Tear it Down

Foreclosure, sprawl and a sagging economy have left a crumbling American Dream in their wake. These ruins remain, scarring our city. But there is hope for a fresh start.

CLEVELAND WON'T BE reborn until it buries its dead.

Empty, decaying houses haunt Cuyahoga County's neighborhoods — 8,000 dispirited shells where yesterday's factory workers, nurses, lawyers and mechanics lived. Today, those residents are deceased or bankrupt or they've started over in a new part of town, a different city, another state. Many streets wait in vain for new owners and tenants to replace them. No one is coming, at least not until the old bricks and timbers are gone.

Last year, 14,800 foreclosure cases hit Cuyahoga County's courthouse, about the same as the year before and the year before that. Blame our region's economic stagnation and the nation's recession; blame lenders who bent and broke old rules to make loans to people who couldn't afford them; blame Wall Street speculators who bundled and resold those toxic loans, poisoning the economy. Or blame our drive to expand, leave the old neighborhoods and make new suburbs out of countryside. All those reasons help explain the ruins on these eight pages, the abandoned city that must be laid to rest before a new city can grow.

Vacant houses can hide muggers, drug dealers and rapists. Boarded windows, sagging porches and graffiti wreck the value of homes nearby. Gloom settles into the minds of the adults driving down the street and the kids who walk past the wrecks on the way to school.

"We don't ever come out after dark," says Lonnie Marie Woods, whose home on Cleveland's Nevada Avenue faces three abandoned houses. "Just ask the neighbors. We're petrified! We are in danger!"

So it's time to send the bulldozers. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has greatly expanded City Hall's demolition program: It tore down 1,624 houses in 2009, up from about 300 a year before he took office. Another 1,500 are planned for this year. Cuyahoga County recently created a land bank to take over abandoned properties, demolish the worst and least-wanted homes, renovate the best and hold others until they can be fixed and sold.

"As much as I'd like to tell you [otherwise]," says county treasurer Jim Rokakis, "the majority of what we get's going to be demolished."

Not every vacant house should disappear: In strong neighborhoods, rehabbers buy, restore and sell foreclosed homes. New owners buy them as fixer-uppers, often with help from government grants and nonprofits. But in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, a house's first, second or third foreclosure can mean its end. Some abandoned houses are stripped and vandalized, even burned down by vagrants seeking shelter and setting fires to stay warm. Condemnation comes next. Or, the market pronounces a quieter death sentence: The house has no value left because no one wants to buy it.

"There's a lot more supply than there is demand," says Rokakis. "If there was huge demand for this housing, people would be moving into it."

It costs about $6,000 to $10,000 to tear down a house. Cleveland uses federal funds or city bond money to pay demolition contractors then bills the property owner. Private demolitions have also grown, to 1,090 last year. Owners of decaying houses know the city is serious, so they'll tear them down before the city does.

Still, the problem is bigger than the budget. The city counted 6,820 "vacant, distressed" houses in December, down 1,189 from 2008. So it tears down the worst first: the fire-damaged, the falling-down. It takes down clusters: five on one block. Derelict houses near schools are also high priorities, as are houses on main streets, in high-crime areas, near new economic development and on near-vacant streets.

In Cuyahoga County's suburbs, which saw more foreclosures than the city last year, vacant houses are far more likely to be rehabbed, resold or maintained.

Even so, suburban governments now condemn and tear down the most-troubled houses. Maple Heights has demolished dozens in the past year. Lakewood took down a handful.

Worst off is East Cleveland, where 1,450 vacant buildings mar the town's 3.2 square miles, overwhelming its unstable government's tiny budget. Fire-gutted houses, collapsed porches and rows of ruins, sights rare in Cleveland itself, scar the worst streets. Mayor Gary Norton wants to speed demolitions; the county land bank has offered to help.

At least 8,200 houses in the county are likely too far gone to save. And that's a conservative figure. Rokakis thinks it's closer to 17,000.

Once a house is gone, the land can have a new future. Abandoned property often goes into tax foreclosure then to the city or county land bank, which assemble large chunks to offer to developers when an economic recovery finally arrives.

"Everything is cyclical," says Joe Sidoti, Cleveland's real estate commissioner. "Eventually, when the market returns, we can dictate what type of development should go in."

