking a novel program that will attack blight with immigrant might. On Wednesday, the new partners will announce an effort to match vacant houses with refugees who agree to fix them up and make them homes.

By offering struggling immigrants a fresh start in an empty space, organizers hope to inject new life and economic vitality into distressed neighborhoods. The strategy, believed to be one of the first of its kind in the nation, attacks an obvious problem with a little-known strength.

About 15,000 vacant and abandoned houses pockmark Cuyahoga County, most of them awaiting costly demolition. The region no longer attracts immigrant waves of a size that built ethnic neighborhoods. But it does draw a small and steady stream of refugees, people forced to flee their homelands because of war or persecution.

Many refugees arrive as two-parent families, often after languishing for years in refugee camps. They’re anxious to start new lives and that starts with a place to live.

“We have all these empty houses. These people need homes,” said Karin Wishner, executive director of the International Services Center, the region’s oldest resettlement agency. “This seems to be a good answer to both problems.”

Her agency typically helps find modest rental housing for the newcomers, who receive a small government stipend to get started in America. Refugees may arrive suddenly, however, and that housing hunt can be a scramble. Landlords are often reluctant to accept tenants with no credit or work history.

Wishner said she has long dreamt of a reliable supply of decent, vacant housing.

That was intriguing news to Gus Frangos, president of what’s formally called the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corp. He has more vacant houses than he knows what to do with. The usual solution, demolition, costs his agency $10,000 to $20,000 per house.

When Wishner told him she knew of hard-working families who would love to go to work on a neglected house and join the neighborhood, Frangos went and met some of them, couples from Africa, Asia and South America.

“They’re all very earnest,” Frangos said. “They want to work. And they want to live here. I’m like, ‘Heck, that’s what we need in our community. People!’ ”

The program, called “Discovering Home,” will begin modestly this winter with a single family moving into a house on the northeast side of Lakewood.

In November, the land bank began renovations on the narrow yellow two-story house at 1443 Hopkins Avenue, which has stood vacant for years. Fannie Mae, the government-sponsored mortgage finance company, kicked in $50,000 to fund some of the repairs and to jumpstart the program.

Plans call for the land bank to turn over the deed to the ISC, which will manage the property until the tenants — who are expected to earn sweat equity — are deemed ready to be homeowners.

Wishner is not sure which family will get that responsibility, but she has a deep pool of likely applicants.

On Monday afternoon, the cramped downtown offices of the International Services Center stirred with dozens of new Clevelanders learning English, sewing and other work skills.

The students included Way Htoo, 41, a Burmese man who spent 15 years in a refugee camp in Thailand before receiving a coveted visa to America. He arrived in June with his wife and five daughters, the oldest 16.

Htoo, tapped by the United Nations to help manage his refugee camp, is an earnest man who takes steady strides. He has learned rudimentary English, learned to sew, and next week he begins a full-time job with a Cleveland apparel maker.

The family lives in the top half of a double in Lakewood. At the thought of a home of his own, Htoo’s eyes shine. There’s no doubt where he wants that home to be.

“Cleveland is America,” he said, everything he dreamed of.

Frangos said he hopes to renovate 11 more doomed houses next year, in cooperation with the ISC, match them with refugee families and then take stock.

“My vision is, every year, I’d like to give 10, 15 houses over to their families,” Frangos said. “I think we can bring back some of these neighborhoods.”

From his perspective, the cost is manageable. Money he would have spent on demolition he will plow into renovation.

The ISC, a struggling nonprofit agency, will need additional revenue to cover its new costs as a landlord and property owner. Staffers hope the program will attract public support and donations.

Gretchen Becker, the ISC’s employment specialist, is optimistic.

“These families may become the new fabric of Cleveland,” she said, noting she has little problem finding jobs for her clients. “They’re motivated. They’re hard-working. And they want to be here.”