Alonzo Mitchell III Glenville Neighborhood Cleveland Alonzo Mitchell III Glenville Neighborhood Cleveland
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After school on a Friday afternoon, kids are everywhere in the Langston Hughes branch of the Cleveland Public Library. Many are fooling around on computers, but a few hunch over tables with books open and earbuds in. Most wear school-uniform white polo shirts with dark blue slacks or skirts. 

The branch, at Superior Avenue near East 105th Street, is named for the poet laureate of black America, in a part of Cleveland that is historically magnificent. Hughes lived over on East 86th Street. In the early 1900s, it was called the Gold Coast, because some of the wealthiest people in America lived on East Boulevard overlooking the cultural gardens. Rockefeller Park, land donated by the richest man who ever lived, is just west of the library. 

I’m here to meet up with Alonzo Mitchell III, the 33-year-old founder of Ohio Homecoming. 

In the last five years, the group has organized birthday parties for the city, the New Year’s Eve celebration on Public Square, featuring Drew Carey and Krewella in 2014, and several other pro-Cleveland events. 

Tall and lanky, Mitchell moves quickly. 

He grew up in Cleveland and attended Lee Memorial AME Church on East 105th. His family moved to the suburbs, where he graduated from Bedford High School in 1999. After graduating from Cleveland State University, he left to work in the health care industry for about seven years before eventually growing restless and returning to Cleveland from Washington, D.C., in 2010. 

Engaging with a big smile through his hipster beard, Mitchell is never dressed in more than jeans, a T-shirt and canvas low-cut sneakers. He runs a marketing, promotions and event planning firm, which pretty much means he claims expertise in everything (which he does). He also co-hosts The Forum with Mansfield Frazier talk show on WTAM1100 on Sunday nights. 

We are heading across the street from the library into a little neighborhood around six blocks square with about 60 homes, most built between 100 and 120 years ago. Only about half remain from back then. 

For about three years, Mitchell and his Ohio Homecoming cohorts have been working on the Village Project in this neighborhood. The premise is fairly simple: Find young professionals who care about Cleveland to buy homes in this little neighborhood. In-migration replaces out-migration.

“The best way we can help Cleveland get better is to get young people back in the city,” Mitchell says. “If we can do that, everything else follows, from better retail stores and schools and community involvement.”

Almost everyone thinks this is a good idea: attracting young people to take over abandoned houses in a neighborhood that is among the poorest in the country. The average household income in Glenville is about $25,000 a year (about equal to the poverty income level for a family of four) and less than half of the national average. About 60 percent of children in Glenville live in households with income below the poverty line.

The population here is older as well, with some stuck in homes they cannot sell even if they wanted to leave. A big part of that problem is the market for housing is dismal; about one-third of the units in Glenville are vacant.  

Missing from that residential mix is the younger working middle class, as younger African-Americans from Cleveland’s East Side have either left for the suburbs or went to college and never came back. That’s the obvious challenge: Convince younger homebuyers with stable jobs to buy in one of the poorest sections of Cleveland, instead of buying a move-in-ready home in Solon.

“We think this might be a good place to do it,” Mitchell says, “given its location near University Circle and the cultural gardens, and [it’s] close enough to downtown.”

As we walk East 102nd Street, a tiny road with about 15 homes, it is easy to see this part of Cleveland has witnessed much better days. A half dozen vacant lots are mixed in with some boarded-up abandonments. Yet most of the houses are occupied. Those that are vacant are that way because of recent moves or deaths. 

“It was a beautiful neighborhood and still is a beautiful neighborhood,” says Ellis Peek, 54, who attended John Hay High School and has lived in this neighborhood most of his life. “But most everybody on this street is old.” 

He waves to his aunt across the street on her porch and then points out that his uncle lives next door to her. Peek’s deceased mother owned the house, now occupied by his daughter and her kids. The family also owns three vacant lots on one side.

Peek sits on the porch as the grandkids run around and a friend washes a van in the street. He says no one works in the house and he has been disabled for decades. Peek pours some vodka for himself and his friends on the porch and points to an old man hobbling down the street with plastic bags full of what appears to be food items. 

“There’s no grocery stores close by, just convenient stores selling junk,” he says. “You can’t get any good meat if you’re walking. We shouldn’t have to settle for a lesser grade of meat.”

It wasn’t always that way. The 1930 city directory shows people living here were music teachers, police officers, janitors, machinists and lawyers. It’s a good sampling of the middle class that built this city. There were probably lots of children running around and a little drinking on the porch on a spring day. 

