Who owns Cleveland Heights?

Who owns Cleveland Heights? A glib answer would be: homeowners, commercial and residential landlords and, to some extent, the city itself. But to whom does municipally owned property really belong? We say it belongs to the people.

Much city government business involves controlling land use by modifying and enforcing zoning and building codes and courting economic development. Since the one-two punch of subprime mortgages and the foreclosure crisis starting around 2009, various Cleveland Heights administrations have grappled with the ongoing fallout.

Attempts to manage it have included contracting with two community-development corporations, FutureHeights and Start Right. Both have renovated and sold salvageable houses previously owned by the city. Start Right also is building new infill housing on city-owned lots in Caledonia. In 2017, the city created a community-improvement corporation to facilitate the management and redevelopment of property it acquires, primarily through tax foreclosure.

With skyrocketing home prices and rents, loss of low- and moderate-rate accommodations is a continual challenge. Cleveland Heights has never required new developments to include a designated number of units for lower-income people. The ugly fact is, nobody wants poor people in their neighborhoods.

At the moment, some Noble/Nela residents are up in arms at the prospect of a new 52-unit apartment building on Noble Road catering exclusively to lower-income residents. Who can blame them? When they say no other neighborhood in the city would accept such a project, they’re right. When they say that instead of more low-income housing they need a decent grocery store (unlike Save-A-Lot) and other essential retail, they’re also right.

A side-lot program allows the Cleveland Heights and Cuyahoga County land banks to dispose of vacant lots along with the burden of maintaining them. If homeowners adjacent to such a lot show they can responsibly care for it, the land bank can legally transfer it to them for free or a nominal cost. However, we learned recently about two such lots adjoining a Yorkshire Road home, acquired in 2013 by the then-homeowner at no cost. They’ve since changed hands twice and the current owner, Community Land Holdings LLC, is currently asking $75,000 for them. That land belonged to all Cleveland Heights residents, but now it seems we've been robbed. How many other speculators profit from formerly city-owned property, for which they pay little or nothing?

If Cleveland Heights had a community land trust (CLT), our vacant lots and renovated properties could be protected to provide low- and moderate-income housing, as well as essential amenities such as reasonably priced retail space, in perpetuity. A CLT owns the land, leasing it to the homeowner and taking the land value out of the equation, thereby reducing the price of the home. The homeowner pays property taxes and may will the house to their heirs. If they sell, they reap some equity while agreeing to price restrictions that keep the house affordable for the next qualified buyer.

CLTs are not simple solutions, but they have a track record. According to the Center for Community Land Trusts, in Madison, Wis., the U.S. has 315 CLTs, up from 162 in 2006. Establishing a CLT might help prepare Cleveland Heights to equitably redevelop Severance Center when the city finally gets site control.

We can’t count on City Hall to build community; that’s our job as citizens. Lots of us work on that in different ways. A community land trust could just be the next bold step Cleveland Heights needs. We hope to write more about this soon.

Note: Severance Action Group, a citizens' initiative, wants to share its vision for Severance Center with neighborhood groups. E-mail info@severancerediscovered.org to learn more.

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

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Volume 16, Issue 9, Posted 11:50 AM, 09.02.2023