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Did You Know Cleveland is Leading the Way?

May 12th, 2009 · 2 Comments

as we wait at the Levin Forum for the Panel and Alex Kotlowitz

as we wait at the Levin Forum for the Panel and Alex Kotlowitz

Last night was another terrific CSU Levin College Forum.  You may recall a New York Times article by author Alex Kotlowitz about people’s recent experiences in Slavic Village’s efforts to rebuild the neighborhood after a wave of predatory lending and foreclosures. Alex was invited to be the keynote speaker at last night’s forum.  When I listened to him I couldn’t help but think about Studs Terkel, because Alex is in that vein. He believes that storytelling is the way to understand issues and figure out ways to solve them. And it rang true with me. What better way to really get a perspective than to hear how ‘people in the trenches’ of an issue are dealing with it.

 Alex Kotlowitz spent quite some time in Cleveland gathering stories for this story and he described how residents, council people, neighborhood groups (those in the trenches) were dealing with the issues.  He said they did so mostly with quiet, understated defiance. That phrase says it all.
Alex wasn’t the only speaker, but I’ll cover his comments first.
1. Story telling is important because it fleshes out those with the least power and how the power is used to help/hinder what is happening.
2. He spoke about the people, with updates, from his NYT’s article. He talked about how his views changed from seeing the foreclosure issue as grim and dark to one of optimism through rebuilding and solutions.
In fact, when asked why he chose Cleveland when there were other cities experiencing foreclosure as well, he said a) because Cleveland wasn’t just experiencing it, but Cleveland and the neighborhoods seemed to be plowing ahead with this quiet defiance but subtle optimism to make things better. That means he was impressed that Cleveland and Slavic Village seemed to be moving ahead with new solutions when maybe others were not.
The entire Forum was built around this theme: Creating a New Story, From Crisis to Opportunity. Moderator Dan Moulthrop did what he does so well on Ideastream; kept people focused don the ‘what are the new solutions’ theme. And there was a lot of creativity flowing from the panel. Tony Brancatelli, the Slavic Village area’s councilman; Ray Pianka, Cleveland Housing Court’s Judge; Marie Kittredge, Executive Director of the Slavic Village Development Corporation; and Chris Warren, Chief of Regional Development for the City of Cleveland.
I’ve been following the foreclosure issue closely because yes I’m in real estate but also like many of you, I’m very aware that these are new issues for our city (well, new to this decade) and so problem solving has to be about 21st Century ideas that will work, not necessarily the tried and true. Some comments from the panelists that struck a chord with me:
Judge Pianka described his efforts to make a more level playing field between corporations that own large amounts of property that wind up foreclosed, and individual homeowners. In other words, no special treatment for the big guys, be they real estate corporate owners or banks who have now become large land holders here.  He also made a point to say that Housing Court was an effort to fix the problem and help the neighborhoods move forward, as opposed to just sending someone to jail for violations. 
Chris Warren pointed out the ground breaking lawsuit filed by the City of Cleveland (my words, ground breaking, not his) in which a suit was filed against 21 large owners of foreclosed properties who started out as predatory lenders and wound up owning hundreds of foreclosed properties.  They originally just started putting them back on the market in their code violation conditions.  Cleveland and the neighborhoods said no way and demolition, repair, neighborhood design strategies, all were considered as necessary for these land holders.
One positive note.  Apparently out of the original 21 named in the lawsuit, two of them are working to not just resolve the issue with Cleveland but pay back our tax payer monies that were used by Cleveland to take care of the violations when the home owners were not doing it.  It’s a small step but positive, yes?  I gather the other 19 are just embroiled in the lawsuit, you can draw your own conclusions from that.  And we were all reminded that HUD does not get to be included in this lawsuit and can’t  really be held as accountable as the private lenders because they are, well, protected as a government entity. HUD is however, now allowing the City of Cleveland to have the right of first refusal on whether a property should/could go on the market for resale. Or if some other option should be considered.  I still think the real take home point from this lawsuit was that two of the 21 defendants were dealing with their entire inventories owned and how they can solve the issues and pay back the tax monies used on their properties.
Councilman Brancatelli of Ward 12 has been working hard on this issue. He says one of the things we need is a change in disclosure laws so that large, wholesale owners of foreclosed properties will be more transparently listed as owners and easier for cities to track down.
We know our population is down from decades ago and our housing stock is not. So one of the things Cleveland and other communities have to consider is, what is the best solution for that street, neighborhood, or block? If a house in nestled into a small plot of land and doesn’t really need to be there, why not demolish it and have a larger yard for the adjacent neighbors? Just one of the solutions Cleveland is already putting into place.
Cleveland was ahead of the curve on the foreclosure wave. That means we are at a different point than many other cities or counties also experiencing it around the Country. You know how we are always looking at models of growth, development, education, etc, from other cities, and people will blog about how Cleveland should follow that model, or at least ask the question ‘is this also good for Cleveland?’  Well everyone from Alex Kotlowitz to the Panelists pointed out that this time, the situation is reversed. The question was asked, what is important about Cleveland’s story for the rest of the universe? The answer lies in how we approach solutions, what works, what does not, things other communities will also have to tackle now that they are experiencing what we have.
Besides the planning review/input idea I mention above, as to whether an abandoned house should be rebuilt or demolished with new uses for that land, Chris Warren pointed out the uniqueness of our Cuyahoga County land bank. Now there is a vehicle with good monies to boot, that can deal with the issue of abandoned properties on a broad scale.
So Alex Kotlowitz came to Cleveland as opposed to any of the other cities he investigated, to do a story on how a neighborhood deals with lots of foreclosures and vacant properties.  And he came here because he could see that through quiet defiance, Cleveland wasn’t just experiencing it, but was pushing back. Nothing like a non-Clevelander perspective to teach me something.
Peace Out – 3C
photo taken at May 11th Levin Forum by Carole Cohen. Well before the event started, because the seats in the atrium looked pretty well filled up to capacity to me.

Tags: economic development · housing trends · Ideas · neighborhood news

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Roldo Bartimole // May 15, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Thanks for this report.

  • 2 Carole Cohen // May 15, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    You’re welcome, Roldo

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