CH demonstrates inequitable attention to housing problems
In San Francisco or New York, a $480,000 teardown replaced by a more up-to-date home in a gentrifying area would not be unusual. That barely buys a run-down bungalow in those markets. But in Cleveland Heights, many residents were dismayed when the meticulously well-maintained 6-bedroom, 5-bath, 4,743-square-foot century home at 2224 Devonshire Drive in the Ambler Heights Historic District, which sold at that price, was demolished less than a year later.
The city’s Architectural Board of Review has approved plans for a large contemporary house to replace it. Residents are still scratching their heads at how Cleveland Heights could have crowed about finally passing a landmark ordinance last year, then approved the demolition of a unique, historic structure.
At the other end of the city, members of Noble Neighbors have been fighting a different kind of losing battle to save homes from the wrecking ball. As the epicenter of the city’s foreclosure crisis, the area has suffered disinvestment for well over a decade.
One case in point: In 2009, a lovely home at 3804 Kirkwood Road fell into vacancy and blight. In 2016, volunteers from Greater Cleveland Congregations joined with Noble Neighbors to preserve and revitalize the housing stock in the neighborhood; 3804 Kirkwood made their priority list. Despite their best efforts, the house continued to deteriorate during years of court battles over a clouded title. Its demolition in late 2019 saw a decade of activist effort capped off with, not sorely needed new investment, but with about 100 vacant lots in Noble alone.
In another part of the city, the decline of 3158 Berkshire Road, a classic front-porch colonial, began in 2008, when its owner went to prison for money laundering on behalf of a convicted foreclosure fraud perpetrator, and stopped paying property taxes. Briefly rented, it had 14 occupants at one point, then sat vacant for approximately a decade. Neighbors kept it looking occupied—landscaping the yard, picking up mail, and parking cars in the driveway—while begging the city to help. By 2019, when Cleveland Heights acquired it through tax foreclosure, the unpaid taxes totaled almost $135,000. The house is now being rehabbed by Future Heights. The former owner, long out of prison, lives in Pepper Pike.
The 15-room dwelling at 2540 Arlington Road, off Fairmount Boulevard, was at one point illegally rented to a group of medical students who trashed it. Vacant for the next six years, it was purchased at a sheriff’s sale in 2017. The new owner’s ambitious renovation project dragged on for nearly two years. Finally, some frustrated neighbors complained to CH City Council. A dumpster and a portable outhouse defaced their block, they said, and rainwater from the gutterless structure threatened to swamp their properties. They feared an outsize addition and mismatched roof shingles would produce an eyesore. In response, the city created a staff team which meets weekly, working with the owner and contractor to ensure that they meet deadlines.
As longtime council-watchers, we have never before seen a task force created to handle a single problem property.
We have to wonder: Why is the seemingly endless battle to save the housing stock in Noble—one-fifth of the city—heavily dependent on volunteers, while a special city team deals with one problem property in a mansion district? Why does it take a decade of complaints from middle-class residents to get action on a single blighted home? Does the landmark ordinance simply not apply to wealthy property owners, who can tear down and replace any house they choose? And does crime actually pay?
The famous diversity of Cleveland Heights is not just racial or ethnic, but also economic. As in the country at large, that can threaten democratic governance.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.