"Housing," as a term and by its very nature since 2008 or so, conjures up a vast array of mental images: demolitions, construction, vacancies, blight, renewal and more. All of that is present in South Euclid, an eastside inner-ring suburb over which housing manager Sally Martin exerts direction and control. Like the rest of Northeast Ohio's urban core, South Euclid is beset with challenges and opportunities. We spoke with Martin this week to learn more about what's being done nearly 10 years on in our region's experiences with the foreclosure crisis.
Eric Sandy: Could you describe your position generally?
Sally Martin: I'm in charge of residential code enforcement for the city's close-to-10,000 parcels. Probably more than that, though, my position was created in 2008 to address the foreclosure crisis. Prior to that, we didn't necessarily need this position so desperately.
ES: I gather that cities like South Euclid were hit hard as that problem unfolded.
SM: In South Euclid, as in many, many inner-ring suburbs, about 16 percent of our housing stock has been in foreclosure since the crisis started. It's been a tough run. One of the things we were able to do in South Euclid was successfully get a Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant. We had to compete with other inner-ring suburbs to get that. We ended up getting about $1.3 million and were able to launch the Green Neighborhoods Initiative, which was an attempt to rebrand and remarket our neighborhoods — especially our bungalow housing stock, which seemed to be the stock that was the first to go into foreclosure, the most flipped.
ES: Along with ongoing demolitions, correct?
SM: There have been over 60 homes that we've had to demolish. Most of those were what you would call "zombie properties" — the title was mucked up, the house was destroyed — as hard as it is to believe, because we are a middle-class inner-ring suburb and this is not something that had ever happened in South Euclid. For us, to do this we had to revise ordinances and gear up to do what Cleveland has done for a long time. No inner-ring suburb knew how to do any of this stuff. All of the tools in our toolbox were designed for a functional market, not a market that failed.
ES: Were those foreclosures scattered across the city?
SM: Right, it's not like a whole block was gone — intermittent blighted houses that just had to go. The reason behind building the two Idea Houses was to show what you could build affordably on a small lot in an inner-ring suburb for under $150,000. We built two of those houses, and they sold rapidly. What that did was kick off private development. As these properties go through foreclosure, they end up in the city's land bank. They can then be resold and have been. It's pretty positive news, since we're built out, basically.
ES: How does the city's housing stock compare against other suburbs in the area?
SM: (Shows map with problem areas highlighted across city.) When your map, like that, is lit up like a Christmas tree, it demonstrates that the problem is widespread. So the problem started down by Cedar Center. Then it started migrating toward the north end. It started out with predatory lending, then it became issues related to job loss. People were upside-down in their homes.
ES: What distinguishes inner-ring suburbs from the exurbs, with regard to housing issues?
SM: The exurbs have also had problems with foreclosure and absolutely no skills to deal with them. Inner-ring suburbs have had problems for decades, right? That's something we're trying to bring to the county executive's attention in a big way. You need to invest in your urban core, which includes inner-ring suburbs. The best thing that has happened has been the demolition bond — but that only gives us money to demolish. What we've done as city people, which is really weird and which no one tends to believe, is that we've done city organizing. We go to everybody's potluck. We start block clubs. We've just had to do it, because we knew that it was going to be grassroots change that would drive stability here. Otherwise, it wasn't looking too good for us. We're telling people, "Stay the course. Get to know your neighbors." And it's helping to turn the tide, I think.
ES: Do people seem open to that idea? How involved are residents becoming?
SM: In South Euclid, we created an affiliate community development corporation called One South Euclid. It has a partnership with the city that's very unique in that all of this work we're doing to get properties back into productive use can be filtered to that organization. Our council approves the sale of properties through One South Euclid. It's a public-private partnership; nothing can be done in a vacuum. Because no one is giving us the resources, we're just going and finding a way to find the resources to do what we need.
ES: Does the proximity and adjacency to Cleveland have an impact?
SM: It has a good impact. We're close to University Circle, so we're building on that relationship. No one's doing what they're doing in Cleveland in an inner-ring suburb. We're often arguing with people, "You've got to rebuild the core. Our infrastructure is failing." We want to make our area really walkable and pedestrian-friendly. It's hard. We're doing things that are attracting some attention. Ohio City can pay someone's buildout to get them to come to West 25th. We don't have that. We're trying to do things that are a little different than waiting for a handout from the county. We'd be waiting for a while.
ES: What indicators are you getting from the new county administration?
SM: We're eternally optimistic. We don't know them yet. Through my work with the Vacant Abandoned Property Action Council, we just sent a 78-page study to the county on tax-lien sales. I think the issue with the county — and I hope the county executive takes this very seriously — is that tax delinquency is a massive problem. There's $568 million of delinquent tax, uncollected, throughout the county. This is the money that funds schools and essential services. There doesn't appear to be a very robust way for them to collect, other than using tax lien sales, which result in more blight. We've traded one crisis for a new one. Mortgage foreclosures are down, but we're dealing with all of this tax delinquency. What I would want from the county is a real concerted effort to do regional planning.
ES: Caught between the city of Cleveland and the wealthier suburbs, it seems like inner-ring suburbs have been lost in the regional press circuit, too.
SM: Look at some of the unfortunate things that have gone on in Cleveland Heights — how they've just been trashed in the press. That's not helping them to retain or build their resident base. People are scared. There's fear-mongering. But it gets clicks on a blog post, and it generates those same 10 people who whine about everything. I think what we're failing at is telling all the positive things that are happening. Thirty-eight percent of the county's residents live in an inner-ring suburb, and that's 38 percent of the voters. Be mindful of that.