Ratings don't rate

The July 4 parade on Kingston Road matters.

Every summer, Cleveland Magazine publishes its Rating the Suburbs issue and injects another dose of steroids into outer-suburban development. No surprise: the ratings are meant to affirm what matters to the people who advertise in Cleveland Magazine.

But these numbers are of little use to people who want to live in a close-in place like Cleveland Heights, University Heights, or Lakewood. We need a rating that measures the things that matter to people who value culture, walkable neighborhoods, aesthetic quality, true community diversity, easy access to urban amenities, a strong presence of local independent businesses, and, of course, good schools, good property values, and reasonable taxes. Call it the WMI: the What Matters Index.

Let’s start with property taxes and an interesting comparison. Much is made of the "killer taxes" in inner ring places. Cleveland Heights had a median home value of $109,500 in the 2000 census while in Solon that figure was $215,800. In CH the tax rate is 2.83% of the residential market value. In Solon the tax rate is only 1.89% of market value. No wonder people complain. But here’s a more pragmatic look at those numbers: 2.83% of $109,500 is $3,099, while 1.89% of $215,800 is $4,079. In other words, your typical Cleveland Heights homeowner actually pays less property tax every year than the typical Solon homeowner, even though the tax rate in CH is higher. Why? Probably because it costs somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000 per household to run the schools and other things funded by property taxes, and if the homes cost more, the tax rate can be less to get to that dollar figure. Conversely, where home prices are lower, rates have to be higher to get to the same dollar figure.

So should the Heights area be made to look bad simply because housing is a better value here? I don’t think so. The figure used in our index should be the median annual property tax per household. Add that to the median annual mortgage payment (much lower in CH than in Solon) to get the median annual cost of home ownership.

The other issues that matter with property values are the range of affordability and reliability of appreciation. Give points for a wide range of values from least expensive to most, and then factor in annual average appreciation.

School quality: a long-established statistic of dubious value has been the state’s annual school district ratings, which have failed to perform the most basic input/output analysis. Unsurprisingly, outer-suburban schools with affluent and homogenous student populations look best. In the past couple of years the state has finally included a "value-added" measure that tracks student performance over time, the state's first and only scientifically valid measure of the impact of a school on its students. Our index must use that value-added rating (which reveals Heights schools as top performers).

The rest of the index would tally up answers to questions like: Of the retail businesses, how many are locally owned? What is the variety and quality of dining? How long is the car commute downtown and can it be accomplished without a car in similar time? Can you walk to rail transit and step off at the airport? How racially and economically diverse is the community? How do people rate the physical quality of the environment? How long does it take to walk to key commercial amenities? To parks and recreational facilities? Are there sidewalks everywhere? Can you get on your bicycle and be in a major cultural center in 20 minutes? Or turn the other direction and be in beautiful countryside in 20 minutes? How many world-class museums, orchestras, and educational institutions are within six miles? How many active local arts organizations are there?

You get the drift. People choose where to live based on what they value, but they can’t make an informed choice if the information available doesn’t embody what matters to them. Does the index described above blatantly stack the deck in favor of a place like Cleveland Heights? You bet it does. Because if these are the things you really care about, there are very few places anywhere that do it all better.

Tell us what matters to you on the Observatory Forum.

Greg Donley is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights.

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Volume 1, Issue 7, Posted 12:02 PM, 07.21.2008