Cleveland Neighborhoods Cooperate to Improve Urban Housing

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In Cleveland an extraordinary network of neighborhoods has been formed to help communities cope with their number one problem: housing.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance works to help urban residents gain greater control over their lives through the use of low-technology, decentralist tools and concepts. Because we believe that city dwellers and country folks alike can profit from the institute’s admirable efforts, we’ve made this “what’s happening where” report by the ILSR staffers one of MOTHER’s regular features.

The Tremont neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio suffers from many of the same problems that plague most inner-city communities: A majority of its 12,000 residents are tenants who live in substandard housing and are forced–all told–to pay more than $10 million a year to utility companies for their energy needs. However, one major difference between Tremont and similar urban communities in other cities is that this Cleveland neighborhood is taking active and effective steps toward getting rid of their tenement woes.

You see, in Cleveland there is an extraordinary network of neighborhoods that has been formed to help different communities cope with their number one problem: housing. For the neighborhood on the way down, of course, this problem is manifested in neglected and abandoned buildings, which become dangerous fire hazards. Ironically, though, the average city dweller in areas that are on the way up suffers too, because of “gentrification”: the influx of the wealthy, who raise property values (and thus, taxes) and displace long-term tenants.

Cleveland’s inner-city communities believe the solution to the housing problem is home ownership and renovation. Therefore, various neighborhoods have formed organizations to share their expertise with one another and to help their residents [1] be able to buy homes (through providing economically priced dwellings with low-interest loans), and [2] learn how to keep up their houses. For example, the Famicos Foundation teaches folks how to enter into a property development business, while the Lutheran Housing Corporation provides education in home maintenance skills.

The Cleveland Housing Network (CHN) is an umbrella group, consisting of six such neighborhood organizations. Each year, it borrows $500,000 from the city to divide up among its members to finance property renovation. The interest-free government loan doesn’t have to be paid off for ten years, which allows the neighborhood groups to charge home buyers a low 5% interest rate on mortgages.

Neighborhood residents also keep close tabs on surrounding buildings. “We’ve established a network of block clubs to keep inventory,” says Chris Warren, director of the Tremont West Development Corporation (TWDC). “They identify vacant buildings and–through high-grade detective work–discover where the owners live.” Then TWDC–aided by a recently created housing court–negotiates with the owners to get them to sell or upgrade their structures.

Because housing is very inexpensive in Cleveland (in many areas, a 1,500-square-foot home in good shape sells for as little as $10,000 to $15,000), a community group such as Tremont West can buy an abandoned property for about $3,000, invest another $8,000 to $25,000 in renovating it, and then turn around and sell it to a family on a low-interest, lease-purchase arrangement.

This type of rehabilitation business is so successful, in fact, that TWDC has spun off a profitmaking corporation called Bristol Construction Company (BCC). Its president, Steve Moon–formerly a neighborhood grocer–says BCC has renovated 24 units and built one new one, using neighborhood workers to do almost all of the labor. (Only the plumber was brought in from the outside!)

Sadly, rising energy prices have threatened to undermine Cleveland’s innovative housing programs, because even though inner-city citizens might be able to afford $100 to $150 a month for mortgage payments, many have a hard time meeting the nearly $200-a-month winter gas bills! Fortunately, as one part of the city’s neighborhood network uncovered this problem, another segment sought out its solution. The Gund Foundation launched a Neighborhood Self-Help Program in which Tremont and several other communities received grants to provide energy conservation education to their residents. At the same time–to comply with a federal mandate– Ohio gas and electric utilities began offering energy audits to their customers.

Shortly after people learned about the utility conservation programs, the Ohio Public Interest Campaign (OPIC), a statewide organizing group–and still another member of the neighborhood network–came up with an idea to pull the audit and housing programs together. “The obvious ideal solution was to make neighborhood groups the audit contractors,” says Bill Callahan, OPIC’s energy director.

The Lutheran Housing Corporation quickly picked up on this plan and approached the East Ohio Gas Company, only to be rejected by the utility group. Apparently, East Ohio had already contracted with the Equifax Corporation to perform their audits. Since Equifax, though, is the largest credit researcher in the world (the company performs about 15 million credit checks a year), it certainly was not the kind of company most homeowners would want to have waltzing through their dwellings and looking around! Even more damning, OPIC discovered that Equifax had no effective marketing strategy for handling audits inside Cleveland: Fewer than 100 of almost 3,500 energy surveys conducted by the corporation had been done inside the city limits.

Then OPIC discovered that East Ohio was asking the public utility commission for permission to charge its customers for seven times the number of audits actually performed! Finally, the city intervened, and as a re-sult, an agreement was written up between Cleveland and East Ohio in which the utility company committed itself to do at least 1,400 home energy checks within the city. Once that contract was signed, East Ohio Gas had to turn to the neighborhood groups…to get help to perform all those audits!

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