Would-be homebuyers: be forewarned, not foreclosed
During a March 4 event she sponsored, "Landlord & Tenant Law 101," Cleveland Heights City Council Member Davida Russell changed the subject. She told several elderly tenants from the Alcazar, "You don't have to rent. We can help get you into your own houses." They protested, “We’ve been homeowners. We don’t want that burden anymore!” What they wanted, like so many other renters in CH and beyond, was a landlord responsive to their needs.
Russell repeated "101" in June, and will do so again in October, with the participation of CH Municipal Court Judge J.J. Costello, the Legal Aid Society, the Cleveland Housing Network, and two attorneys. We commend her for addressing the concerns of renters in our city, but that sharp turn concerns us, especially since Russell went on to present a two-part "Pathways to Home Ownership" workshop, featuring real estate agents and representatives of lending institutions, along with housing counselors.
Of course, we don't oppose buying and living in one’s own home. We've seen how the decline in owner occupancy hurts housing preservation and neighborhood cohesion. And stable neighborhoods build a vibrant city. But buying a house—particularly one that is a century old—is not for the tentative, nor for anyone unprepared for costly surprises. (One of us recalls an unexpected $1,000 plumbing bill during the first week in their new home. That 1985 charge would be closer to $3,000 today—and, no, the problem hadn’t been detected during point-of-sale inspection.)
Redirecting frustrated tenants toward home-buying is not a solution to the problem of bad landlords. There will always be renters in Cleveland Heights—students, medical residents, seniors, lower-income people, aspiring homeowners still saving up, to name a few examples. Rental units were built into the diversity of our housing stock during the city’s development in the early 20th century. Renting should be a viable and stable way of life for anyone who needs or chooses it.
As we have pointed out before, absentee landlords do not police themselves. If our city is to offer decent, attractive rental options, we need more owner-occupied duplexes and rigorous code enforcement, along with information and advocacy to empower tenants.
We must take care not to offer up our lower-income residents to predatory real estate agents and bankers. After all, these are the industries that brought us the foreclosure crisis of 2008. So-called NINJA mortgages (No Income, No Jobs, No Assets) specifically targeted poor people and minorities, who then saw their dreams of home ownership dissolve when banks foreclosed. The human cost was incalculable. As a plethora of empty lots and dilapidated houses attests, Cleveland Heights has not yet recovered from that debacle.
Yes, there are conscientious people in real estate and banking, but little has been done at the federal, state or local level to rein in opportunistic and unethical actors. Indeed, our economic system rewards those qualities.
We have been impressed by many of Russell’s efforts to serve her constituents. Where the real estate and banking industries are concerned, we caution her, and all of our elected officials at city hall, to make sure they—and we—are not being used.
Ohio Issue 1 is a direct threat to majority rule, the bedrock of a government in which We the People are sovereign. Vote NO at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections on weekdays starting on Tuesday, July 11, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. That’s what we plan to do. There are 21 days offering early voting before Election Day, Aug. 8, with extended and weekend hours the last week. Why wait?
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.