Community addresses foreclosure threats

A boarded up house on Randolph Road in the Oxford neighborhood of Cleveland Heights.

With about 800 vacant houses in Cleveland Heights, foreclosures are a primary community concern. Three panelists addressed this issue at a program sponsored by the League of Women Voters on June 12 at Cleveland Heights City Hall. Rick Wagner, manager of housing programs for the city of Cleveland Heights, Kathryn Lad, executive director of the Home Repair Resource Center (HRRC), and Scott Wachter of the Cleveland Federal Community Leadership Institute spoke to an audience of about 40 citizens.

Wagner stated that of the 13,000 single family dwellings and 1,260 two-family dwellings in Cleveland Heights, about 800 are vacant and 300 of those are in active foreclosure proceedings.

He said he saw the beginnings of today’s problem in the late 1990s when changes in banking regulations and unscrupulous appraisers, among other factors, bled equity from properties and enabled loans to be sold to out-of-state banks. Many people fell for get-rich-quick real estate promotions and bought blocks of houses, hoping to become millionaires. .

Three city programs are in place to aid the community. Community Development Block Grant money is financing the conversion of a number of doubles to condominiums on East Derbyshire between Cottage Grove and Lee roads. This investment will create a new neighborhood.

In addition, the city has the opportunity to buy houses from HUD for $1 each. The city can then demolish them or rehabilitate the homes and place them back on the market. Although there have been slowdowns and halts to this program, 27 houses have been released to Cleveland Heights.

The city also secures vacant housing and maintains lawns. In 2007 the city took care of 400 properties and billed $81,000.

Lad told the audience that HRRC is now a HUD-certified counseling agency, which means additional funding and quality training for counselors. HRRC offers monthly classes to residents on budgeting, credit and home buying.

Homeowners in trouble have three options for help: they can negotiate a repayment plan with the lender to pay the mortgage in-full; they can work with the Ohio Rescue Home Fund and a similar Cuyahoga County program to advance money at 0% to bring mortgage payments current if they are experiencing temporary financial problems; or they can obtain a loan modification with the bank for a trial period of three months. HRRC urges residents to call when they sense that they are in financial trouble rather than waiting until the foreclosure process starts.

HRRC rehabilitates houses and will work with the city to take four of the $1 houses. Lad stressed the terrible condition of these houses and agreed with Wagner that some of them will simply have to be razed while others can be rehabilitated by HRRC and others.

Lad recommended that citizens become informed. "Call state and federal representatives to advocate for regulation of banks and protection from credit card lenders, she said. "Pay attention to the housing in your neighborhood. Pick up newspapers lying in a drive or porch and mow a lawn. And, support HRRC’s programs."

Wachter, a resident of University Heights and an employee of the Veterans Affairs department, joined six other federal employees in educating the community on housing issues. His group organized a housing fair at St. Agnes Church in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood with 211 Call for Help, HUD, the Legal Defense Fund, and NID Housing Counseling Agency. About eighty people attended, including many elderly residents.

Questions from the audience touched on the need for regulation, problems of renters, green space, and appraisers. Wagner noted that if it passes, Ohio House Bill 138 will provide dollars to help cities with distressed homes. Lad spoke to the need of requiring banks to provide information that they will not provide voluntarily.

Wagner says he checks sheriff’s sales, which have gone from about 85 to 350 per week, to keep tabs on vacant houses. City housing inspectors may notice vacancies as they examine the exteriors of homes, and sometimes residents call the city. He urged residents to contact the city about vacant homes and any suspicious activity they notice to forestall vandalism and theft.

Wagner is optimistic that Cleveland Heights can rebound because it is near downtown and University Circle, home of major employers. “Rising fuel prices may make inner-ring communities more attractive," he said, “between 1993 and 2003, Cleveland Heights led the county in appreciation of houses.”

Anne McFarland is a lawyer, librarian, and writer who has lived in Cleveland Heights for almost 40 years.

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Volume 1, Issue 4, Posted 12:18 PM, 06.18.2008