Khrystalynn Shefton turns her sport utility vehicle onto East 105th Street, where a neat row of 13 houses stretches down the block. Near the border with University Circle, this piece of old Glenville, billed as Heritage Lane, has been made grand once again.
One home, with green siding and cream trim, has a real estate agent's sign out front. Shefton, housing development manager for the Famicos Foundation, pulls up and turns off the alarm.
It took 15 years, but 1467 E. 105th Street is the last of the Heritage Lane renovations. It's a far cry from most of the properties — about 650 for low-income residents in Hough and Glenville — the community development organization owns or manages.
Listed at $309,900, the four-bedroom, 3,866-square-foot former duplex is beautiful inside, with hardwood floors, a lofted dining room and quartz countertops. "And this is Glenville, mind you," says Shefton.
In November the Thriving Communities Institute, part of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, released a citywide assessment of Cleveland's building stock. The 158,000 properties in Cleveland were graded on an A-F scale. The Heritage Lane rehab earned an A. But just down the block, a boarded up art deco gas station garnered a D.
Thus, the paradox for Famicos and the entire city: How do we preserve the structures that are good and valuable while deciding what is not and must be torn down?
Since 2007, Cleveland has spent around $55 million on demolition. About 8,000 homes in the city have met the wrecking ball, and somewhere north of 6,000 remain to be dealt with. Cuyahoga County executive Armond Budish has championed a $50 million bond issue to take the initiative countywide.
In many ways, Cleveland's cart arrived eight years before the horse even left the stable. We're well past the halfway mark on this initiative and only now is the city equipped with the house-by-house data to properly direct demolition efforts.
Why in the name of efficiency and effectiveness didn't we do this earlier?
"I don't know," says Jim Rokakis, director of Thriving Communities. A former county treasurer, Rokakis has used his considerable political clout to make demolition the housing policy de jour. It is the cheapest and fastest way to stabilize the market, he says.
"There will always be abandonment," he says. "But I think once you've stabilized this and removed the blighting influence from these neighborhoods, I think the rate of abandonment will be less."
Indeed, the need for normalizing the market has never been greater.
A Thriving Communities comparison of median home sale prices between 2005 and 2015 shows only three Cleveland neighborhoods in which the price increased — University Circle, Ohio City and downtown. In every other neighborhood, it cratered, decreasing in most by $45,000 or more. Even Kamm's Corners, with the lowest residential vacancy rate in the city at 2 percent, saw the median decrease from $125,620 in 2005 to $89,625 in 2015.
In Glenville, still struggling with the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis, the survey revealed 18 percent of residential structures are vacant. More than 750 of those earned a D or F quality rating. Within blocks of Heritage Lane, streets are specked with homes left for dead: one gutted by fire, another's front porch fallen apart and wrapped in caution tape. On Kimberly Avenue, where Jerry Siegel created Superman, a sign is posted on a boarded-up home to chase off vandals: "No Copper, All PVC Plumbing."
The financial reality of overhauling blighted housing falls into stark relief back on Heritage Lane. County records show that Famicos spent at least $2.5 million to acquire and redo the 13 homes. Over the last three years, Famicos has rehabbed 15 historically significant homes like the ones on Heritage Lane. But that kind of rehab, which the new data can help target, only works in certain areas.
The St. Clair Superior neighborhood, for example, tops the Thriving Communities list at 22 percent vacancy; the median home sale price is just $13,000. The weakness of the housing market there has discouraged banks from lending to those interested in purchasing and rehabbing a house, says Michael Fleming, executive director of St. Clair Superior Development Corp.
"If somebody wants to rehab a house right now, there's no arms-length transactions for us or a bank to point to," he says. "Essentially, the neighborhood is red-lined."
Beyond one project with Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative to turn a double into a single-family loft, the organization does not run any large housing projects. The Thriving Communities data is essential for any strategic plan forward.
"The next step is to really do these projects on a much larger scale," says Fleming, "one that wouldn't just include rehab of homes, but clearly demolition of some of the worst that are out there."
In Slavic Village, often billed as the epicenter of the housing crisis, the Thriving Communities data will be used to verify their own internal surveys, taken via car. There, targeted demolition and rehab have been paired to remarkable success.
"We've been doing this for 10 years," says Stacia Pugh, housing development officer for Slavic Village Development. "So we know how to best use data like that."
Under the umbrella of the for-profit Slavic Village Recovery, homes are being renovated or demolished in a 1-square-mile section of the neighborhood.
Two private investors put up most of the $3.1 million to finance the program, which has not yet turned a profit. So far, 222 of the 500 vacant homes in the area have been either knocked over or renovated.
While the Slavic Village neighborhood has a 16 percent vacancy rate and 2015 median sale price of $15,000, there are signs the market may be stabilizing.
Prices in the focus area have increased by 14 percent in the last two years, according to Slavic Village Development. One home was sold recently at $83,900 — the highest recorded sale of a renovated single-family home in Slavic Village since 2009.
And in August, Slavic Village saw something astounding in its normalcy: an actual, honest-to-god arms-length real estate transaction — a sale of a house in good condition from one person to another.
Naomi Williams, 27, a single mom, manager of a Skechers store and a student at Hiram College, was the buyer. The previous owner, who bought the ranch home from Slavic Village Development and renovated it, sold it to her for $67,000.
"My daughter has a lot of space, the backyard is beautiful," says Williams. "I like the neighborhood; it's quiet."
Williams and others like her are the key to making neighborhoods vibrant once again.
"But it's never going to happen if you don't get the blighting influences out," says Rokakis. "If nobody's coming back, if the house isn't historic, it's not worth preserving, then you have to deal with it."
With a citywide survey, Cleveland can deal smarter. Finally, the horse is in its rightful place yanking the cart slowly along.