As Mitchell and I continue down the street, we stop at a two-story, three-bedroom house about halfway down. It has protective bars on the windows and white aluminum siding. It’s been vacant since the woman who lived there passed away in 2011. 

The family who owned the house recently donated it to the Rockefeller Park Foundation, the nonprofit organization Mitchell and the others with Ohio Homecoming established to facilitate acquiring properties. If all goes well, the deed for this house will be transferred this month. 

The woman’s son, Eric Williams, now lives in California. With upkeep on the property hard to maintain from afar, the family decided to donate it. “My mother took care of this house, and she was proud of that,” Williams says. “So when we heard about this idea that young people might be able to move into this home, we thought it would be a good cause to donate to.”

While there’s updating to be done, the 1906-built colonial has been maintained. Mitchell says the sofa in the living room even has plastic on it like it was still in the 1960s. 

The plan, Mitchell says, is to raise between $75,000 and $100,000 to transform the 1,296-square-foot house into a model home with an open floor plan that preserves the character but adds modern touches such as new cabinets, granite countertops, marble tile and more. That way, young professionals being
wooed to move here can see what their new home might look like. 

But before the ball drops on this project, a lot of work remains — from pounding out partnerships to plugging funding gaps to putting in some old-fashioned sledgehammer equity. 

Donated House in Glenville Neighborhood

A donated home on East 102nd Street is expected to become a model house for the Village Project, which includes revitalization ideas such as an area for outdoor events and a bike shop. 

Rendering Glenville Neighborhood

The Village Project started when Mitchell and others approached Cleveland city councilman Jeff Johnson around 2012 about an East Side neighborhood that might be suitable for an in-migration project like what has happened in Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway. 

“We wanted to find an area that was located in a great place, had a neighborhood feel and was not completely abandoned,” Mitchell says.

Johnson showed him the little neighborhood wedged between East 105th, Superior and Rockefeller Park. Two previous smaller projects might benefit from new investment and could help spark the Village Project. In 2005, East 101st Street had been part of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Cleveland’s Citirama program, where public and private grants helped build 11 new houses that range from $180,000 to almost $300,000. In 2006, the LeBron James Family Foundation and other partners planned to build nine $250,000 townhomes across from the Hughes library branch, but only four were ever completed.

“The previous two projects hadn’t provided the impetus we thought they would,” Johnson says. “I had thought this little neighborhood might work for Ohio Homecoming and provide the added impetus needed.” 

Initially, Mitchell wanted the city to rehab the houses and give them to any working people who wanted to move in. Maybe student loans could be folded into home mortgages to attract the debt-ridden millennials, he postulated. The new owners would have to volunteer at community organizations and sign a lease to occupy the house for five years.

In October 2013, Ohio Homecoming met with the Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and hatched a plan for the project. Tanner Avenue, a one-way street at the northern end of the neighborhood, would be converted to a pedestrian path leading to an entryway into Rockefeller Park. The project envisioned a vacant gas station being converted into a bike shop, a restaurant specializing in brunch for the after-church crowd and a coffee shop cafe at East 105th and Superior. An illustration of Tanner Avenue even shows where cross-country skiers might cut through the winter snow.

Yet, all this takes money. The housing challenge in the inner city is daunting: The median home sale price last year in the city of Cleveland was $62,000, but just $42,900 on the East Side, according to the county. 

What seems like a benefit — low-cost starter homes — is actually a hindrance, what real estate professionals refer to as the funding gap.

It works this way. Banks will only finance about 80 percent of the appraisal value. Mitchell estimates the average cost to acquire and rehab the houses along this stretch is $125,00 to $150,000. In conversations with banks, he and some of his partners have found lenders willing to take on mortgages of about $75,000, leaving a shortfall of at least $50,000. 

Yet, the real gap could be even more daunting. The county appraised the donated Williams’ home at $16,300. The house next door, built in 1895, is appraised at just $10,000.

“We are not doing this as a for-profit venture where we are acquiring properties and selling them off,” says Teleange’ Thomas, program director for the Sisters of Charity Foundation. 

A 35-year-old Case Western Reserve University graduate, Thomas serves as one of the main planners of the Village Project. Thomas, Mitchell and five others, who have jobs in mostly government or nonprofit, have all identified homes they’d like to acquire for a possible move-in later this year. 

Thomas says an additional 20 individuals have expressed interest in being a part of the home acquisition in the neighborhood. But exactly where the money will come from for the rehabs remains uncertain. 

The Famicos Foundation could be one source. As Glenville’s community development corporation, it sees the area’s upside: A convenient location near University Circle that has the potential to attract health care and education workers. In addition, Famicos has already contributed to home rehab projects closer to University Circle — along Wade Park and Ashbury avenues — called Circle North.

