Ever since her father put a paint brush in her hand when she was 5, Desiree Schmitt has fancied herself a handy kind of person. So six years ago, she plunked down $7,500 on the dilapidated but historic behemoth at 714 College Avenue. The equally worn house out back came with the package. Her plan: Put a lot of time and money into turning some North Tremont eyesores into a storefront home and a rental. She's still waiting for the payoff.
Copper thieves stripped the front house, she says, "and every tool I've ever owned was stolen and replaced twice. Every time I took a step forward, people would knock me three steps back."
Just last November - some $200,000 later - she finished the front house, complete with a charming little storefront doll shop and a high-ceilinged apartment for herself, surrounded by two smaller already-occupied rental units. She had planned to start on the back lot in the spring - a job estimated to cost another $100,000. But that's not soon enough for the city.
Schmitt's properties were some of the first targeted by Tremont West Development Corp.'s recently intensified code-enforcement blitz. It's going on in other parts of the city, but the aggressive approach employed by Tremont West has drawn the most ire, leading into an annual meeting Thursday, January 29, that has several low-income residents lining up for seven up-for-grabs trustee seats.
No sooner had Schmitt finished her first property when a search warrant was performed on her back house. Days later, the house was declared a public nuisance with a long list of violations. She'd never received a complaint from the city, but now she was being told to make the repairs within a month or watch the house fall.
"This is a nice little piece of history being salvaged," says 39-year-old Schmitt, on a quick break from running her Tremont-based business, Southside Cleaners & Concierge. "Nobody's more motivated than me to get it done. But I'm only one person."
The only way she could keep the demo from happening, city leaders told her, was to appeal to the Board of Building Standards. Her appeal hearing is coming soon, and she was assured that the city won't tear down the house until the process plays itself out. But she isn't happy to be targeted so suddenly and after so much work.
"It seems like due process is not even existent here," she says. At a recent meeting of Tremont West's housing committee, she told members who've compiled a list of homes slated for aggressive revamp, "I'm downtown trying to figure out how to stop this, when just around the corner from me, there's an absentee homeowner who's speculating and wants way more than market value for a house that's falling over. There's literally a hole in the side of the house and the neighbors are all upset."
Oh, that one's in our sights too, she was told.
Tom Bell was incensed enough to file a lawsuit against the city, Tremont West and their agents in December. The developer and owner of the Flying Monkey won't talk to Scene, on advice from his attorney, but in a letter dated before his appeal was filed, Bell was reaching out for any help he could find in preserving a residential property adjacent to his Jefferson Avenue pub. He'd planned on revamping it after a new parking lot got laid on the other side of the bar. And then the same thing that happened to Schmitt happened to him: "From 'zero' [complaints] to 'demo' in one fell swoop," he wrote, complaining of "a complete and flagrant absence of due process, not to mention possible issues of capricious and arbitrary enforcement."
Bell says the property is valued at about $100,000 but would be worth about $50,000 without the house. He doesn't deny that it needs work. But it looks fine from the road, just another house on a could-be-better Cleveland street. Some suspect that by targeting him, Tremont West might have gone fishing for needed parking spaces for a neighborhood that's become a magnet for restaurant patrons and gallery visitors. Others think the agency is just trying spruce up another long-delayed development now underway. But everyone seems to agree that Tremont must be saved, but which Tremont? The working-class scrapper? Or the trendy drinking buddy?
Staring down Bell's property on a recent stroll, Schmitt shakes her head: "The more I talk about it, the more I get mad and think that I should have gotten in on that lawsuit."
That malaise pocks the community, one that's trying to hold back a tide of blight that's washed over so many other Cleveland neighborhoods.
"More than 50 percent of the residents here live below poverty, and there's nothing [said about] how to help them come out of poverty," says 58-year-old Jerlene Justus, who lives with her mother on West 7th and believes Tremont West should focus more on its historic mission as a social-service organization. "The situation, it's basically: Push them out. But some of these people, they have to make a decision about whether they're going to put food on their table or keep heat on or build a new roof."
Cleveland Municipal Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka says that as much as $25 million in extra federal dollars is expected to trickle into Cleveland soon, geared toward demolition, repair and hiring extra code-enforcement officers. Some think Tremont West is positioning itself with as much vacant land as possible for when that windfall comes.
"This is a perfect storm for rapid gentrification," says Debra Weita, an artist, Tremont West watchdog and master's student in urban planning at Cleveland State. "With federal funds coming for the foreclosure crisis, this stepped-up housing-code enforcement and the fact that no programs are available for residents [who] might not be bankable, there's nothing right now. Nothing."
