Millions for demolition within reach for Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs

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Millions for demolition within reach for Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs

October 28, 2014 [Leila Atassi,]

 If Cuyahoga County Council approves a plan Tuesday to borrow $50 million for the demolition of vacant buildings, some of the region’s most blighted communities could see demolition crews within a month.

But limits on how much money each community can receive per application cycle could bog down the process for the hardest hit of all – Cleveland.

The city is home to more than 6,000 condemned, wrecking-ball ready structures. If County Council green lights the long-awaited bond issue, Cleveland would be ready to roll immediately with its list of highest-priority properties, City Council President Kevin Kelley said in an interview Friday.

“We need this so badly,” Kelley said. “We’re really looking forward to finally bringing relief to those neighborhoods that have been dealing with these abandoned homes for far too long.”

The proposed plan, however, dictates that each city, village or township can only apply for up to $1 million for the first round of funding. If there’s still money left over, communities can request an additional $2 million.

Cleveland, with as many as 12,000 abandoned buildings and entire streets that are virtually uninhabited, would need about $120 million to completely meet the city’s demolition needs.

“It could be problematic if Cleveland has to come back every week with another application,” said Jim Rokakis, director of the Thriving Communities Institute. The agency has helped leverage grants for demolition by sponsoring studies aimed at demonstrating the power of inner-city blight to destroy the urban real estate market and shift the tax burden on suburbanites.

City officials have joined mayors from the county’s 18 inner-ring suburbs in unsuccessfully jockeying for a larger share.

City Councilman Tony Brancatelli said he has been reassured that the county will accept applications on a rolling basis. Cleveland will be allowed to apply for more money after it spends 80 percent of its last allocation, rather than being forced to wait each round for other cities to get their portion, he said.

The city’s Vacant Property Task Force already has done the hard work of surveying and cueing up properties for demolition, he said. And a provision in the proposal carving out $3 million for each of the next three years for the Cuyahoga Land Bank bodes well for Cleveland. The land bank takes in between 80 and 100 vacant properties a month, many of them in the city.

Brancatelli acknowledged that submitting an application every other week for a sliver of the funds could become cumbersome.

“But I won’t have much anxiety, as long as the county performs and the process is timely,” he said.

So far, getting the legislation to a vote has been anything but.

County Executive Ed FitzGerald first announced the plan in his state of the county address in February. In April, he introduced legislation that created a property demolition fund but included few details.

Council, with the help of administration staff, has been fleshing out the specifics since then.

At County Council’s last meeting earlier this month, members continued to quibble over details of the plan.

Councilman Jack Schron, a Republican running for county executive, repeated concerns that council is “putting the cart before the horse” by not developing a more detailed strategy before borrowing the money.

He said the plan should require communities to submit proposals that are scored on a competitive basis.

Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell, a Democrat, said some of the money should be set aside to rehabilitate some houses.

Councilman Dave Greenspan, a Republican has proposed an alternative plan that would convert the program from a series of grants to zero-interest loans.

The communities that get the money could use increased tax revenues drawn from increased property values to repay the money, he has said. If the communities don’t see an improvement, the loans would be forgiven.

Cleveland officials and Rokakis say that Greenspan’s plan wrongly assumes that investing in the demolition program will bear an immediate return, when many neighborhoods are so ravaged by blight that it could take decades before property values rise.

“I appreciate his creativity,” Rokakis said. “But you can’t always be looking for an immediate return. This will change the quality of life for a lot of people in town. Sometimes you can’t put a Republican or Democratic spin on legislation. It’s just the right thing to do. Period.”