Foreclosure and hope in the Heights

Drawing by Ralph Solonitz.

Whether local, regional or national, it seems there are but five topics that dominate the news these days: the 2008 presidential election, the war in Iraq, the high price of gasoline, global warming, and the foreclosure crisis. This may be one of the few times in history when national issues feel extremely local. With the exception of an actual home invasion, a homeowner is unlikely to feel more vulnerable then when a house nearby is under foreclosure and, subsequently, boarded up.

Vacant houses invite vandalism. A thriving underground market for copper and aluminum is enabled by “look the other way” scrap yards and contractors who accept and pay for the raw materials. But for the tell-tale notices posted on doors or windows, one might not even know whether a home is in foreclosure or vacant for some other reason. And sometimes, it doesn’t matter. But, recently, something has caused me to turn the crisis around -something that reminds me of why we bought our house in the Heights 12 years ago.

When vacant houses are on YOUR block, their presence is not just a distracting eyesore or nuisance, but a real threat to your household’s well-being and future. Recently, a home on my block, which has been in varying degrees of vacancy over the 12 years I have lived here, and is vacant now, had raccoon traps on the roof for about two weeks -a nice welcoming touch for the house across the street with the “for sale” sign in the front yard. Any thought my husband and I had of moving and taking advantage lower housing prices had vanished. We now doubt we could sell our house first. So what do we do?

A recent letter to the editor in the Heights Observer asked “how will the city respond” to the foreclosure crisis? Like most of the country, our community is weathering a blistering assault on our home values (consensus seems to be valuation reductions from 10 to 30%). There is no breezy response available from our city. These are unprecedented times whose layers of complexity are still being peeled away.

While our leadership formalizes its strategies, individuals can still do much. Amidst windows with legal notices, but no shades or curtains, there exists hope. My Depression Era parents bought a $17,000 home in Akron in 1960. They sold the house 40 years later for less than $80,000. Over the years, they probably put over $40,000 into the house and I don’t think the eventual resale value ever concerned them.

Good investment? Debatable, but it was a great home in which to raise a family and every family on our block “owned” the block. They watched the homes of vacationing neighbors and instilled a sense of community that seems to only exist today on TV-Land reruns.

So, what do we do? Maybe this generation, with our own "housing depression" can take a few pointers from the pluckiness of the last Great Generation and go back to basics.

We can pick up the inevitable litter that accumulates on an abandoned property. After all, this is still your neighborhood and the presence of litter reflects the attitude of the whole block. Unless there are “keep off the grass or property” signs posted, pick up the litter. And, maybe even mow the lawn.

We can keep a keen eye out for unfamiliar or suspicious activity around vacant homes and notify police promptly. Nosy neighbors are sometimes the best crime deterrent.

We can help the city do its job by reporting neglected properties, with specific addresses and details about the problems. The Cleveland Heights Housing Inspection department or the University Heights Building department will inspect the properties and cite the owner, if appropriate.

We can hold block parties that help maintain the sense of “neighbor” in a “neighborhood.” Contact the University Heights community coordinator or the Cleveland Heights Department of Community Services and give them your dates.

Do not underestimate the power of gatherings. Two of my most cherished memories occurred during unexpected “disasters” – the Great Blackout of 2003 and a recent late winter storm that dropped 18 inches of snow within 24 hours. Each time, most of the block spilled into the streets and we grilled (during the blackout) and shoveled (after the snowstorm) and laughed with a deep sense of community that relied on no technology or edicts from our leadership. We simply did what we had to do. And, in time with a little effort, every thing took care of itself.

And we can remember that as trying as these times are, this is just a chapter in our history, not the whole book. Nature has a way of dealing with the ebbs by providing flow for the next generation.

Recently, I realized that a young man who grew up just across the street from me was in the neighborhood often. Since his parents still live across the street with his younger brothers, he had remained a familiar sight through the years. But, with a young wife and two small children, he was often around only on the weekends. But then there he was, practically every day, and early in the evening at that. Finally, catching some time with him, we struck up a conversation about the changing neighborhood. It was then my heart was warmed. The downturn in the economy, along with the resulting decrease in house values has afforded his young family the opportunity to move into one of the homes in foreclosure on the next block.

This news far outweighs the disappointment I had felt over the apparent reduction in our home’s value. We initially bought our house because it had such a wonderful mix of old and young, quiet elders and joyfully noisy children. Thanks to the downturn, I am able to envision a future of the same.

Sometimes, the value of a home cannot be measured by the value of a house.

Judi Miles and her husband Steve live in the Noble-Monticello neighborhood where they stay busy and happy gardening in the Oxford Community Garden and planning the next block party with their neighbors.

Judi Miles

Judi Miles. Future Heights board member for two years. Resident of Oxford/Noble/Monticello neighborhood for 12 years.

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Volume 1, Issue 4, Posted 6:49 PM, 06.18.2008