And if the maneuvering that frazzled Bell and Schmitt is employed in a more widespread way, Tremont West might just end up with some extra lots to redevelop and add to its still-profitable list of new properties for sale. "They're trying to take a lot of different properties from poorer people over there and develop them," theorizes Lily Miller, a housing advocate who spent 11 years working with Pianka. "I've never heard of anything like this in my life. I believe it's criminal and, if nothing else, immoral and unethical."
But in case you missed it, planners and city leaders note, Cleveland's in the middle of a housing crisis. The bright spot is that there are some areas where redevelopment is still a profitable endeavor. Like Tremont. Tremont West is one of six CDCs recently chosen to take part in a "strategic investment initiative" (SII) under the auspices of Cleveland Progress Inc., a foundation-supported organization tasked with helping CDCs shine. The SII, according to Cleveland Progress' website, "aims to restore private markets, including real estate, in a select number of Cleveland neighborhoods which have undergone previous decline but show potential to 'recover'."
Model blocks, like those surrounding Tremont's finally moving Gospel Press redevelopment which encompasses Schmitt and Bell's properties, are selected for targeted enforcement.
A code enforcement subcommittee at Tremont West has created a list of 77 code-breaking properties. Working with the blitz is Ron O'Leary, the city's assistant director of building and housing, who told residents at the recent housing committee meeting that he understands what some residents are up against and also how much more is at stake now: "[In] some other areas of the city that are more distressed, it makes more sense to probably look much more favorably on [demolishing] than trying to rehab. But Tremont is one of the more stable parts of the city." Still, he conceded, "the number of people without the resources to fix their code issues is much more substantial in the city than in the suburbs."
So those with credit are expected to take out low-interest loans to fix their properties, even though it adds another bill to their mounting frustration. And those who don't have credit or savings to tap face the prospect of becoming yet another lower-income resident of Tremont to surrender to gentrification.
Councilman Joe Cimperman, whose Ward 13 encompasses much of Tremont, says some parts of the city have so many absentee landlords that the only logical tactic to curb blight is an aggressive demolition program. The city is performing more demos now than ever before, he notes, up from 200 to about 1,000 last year.
But in Tremont, a different tack is needed, says Cimperman. A recent effort to visit homes with housing violations, to point homeowners to programs that could help them afford repairs, yielded a startling encounter: an elderly man from Poland, living in his own urine and starving to death. The exterior looked fine, Cimperman says, "but he still was living in a house not fit for an animal. Nobody wants to see anybody go through demolition, but a lot of times the whole process makes people reach out to other people. It's a fine balance."
Upstanding citizens like Schmitt and Bell will likely be granted the time they need to do what they need to do, predicts Cimperman, and "people like the landlord of that Polish guy need to be locked up and have the key thrown away."
Sammy Catania, who relinquished his post as president of Tremont West's board to head up its SII, says the program is "bringing people to the table that need to be there."
He disagrees with those who characterize Tremont West's approach as "aggressive": "It's a concerned approach. When they started looking at code enforcement, maybe they overdid it. We have to look at it and say, 'Let's look and see where we can help and where we can't.' … It's a hard issue in this economy, but the intent of the program is not to disenfranchise anyone. The intent is to keep a good cognitive wellness in the neighborhood, a good housing stock at all income levels."
According to a study by vacancy experts commissioned in 2005 by Neighborhood Progress ("Cleveland at a Crossroads: Turning Abandonment into Opportunity" at clevelandhousingcourt.org/hc_rd_a.html), preserving neighborhoods like Tremont is imperative. And so is preserving the population that lives there. "In spite of the fact that Cleveland has a plethora of repair and rehabilitation programs, respondents noted that there were still insufficient home-repair resources for responsible owners who are seeking to hold onto and maintain their properties, particularly in cases where owners have limited income or marginal credit. Changing the ground rules for private property owners is long overdue, and should include targeting problem properties and their owners for enforcement while at the same time building a support system to prevent abandonment."
"It's tough in these times now," admits Catania. "But we must try to move forward. There's no Ozzie-and-Harriet world. Urban redevelopment requires constant interplay between all parties. And all must be present and participating. It doesn't have to be a fight. It has to come to a level of understanding and compromise."
Pianka spends his days trying to make that sound more realistic. "I see many people with a great plan with no money to fund the plan, and they have purchased more properties than can possibly be maintained or repaired," he says. "I had someone today with 14 properties, and they can't afford to repair them. Well, why do you own them?"
He believes every neighborhood should have the comprehensive approach that Tremont and the five other SII communities are now implementing. But you have to start somewhere.
If just the right amount of pressure can be applied in just the right places, Pianka believes new views will start to emerge all across the city. "Many times," he says, "the stories of neighborhoods are written by people who saved neighborhoods by saving buildings, by bringing properties back and doing everything possible."
Whether they could afford to or not.