Cleveland Tenants Organization's Funding Dries up While Region Wrings Hands, Searches Heavens for Ways to Improve Tenant Services


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In conjunction with the region's collective reading of Matthew Desmond's Evicted, the City Club of Cleveland hosted a forum Friday to discuss issues of housing inequality in Cuyahoga County.

Mentioned on several occasions by the audience and the panelists was the recent loss of the Cleveland Tenants Organization.

That organization, which had been serving predominantly low-income tenants in the region for more than 40 years, suspended its operations earlier this month due to a lack of funding.

"We lost some significant funding contracts," CTO Board President Cheri Smith told ideastream. "We lost some significant funding grants over the last several years. So we were looking for other ways to, you know, kind of fill that gap, and we weren’t able to come up with those ways.”

That the county and the region's grantmaking institutions would let CTO flounder at the very moment we've all decided to come together to read an important book about housing inequality and roll up our sleeves to improve poor tenant services is frankly stunning. At Friday's panel, housing court judge Ron O'Leary said that "more robust tenant representation" was necessary in the region, in order to help guide low-income tenants through the eviction process, the housing voucher program and other issues.

O'Leary also stressed that CTO had only "suspended its operations." He said he and Cleveland City Councilman Tony Brancatelli reached out in the immediate aftermath of the closure and believed that the organization was still searching for ways to provide its services. It was not officially dead, he said. He encouraged those gathered at the City Club forum, and the institutions they represented, to "offer whatever support [they could]" to keep CTO open.

South Euclid City Councilman Marty Gelfand, during the forum's Q&A portion, said that CTO was "the most powerful tool in his toolbox" when tenants called him with issues and concerns.

Those working in the fields of affordable housing certainly recognize the magnitude of the loss.

Scene spoke last week with Michael Lepley, who does research for the Housing Center, a local fair housing nonprofit. He said that CTO's closing "leaves an enormous, enormous gap." (By way of comparison, he said that CTO handled roughly 10 times the call volume as the Housing Center, with two fewer employees.)

He tried to explain the current, seemingly paradoxical situation: that a region purportedly seeking solutions to housing inequality would permit the demise of one the organizations on that issue's front lines. 

"To be somewhat critical of the funders, especially the private funders, that organizations like CTO depend on," Lepley said: "They love the new, sexy stuff. They love to create programs. They do not want to be in the business of maintaining programs. And so what happens is, we get all these brand-new nonprofits instead of a few highly functioning organizations. "

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