“We think the idea is marvelous,” says John Anoliefo, executive director of the Famicos Foundation. “Having a group of young people investing in this community will bring more people and then retail and amenities.”

Currently, Famicos is researching properties designated for the first phase for any possible complications from liens or foreclosures. But it has not yet committed to funding the lending gap for the Village Project. 

A problem with projects in Cleveland neighborhoods, according to some developers, is the many groups that have to sign off before a project even gets consideration: community development and other neighborhood groups, the planning commission, City Council, foundations, banks and other financial institutions. 

“We like to call it mezzanine planning and financing,” says one developer who has done both suburban and urban housing projects in Cuyahoga County but didn’t want his name used. “It’s like being in the old Arcade building downtown. You look up at all the floors and realize you have to stop in at each one and get a deal before moving up to the next floor.”

“Every project needs to have some foundation money or tax funding grant to get going,” says another real estate developer who asked not to be named. “But no one wants to be the first one in. But once the first one gets in, they all jump in.”

The Cleveland Foundation has been involved with the Village Project for the past two years, says India Pierce Lee, program director for neighborhoods, housing and community development for the foundation. 

“There is an opportunity there,” she says, noting the model home is a solid early step. “The progress the Rockefeller Park Foundation is making will help leverage other resources.” 

Evelyn Burnett

Evelyn Burnett bought a beautifully rehabbed 1917 home on East 98th Street close to University Circle and a few blocks from the Village Project.

In January, Evelyn Burnett moved to East 98th Street. The big, beautifully rehabbed 1917 brick home with high ceilings and a fireplace is as nice as many you’d find in Pepper Pike or Shaker Heights. 

A 31-year-old Youngstown native, Burnett lives with her retired parents in the 3,000-square-foot beauty on a corner lot just a few blocks from the Village Project streets. “Everyone always talks about location,” Burnett says. “But they don’t seem to want to talk about it when it is an inner-city neighborhood like this.”

As vice president of economic opportunity for Neighborhood Progress, she is a Glenville advocate. But Burnett didn’t want to wait for the home acquisitions to play themselves out in the Village Project and needed something bigger to accommodate her parents. 

Famicos purchased the house, which had been abandoned for about two decades, for about $11,500. The development organization stripped it down to studs and worked with Burnett on the redesign. All told, Famicos invested about $400,000. 

Burnett paid about $270,000 and added another $80,000 into her loan for a garage and some other exterior amenities. Yet her current mortgage is about the same as the $1,600-a-month she paid to rent a loft apartment in downtown’s Warehouse District.

“I live now in a neighborhood that is on the edge of one of the great parks in the country, minutes from the major highways, a mile from the cultural institutions of University Circle, and minutes from downtown,” she says. “The only thing missing is close retail, and that will come along as more people move here.”

Anthony Body, a friend of Burnett who works for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in government relations, also recently moved back to Glenville. The two want to focus more on why people would want to move into the neighborhood rather than any arguments against it, such a safety concerns. 

“We need to dispel the notion that people can’t survive down here because Cleveland is so perilous,” Body says. 

Yet, compared to neighborhoods such as Ohio City, Glenville still lags. According to Cleveland police figures for 2013 and the first half of 2014, Glenville witnessed 207 aggravated assaults, 423 residential burglaries and 222 drug violations, while Ohio City had far fewer with 96 aggravated assaults, 126 burglaries and 155 drug cases in the same time. 

Despite those statistics, Famicos hopes its investment in Burnett’s home will buoy nearby home values and eventually draw more buyers. Increased values will decrease the subsidies needed to spur the area’s real estate market.

The Village Project folks make a similar argument: They need the community development organization or a similar nonprofit to provide homebuyer grants or gap funding of up to half the purchase price. 

“Eventually people want to see the Village Project people put some of their own money into the project,” says Burnett, who used a $75,000 down payment for her home, “even if it is just sweat equity at this point.”

Thomas, Mitchell and the others say they have the homebuyers lined up but don’t have the financial resources to do it alone, nor the time or expertise to handle all the specifics. 

They have been wary about making their plans too public. Real estate flippers have been known to grab up properties in neighborhoods that might get targeted for redevelopment, and then demand high purchase prices. This, they say, is why they have not been explicit about their plans with church leaders and other neighborhood groups.

“This plan sounds like a group of people who might want to become an island within what is already an island that is in many ways cut off from the rest of the city,” says the Rev. Andrew Clark of the Trinity Outreach Ministries, located on Ashbury. 

“The key is that this project has to be inclusive and not exclusive,” adds the Rev. Stephen Rowan, pastor of the Bethany Baptist Church.