The land banks also split single lots between occupied houses to give the neighbors bigger yards; because a typical Cleveland lot is 30 feet wide, plenty of residents are eager to stretch out. Nonprofits are helping the city start pocket parks, planting trees and shrubbery along busy streets. Residents have started more than 200 community gardens. (At the one above, founded last April on West 48th Street, neighbors are growing collard greens, cabbage and peppers.) Urban-agriculture pioneers also envision farms on newly vacant land. Or, eco-minded planners can create ponds and lowlands to keep storm water from overflowing the sewers.

Cleveland could become "a city in which viable homes have large lots, and commercial strips and viable streets have more green space," says Gus Frangos, the county land bank's president. "It's amazing what a little bit of water and a little green does to attract people." It's an opportunity to create a more environmentally friendly region, to take a city built for 900,000 people and remake it for today's 430,000 residents — and to open up places for Cleveland to grow again.

Thousands of cars pass 5717 Grand Ave. every day, taking a shortcut between Kinsman Road and I-490. The house, one of the last on the block, had one owner from 1956 to 1992. It's had five since. The Bank of New York Mellon owns it now after two foreclosures. Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka signed a warrant Jan. 5 that allowed inspectors inside. A search warrant "can be a death warrant of a house," Pianka says. It's the first step in the grimly nicknamed "stations of the cross": search warrant, inspection, condemnation, demolition. "We're seeing this section of Grand Avenue disappear," the judge says. The city found 25 code violations, including holes in the roof and walls and a failing foundation. It condemned the house Jan. 12.

The house at 5241 Dolloff Road scares Joyce Alvino. She lives next door, and at night, she and her husband, Bernie, listen for noises. “People come in from the windows on the other side,” she says. “You don’t want a fire if it’s a windy day.” Her husband shot an arrow into the empty house’s side to warn trespassers away.

Dolloff Road, in the North Broadway neighborhood near I-77, is devastated. Vacant houses surround the Alvinos on three sides. They bought the house on one side and use it to store their summer furniture. The empty house across the street is maintained by the guy who’s owned it since 1983. A community group has painted bright flowers and curtains on its window boards.

Wells Fargo bought the vacant house to the north at a sheriff’s sale after the Alvinos’ former neighbors lost it to foreclosure in 2007. The bank then sold it to a Utah-based house wholesaler. Go Invest Wisely LLC owns 144 properties in Cuyahoga County and has 25 cases pending against it in Cleveland Housing Court, some for code violations, some for failure to provide disclosure forms. A December probation order requires the company to keep all its Cleveland properties clean and secure.

“You’re kind of stuck here,” says Alvino, a retired Cleveland State University office manager who’s lived on Dolloff since 1981. “One time, it was a really beautiful neighborhood. Everyone knew everyone. Now you don’t know anybody.” The last few neighbors trade rumors that an investor will come in and buy all their properties. “That’s our only salvation for any of us to get out of here.”

This house, which fell into foreclosure in 2006, stands six doors down from the house where Anthony Sowell allegedly killed 11 women. JP Morgan Chase Bank bought it in a sheriff's sale for $49,300 then sold it for $1,000 in April 2007 to its current owner, Cleveland-based Mars Urban Solutions LLC. Foreclosure and vacancy have made many Cleveland neighborhoods more dangerous. One disturbing question about the Imperial Avenue murders is, how could Sowell have buried his alleged victims in his backyard without anyone noticing? One answer: He lived between a sausage shop and a vacant home, better maintained than this one, that was foreclosed on in early 2008.

Three decaying houses stand side by side on Nevada Avenue, a one-block street near Woodland Avenue that dead-ends into railroad tracks. "Tear this down!" shouts Lonnie Marie Woods, who owns a house across from them. "Tear this one down! All three of them!" The county land bank acquired this house, 8624 Nevada, in a tax foreclosure in November. It's scheduled to be one of the land bank's first demolitions. The green one next door was seized in another tax foreclosure in October. Woods says she's waited seven years for the ruins on her street to go. In 2003, two 13-year-old boys were raped in another vacant house on the block. The city tore that house down, she says, but left the others.

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