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Jim Rokakis has (15 million) answers to Cleveland's vacancy crisis

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/19/14 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

Detroit’s valiant attempt to not drown in vacant property is embodied in its Blight Authority, which deploys a fleet of 75 (American made) cars and 225 surveyors armed with iPads down emptied streets to snap GPS-encoded pictures of all 300,000 parcels. It may be the most ambitious effort to document the condition of every single building in a city, and to plan what to do about vacancy on a scale never seen before.

“The database is expected to bring the clearest, if perhaps the gloomiest, picture yet of the city’s hollowed-out neighborhoods, which homes can be saved and where demolition may be the only cure,” The New York Times reports.

Vacant to green<br />Koinonia, a large provider of homes to the disabled, worked with Cuyahoga County Land Bank to convert two and a half acres of vacant land in Old Brooklyn into an urban farm in 2012.

Cleveland is mentioned by The Times because of its “elaborate steps to map neighborhoods with unoccupied and damaged buildings.”

While that may be a reference to Cleveland's nationally known ReImagine study, we don’t have nearly the scale of abandoned properties as Detroit—estimates in the Motor City range from 75,000-90,000. Cleveland does have a similar ground team of planners and funders who have spent the last decade trying to keep pace with the blight tsunami that many a national pundit wondered too whether it would sink.

In the constellation of those fighting blight, Cleveland has some bright lights—like Slavic Village Councilman Tony Brancatelli, Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka, and Frank Ford and Jim Rokakis—who have taken up Cleveland’s cause in the halls of Washington, Wall Street, and here at home. They’ve tried to pick up the pieces of people’s lives as tens of thousands walked away from toxic loans and whole blocks were boarded up and stripped clean from the inside out.

We spoke to Rokakis, the director of Thriving Communities Institute, a program at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, on the question of how big is the vacant property problem in Cleveland, and what can be done about it?

“It’s a complicated issue until we get a really good survey done,” he says. “In Cleveland we have 8,300 properties that are vacant or have no utilities.”

Rokakis, who helped start up the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, doesn’t think that 8,300 is definitive (and would be much higher if the inner-ring suburbs were included). To that end, they will conduct a survey with East Cleveland and produce a hard number. He estimates the small suburb could have 1,500-2,000 vacant structures (Case reports that 1 in 5 are abandoned in E. Cleveland). He says the E. Cleveland survey plans to employ the same method as Detroit’s Blight Authority.

“In Detroit, the Blight Authority has been able, by using sound principles, to come up with a way of going from $10,000 to $5,000 (for demolition) per house and get a bigger bang for the buck. You have to be methodical,” he says. “It’s why we’ve been out in front on demolition. People all over the state are living in a sea of vacant properties. It wouldn’t be tolerated in a Rocky River or Hunting Valley, but somehow it’s OK with the poorest among us?”

The former Cuyahoga County Treasurer has been singularly focused on bringing as much money from the settlements of the sub-prime lending lawsuits to bear on demolishing as many of Northeast Ohio’s vacant homes as possible. In his zeal for demolition, Rokakis has been branded by critics for taking too aggressive a stance; rather than a chainsaw, they’d like to see him use a scalpel and salvage what may be operable. But, he’s unapologetic, which could explain his recent, big windfalls.

In 2013, Thriving Communities was tasked by the U.S. Treasury in providing evidence that demolitions improve adjacent property values. They produced a study that has laid the groundwork for a decision by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to set aside $75 million of the $93 million in the “robo signing” lawsuit for demolition, Rokakis said. Next, Ohio’s congressional delegation led by Reps. Fudge, Kaptur and LaTourrette introduced bills to tap the foreclosure relief “Hardest Hit” fund, and Treasury acquiesced: $60 million for Ohio of which $15 million will come to Cuyahoga County.

“They said, ‘we want you to not just take down but to also green these properties," Rokakis said. "Potentially, up to five thousand dollars can be spent per property. From blight to blight light. So, we’re working with landscape architects on how we could really beautify them.”

“Beautify” won’t exactly get the Biophilic Cities award, but Rokakis would probably be the first to admit that he’s not the visionary planner. He doesn’t talk about restoring whole ecosystems from stitched together vacant land. But he does talk about parcel-level re-greening efforts now that Thriving Communities was awarded a $250,000 grant from St. Luke’s Foundation to bring to the Woodland Hills, Buckeye, Larchmere and Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods.

The Buckeye project calls for figuring out the best way to invest that $5,000 per vacant lot for “greening.”

“To kick that process off, our property surveys will have our GIS folks working on presenting a plan to the County Land Bank on which to prioritized.”

Certainly, the naturalists at the land conservancy will be searching for how to reintroduce some higher form of nature to the city than grass seed?

Rokakis said it was too early to reveal details, but he did hint that a massive tree planting project is a leading contender.

Meanwhile, Rokakis continues to chase down those responsible—going after a piece of the JP Morgan Chase settlement—for the housing meltdown that disproportionately affected cities like Detroit and Cleveland. The one point of light for him was the establishment of county land banks (now in every county of Northeast Ohio except for Geauga and Medina).

“The Cuyahoga Land Bank opened its doors in June of 2009. The impact, I think, has been stunning. It’s taken in and demolished 3,000 properties and rehabbed 700 properties. We got between the public and the speculators. Got between them because neighborhoods are distressed.

"We’re so overwhelmed with the problem," he continues. "We have to look at it as an opportunity. We have a lot of vacant buildings and land. It’s time to re-green the city.”

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Public Square
3 years ago

It will be interested to see how long these "attractively landscaped properties" remain so. Who is responsibly for the ongoing maintenance of these properties? In other words, what happens after the ribbon-cutting ceremony? Sadly this looks like we're just dumping money for a temporary feel-good fix with no long-term plan. It's interesting to characterize empty lot as "blight light," but it might turn out that an empty lot isn't so bad after all.

Marc
3 years ago

Thanks for those corrections, Jim, I have edited the piece to include them. Keep up the good work!

Jim Rokakis
3 years ago

Marc,
Thanks for highlighting local efforts to halt the spread of blight in our neighborhoods. I want to clarify a few points in your story. In Cleveland alone there are 8,300 vacant, condemned properties -- that number would be much higher if the inner rings suburbs were included. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine was responsible for making $75 million of the $93 million (Ohio's share of the "robo signing" settlement) for demolition. The US Treasury issued the challenge to prove that demolitions reduced further foreclosures and preliminary results from that study convinced Treasury to free up $60 million of Ohio's share of the Hardest Hit Fund to be used for demolition. The portion of those funds available for greening will take properties beyond blight light (empty, vacant lots) to attractively landscaped properties that will enhance our neighborhoods. Finally, the Cuyahoga Land Bank has demolished over 3,000 properties, not 300, since its inception, in addition to rehabbing 700. They are doing a fantastic job!

The Good King
3 years ago

So, who's going to cut the grass on these "beautified" properties? Will they have zero carbon maintenance requirements?

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