According to the Village Project organizers, they want the same thing. 

“Building a coalition of people behind this project is key,” says Aaron O’Brien, an attorney for BakerHostetler who specializes in mergers and acquisitions and capital financing. “We have to utilize many different tools of funding and engagement to get this moving.” 

The 31-year-old Atlanta native and Case Western Reserve University law school graduate is part of the initial group of buyers and is serving as a strategic and legal adviser to the project. 

“The goal is to utilize energetic people as contributors who want to move in and commit to a neighborhood and see them as human capital,” O’Brien says.

With the first home expected to be in their hands this month, Mitchell says, the Rockefeller Park Foundation will have more specifics on financing the renovation. “We may just tear the inside of the house out ourselves,” he says. 

And that could get the funding ball rolling. 

Edward Rybka, Cleveland’s chief of regional development, met with Mitchell and Thomas about the project several times over the past two years. He was impressed by their energy for economic development, especially since the East 105th corridor is an area his office is looking at closely. “We expect further engagement with them on this project,” Rybka says.

City councilman Kevin Conwell has also shown interest. When the new council districts were redrawn last year, Conwell replaced Jeff Johnson as the Village Project’s representative. 

Conwell says other projects — such as reviving the former East Side Market at East 105th and St. Clair Avenue, deploying a crime-prevention surveillance camera and repairing East Boulevard — have had a much higher priority. But those are now committed to, and he is taking a closer look at the project.

“We need young working people to help revitalize these neighborhoods,” Conwell says. While he has not yet met with the Village Project organizers, Conwell says he’d consider providing seed money to help them get started with the rehab of the donated house. Exactly how much, however, he won’t say.

“If you are going to buy a house with $150,000, you could move into any neighborhood in the city, including Tremont and Ohio City and any of the other trendy areas,” Mitchell says. “The perception that incentivizing movement back into the city is just another handout doesn’t reflect how the real estate market has always worked.”

Mitchell argues that the suburbs have always had their own incentives to gain and keep their population. “They give tax breaks to companies to move there so their residents don’t have far to drive,” he says. “They do the same with retail development, and the state builds any highways they want.” 

Johnson sees the investment potential in the East 105th corridor as similar to what occurred in Tremont and Ohio City almost 30 years ago. Just as Ohio City used the West Side Market, St. Ignatius High School and its historic homes as anchor points, this section of Glenville has Rockefeller Park, the Cleveland School for the Arts and its proximity to University Circle. 

“We can let these neighborhoods slide even further downhill or move them forward,” Johnson says. “But we can’t keep doing this reactive approach. It has to be aggressively proactive. We have almost a blank slate to work with.”

Indeed, the intersection of East 105th and Superior is now nothing more than a little convenience store, a cellphone shop and parking lots. A Dollar Store is the last operating retail in a building that once housed a grocery. 

Filmmaker and author Antwone Fisher, whose 2001 memoir Finding Fish became a movie, grew up in Glenville in the 1960s and 1970s. He has idyllic memories of the neighborhood where people sat on the front porch and knew their neighbor’s business in a good way. He remembers walking down the street seeing people cutting their lawns and painting houses and listening to soul hits on WJMO Super 1490 AM.

“There was a sense of neighborhood back then, and I hope the people involved in this type of project can bring that back,” Fisher says in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “But the key thing is young people seeing this as a real alternative to moving out to the suburbs or into a loft downtown.”

“What these young people are doing is very important,” Johnson adds. “They are risk-takers. But this is different now. Those risk takers from Ohio City and Tremont didn’t have to deal with the foreclosure mess and vacant neighborhoods. That’s why government help on a project like this is so vital, and I wish the city administration would realize that real change in this city needs to happen in the neighborhoods and not always downtown.”

As Mitchell walks past an abandoned four-story apartment building at East 99th Street and Tanner Avenue, he says there are alternatives to demolishing these buildings and homes. “We also need to find a way to get people to move back into the these neighborhoods that were once why this city was so great,” he says.

The light-red brick structure’s windows are boarded and graffiti tags a post on the front porch, but the apartments look out into Rockefeller Park across the street. Although it needs about $300,000 worth of work to make it livable, Mitchell has targeted it as his future home.

“We have young professionals coming out of college and working in Cleveland and they have a very positive attitude about this city right now,” he says. “They want to invest by becoming a part of this renaissance we all hear about. But we can’t attract and retain young professional to this area unless we give them real reasons to want to stay.”

Mitchell believes the Village Project can be part of that answer. “We just need to find ways to do it,” he says, “because there are so many more reasons to do this project than to not do it.” 

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