People used to live here.
Some still do. But many left. They went not too far, just to cul-de-sacs a bit past the city limits. They yearned for bigger yards. There was less crime and better schools, all for lower taxes. Many of the jobs departed here decades ago, after all. The commutes were easier once new shopping centers and office parks started springing up on farmland.
Meanwhile the number of people here, in the center city, continues to dwindle. A shrinking population isn’t a death knell, but it’s not the sign of a thriving place either. “Here” could be any of the midsized cities dotting Ohio and the Rust Belt: Dayton, Youngstown, Lima. It could be Cleveland.
A paper released in February by Kyle Fee of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland looks at neighborhood change in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati from 1970 to 2010. Fee’s research lays out the limited areas where Cleveland has been successful in stimulating growth — nodes near downtown and the near West Side, with a finger reaching toward University Circle. There he found a pocket where, from 2000 to 2010, demographics changed and household incomes and home values increased.
You recognize these neighborhoods. They are where decades of investment in arts, sports and restaurants are held up as a way to prompt residential revitalization in Ohio City, Tremont, Downtown. Build things people want, the conventional wisdom says, and they will want to live near those things, thereby creating a vibrant market for houses or apartments nearby. If you out-entertain the suburbs, you can rebuild the city.
But Fee’s research doesn’t back up that conventionally accepted trickle-down theory. He concludes that over 40 years Cleveland’s neighborhoods remained the same 83 percent of the time. While gentrifying neighborhoods in Cleveland accounted for almost 30 percent of neighborhood change during the 2000s, the city is essentially stagnant. The bubbles of prosperity have not buoyed the whole city.
Cleveland and Cuyahoga County continue to slowly lose population as people depart for the suburbs or even farther-flung locales.
Those pockets of prosperity need to be connected to the rest of the city and to each other if we are to stop that bleeding. Upscale entertainment districts and downtown condominiums are important, but they’re not enough. If Clevelanders are to grow in number once again, we must explicitly rethink our development priorities by screaming two words: housing first.
It doesn’t have the same sex appeal as juice bars and experimental theaters. It won’t be the stuff of hashtags and Clevelandgrams. But the much-vaunted “new Cleveland” won’t last long if there are few thriving places for people to buy homes and no broad-based market activity to push up values. That means putting housing — not stadiums, not retail and not restaurants — at the top of our economic development priority list.
It’s what our neighbors to the south are doing. In February, Akron Mayor Daniel Horrigan’s administration released “Planning to Grow Akron,” a housing policy plan. It outlines a wildly ambitious goal for a Rust Belt city, one often implied but never explicitly stated: increase Akron’s population by attacking the housing problem head-on.
“I felt like acknowledging that the city has a problem or a challenge with housing and attracting people isn’t to say that Akron is a bad place,” says Jason Segedy, Akron’s director of planning and urban development and one of the plan’s architects. “The thing that people can wrap their arms around about Akron is that it’s so affordable, but it’s a two-edged sword. There’s not a lot of demand.”
According to the report, there are 97,163 housing units in Akron, 35.2 percent of which were built prior to 1940. The majority — 64,942, or 66.8 percent — are single-family homes; 14.6 percent are vacant. By comparison, 21.5 percent of Cleveland’s housing units are vacant. There are plenty of homes in Akron, but market valuations make it difficult to secure renovation loans. Much of the housing stock needs work requiring skills beyond those of the average buyer. Like Cleveland, Akron is affordable until you look at the realities of its housing stock.
“Planning to Grow Akron” pitches numerous strategies to drum up demand for move-in ready homes, while simultaneously stimulating new building. The biggest lift is a citywide property tax abatement intended to spur development of new housing construction and rehabilitation. The plan also focuses on promoting downtown housing as an alternative to vacant office space, adopting a less rigid form-based code for zoning and more aggressively using the Summit County Land Bank to move and stimulate parcels.
If that all sounds familiar, it should. Akron is cribbing off of us. Segedy reached out to Cleveland’s planning department for insight on our tax abatement program and took inspiration from our half-complete form-based code. A new apartment building in a former office space seems to spring up every week downtown, while the Cuyahoga Land Bank contributes significantly to the management of distressed properties across the city. Neighborhood-level housing programs, such as Slavic Village Recovery Project, are modeling the future of block-by-block regeneration.
But you have to be an armchair urban planner to know Cleveland has these policies. The regional perception of our revitalization strategy is that of megaprojects and privately financed entertainment districts: Gateway, the Global Center for Health Innovation, West 25th Street, Hub 55. Cleveland seems to be working under the assumption that by highlighting those things, the housing market will follow. So the most impressive feature of “Planning to Grow Akron” is that it does the opposite. It’s much noisier about putting shelter before everything else. It trusts that by doing so, Akron can compete with the suburbs in style as well as substance.
“The pull that cities still have — we’re still swimming upstream a little bit — is to create the best city that we can,” says Segedy. “I hate using the word ‘livable,’ but we’ll just call it a great place to live that’s competitive with suburban areas.”
Our city also has great bones, better than any suburb can aspire to. Downtown, the near West Side and University Circle are blossoming. The restaurants, street festivals, shops and theaters there make them attractive. But if Cleveland is to rise once again, we’ll have to compete in housing too.
Legendary urban planner and Group Plan creator Daniel Burnham’s edict — “make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood” — has burrowed deep in our city’s consciousness. From the grand malls of the Group Plan to the ill-fated urban renewal of the Erieview project, we have hatched plans that are quite literally huge.
Housing seems the opposite — uninspiring, little, nothing to stir the blood. Akron’s plan is a powerful counter. All those little houses add up to a city. They, and the people who could live in them, are the city’s blood. It’s time we give them the stir they deserve.