When the folks at the Tri-C Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Scholars Academy reached out to Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity last year, John Habat, president and CEO of Habitat, was a little skeptical.
“They approached us and wanted to know if they could do a project for us,” says Habat. “Generally, I don’t get too excited about these kinds of student projects because they are usually done in a short time frame and the work done is more for their benefit than ours.
“But we decided that if we are going to do it, we needed a real project. So at the end of the day, the students could get course credit and, additionally, a broader perspective of the challenges facing Cleveland.”
In the end, Habat and the Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity (GCHFH) were not disappointed.
“Working with the Mandel Scholars was a great experience,” says Bob Whitney, neighborhood planning manager for GCHFH. “I was impressed with the depth they went into in terms of research and the great questions they asked. It was great working with young, respectful students who were so focused. And it is so rare that these students were able to do something that will have a real impact on the neighborhoods of Cleveland.”
A graduate of Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Habat also has a background as an educator. So he knew exactly how his organization wanted to challenge the Mandel Scholars.
“It occurred to me that we needed a study on potential future Cleveland focus areas for Habitat,” he says. “Our strategic plan takes us through 2023, and we are heavily invested in the Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood. While we do housing in other places, 85% of our work is in Buckeye-Woodhill right now.”
Knowing that GCHFH needs at least a two-year horizon on planning once a target neighborhood is identified, Habat challenged the Mandel Scholars to find new areas.
“So I queried, ‘Why don’t these students take a look at some planning criteria and evaluate city neighborhoods and come up with some recommendations?,’” he says.
“So we met with Habitat before the beginning of the semester, and Bob Whitney and I talked about what would be an appropriate project for a group of students,” says Matt Laferty, assistant professor of English at the western campus of Tri-C, who worked with the Mandel Scholars. “Of course, we did this with the understanding that we were in a global pandemic.
“I then invited Habitat to present to the students at the beginning of the semester, and Bob introduced them to the organization, the idea of the project and its mission and goals. But most importantly, he introduced them to the ethos behind Habitat.”
Needless to say, the students were inspired and started their research almost immediately.
“We quickly learned that students were very interested in being on the ground, in neighborhoods and seeing some of the things that they were reading and hearing about,” says Laferty.
Working with the administration at Tri-C, Laferty and the Mandel Scholars figured out how to have some in-person classes that were socially distanced and safe, so students could share some of their research.
“It was the first time I have had a class of students who asked, ‘Can I do more?’ and ‘Can we meet in-person,’” says Laferty. “And when they had questions, I had them write a formal letter to Habitat. We got these wonderfully detailed answers from Bob Whitney and his team. It was a great experience.”
Using neighborhood metrics that were similar to the criteria used to identify Buckeye-Woodhill neighborhood, where Habitat has been active for almost six years, the Mandel Scholars formulated a plan of action. They developed a list of search criteria, conducted research on potential candidate neighborhoods and interviewed key stakeholders.
After a semester of careful research, discussion and collaboration, the scholars presented their final report, entitled “Investing in Homes, Revitalizing Neighborhoods and Creating Hope,” at the end of the spring 2021 semester.
The report identified three finalist Cleveland neighborhoods for GCHFH to consider: Hough, Kinsman and Clark-Fulton. Each of those neighborhoods was broken down in terms of statistics for population, demographics, median income, income tax, violent crime and property crime. The report also identified access to grocery stores, education, health care, churches and safety. And, of course, vacancies and potential sites had to be identified as well.
Cleveland Habitat shared the report with its board of directors and will use its findings in its future planning efforts.
“These students came up with these three neighborhoods, and we thought they were all viable candidates for future exploration,” says Habat. “But what was really meaningful to me is that we created a new generation already engaged in creating new visions for Cleveland. You can never start too early. The more people become engaged, the more likely they are to stay here and establish their own homes and raise families.
“It was also great to see the engagement of these students and get the help of the college and the Mandel Scholars,” adds Habat. “It will help us find viable areas to focus on in the future.”
“We don’t go into these communities with rose-colored glasses. We need to see how they really are, what is there already, and we have to listen to ideas as we move forward.”
GCHFH focuses its work in underserved inner-city neighborhoods to catalyze revitalization while providing affordable homeownership opportunities for low-to-moderate income families.
The Mandel Humanities Project Team included: Mariam Sajjas, Emily Havener, Kara Smosny, Kait Berg, Chloe Zelek, Lynda Amba, Lisa Santiago and Anamaria Smith.