More than 17,000 Northeast Ohio homes aren't receiving water and appear to be vacant

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More than 17,000 Northeast Ohio homes aren’t receiving water and appear to be vacant

March 30, 2013 [Dave Davis, The Plain Dealer]

CLEVELAND, Ohio–Drive around Cuyahoga County and you can’t miss the telltale signs of the housing crisis. They’re seemingly everywhere — the vacant, boarded-up homes, and the crumbling front walks and driveways that lead to vacant lots where homes once stood but where trash now gathers.

Virtually every community in Cuyahoga County has been harmed by derelict properties, including the area’s most affluent suburbs, a Plain Dealer review has found. Foreclosed or vacant properties are scattered from Beachwood to Rocky River, Seven Hills to Solon, Bratenahl to Brecksville — and most places in between.

Among those hardest hit are Maple Heights, Euclid, Garfield Heights and Warrensville Heights. On some streets in Cleveland, the number of homes lost to foreclosure and abandonment outnumber those that are still occupied.

More than 17,000 homes in Cuyahoga and parts of Summit and Medina counties aren’t receiving water and appear to be vacant, the newspaper found.

“It’s a huge, huge problem,” said Gus Frangos, president of the Cuyahoga Land Bank, which currently has about 1,300 properties in its county-wide inventory and is adding them at a rate of more than 100 a month.

The land bank doesn’t see all of the area’s abandoned homes — just some of those that come from tax foreclosure, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, government lender Fannie Mae and some private banks.

“Everything we get is distressed,” said Frangos, adding his group saves what it can but roughly 60 percent of the properties county-wide are lost to wrecking crews.

County land bank officials expect to demolish about 1,000 homes this year, and that’s on top of a similar number of demolitions by the city of Cleveland. The pace is dizzying, a growing number of housing experts say.

“I think we may be demolishing too fast,” said urban planner Terry Schwarz, director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. “Some of these derelict properties are a huge liability, so clearly there are things we need to get rid of.

“But it comes down to whether we’re willing to take the long view here,” Schwarz added. “And the long view says this, ‘Yeah, we have to clear stuff out. But we shouldn’t demolish everything. We should be demolishing in a very intentional, strategic, smart way.

“I genuinely believe that sooner rather than later we’re going to see a lot of renewed interest in city neighborhoods.”

The examination of abandoned properties was spurred by a list of addresses of those not receiving water complied by the Cleveland Division of Water in mid-February. The newspaper also reviewed foreclosure and sheriff sale documents.

The water department list, which covers Cleveland and more than 65 suburbs in the water department’s service area, provides a clear snapshot of a moving target — the uninhabited homes that together are the area’s housing crisis.

“We keep information about these properties in our system because there may be old debt on them,” said Jason Wood, chief of public affairs for Cleveland’s Department of Public Utilities.

“They’re boarded-up,” Wood added. “They’re vacant. It’s a mixture of both. We don’t know what the condition of the property is beyond it’s in our vacant property system and we have turned the water off at the street.”

Homes in Cleveland Heights and Lakewood were not included on the list because the Cleveland water department does not bill residents in those suburbs. However, court records show 243 active foreclosure cases for Lakewood; 59 for Cleveland Heights.

Not all of the homes on the water department list are derelict; hundreds are in the process of being renovated or built and so the water has not been turned on. These homes are mostly located in the area’s more affluent suburbs.

The newspaper visually inspected more than 250 properties. They were among nearly 11,000 in inner-city neighborhoods in Cleveland and East Cleveland, where nearly all addresses on the list were abandoned homes or vacant lots.

Added to that were thousands more properties located in inner-ring suburbs, where large numbers of abandoned homes and vacant lots were mixed with new construction and homes being renovated.

One middle-class neighborhood in Twinsburg Township, which sits in the shadow of the former Chrysler plant, has seen so many homes demolished that it looks like a face with most of its teeth missing.

When asked whether foreclosures have hurt the neighborhood, a woman unloading groceries from a car responds, “Look around you.” She doesn’t want to give her name fearing the neighborhood, which reported a median household income above $53,000 in the 2010 Census, will be seen as a poster child for suburban blight.

“We need jobs,” said Kevin Chambers, a homeowner in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. His block on E. 139th street off Kinsman Road has nearly as many abandoned homes and vacant lots as places with electricity and running water. The median household income stood at $23,581, according to the latest Census.

“If we got jobs, people would start investing in homes again,” Chambers said. “That’s the key.”

An aggressive block association got the city to tear down most of the boarded-up properties about a year ago. They had been taken over by squatters and drug dealers. Chambers recalled what his neighborhood was like then, saying, “I didn’t go outside much.

“I’ve been through it all — the dope boys, the crime. You still hear a lot of shooting — pop, pop, pop. But it’s not like it was.”

Today, about a half dozen boarded-up homes remain standing, and Chambers says that more are appearing every few months. He says that tearing them down has made the neighborhood safer, but he and others are now questioning what can be done with all the vacant lots, which gather trash and illegally-dumped debris.

“If they built something in those lots it would help,” said Alforniece Chambliss, whose lived in the area for 49 years. “We need new homes. That would upgrade the neighborhood.”

But newly constructed homes in neighborhoods like this usually cost buyers well over $100,000, a price tag that most housing experts say is too high for a troubled neighborhood in a bad economy.

Michael Fleming, executive director of the St. Clair Superior Development Corp., said part of the answer in his community is to create more high-quality, low-cost renovations that are an alternative to buying a new home, particularly for young people who may want a more modern layout.

Working with Fleming’s non-profit and the county land bank, local developer Chuck Scaravelli has built two model homes with most of the second floor removed, creating lofts at each end. Downstairs, on the first floor, walls that had carved out the various rooms have been removed in favor of an open-concept floor plan. (A story on the pilot project can be found in today’s business section).

The homes rent for just $500 a month, and there’s a waiting list 15 people deep. Fleming believes the home could be sold for $40,000 or less. That creates a much larger pool of potential buyers.

“It’s not that the demand isn’t there to live in these Cleveland east-side neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s that we weren’t offering the right product.”

Cleveland Councilman Jeff Johnson, whose Ward 8 includes St Clair-Superior, Glenville and University Circle neighborhoods, is among those excited about the pilot project. But Johnson stressed last week that it was just part of the long-term solution, partly because it can only be done on a specific type of house.

Johnson said that officials deciding the fate of abandoned homes need to think beyond just the two typical options — demolish or renovate.

He’s using a third option in his ward that he calls “mothballing,” meaning the home is secured so no one can break in, it’s grounds are maintained, and its held until a private investor can be found.

“The majority of empty houses should be demolished, but there’s still a significant percentage that can be saved and should be mothballed,” Johnson said. “We’re losing very good housing that we can never be replaced.”