Monday, November 30, 2015

Cleveland has a big problem. It was once the fifth-largest city in America. In 1950, Cleveland was bursting at the seams with more than 915,000 residents. The Shoreway opened in 1938, and major extensions were westward (1940) and eastward (1941) soon after. It is now designated I-90. The rest of I-90 (also known as the Inner Belt Freeway) zig-zags across downtown to the Tremont neighborhood, where it resumes its westward course. This section opened in December 1959. A major southern extension, the Willow Freeway (now I-77) was approved in 1939. After an interruption by World War II, it opened in 1950. To ease congestion on the Willow, a second south-bound interstate highway, I-71, opened in 1959. I-480, linking southeast Cuyahoga County with Bedford before cutting due west across the southern surburbs, began construction in 1957 and opened in 1966. A parallel route -- I-490 -- began construction in 1969 at I-90 at Tremont. It was designed to connect with I-77 on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River, and then cut across Shaker Heights by turning Fairmount Blvd. into an interstate highway until it reached I-271 in Pepper Pike. Opposition to the plan in Shaker Heights truncated the freeway at E. 55th Street.

All those roads.........

All that sprawl...........

And yet, even as the city was building these roads, it was collapsing. Major heavy industries abandoned Cleveland in the 1960s, and the population fell a whopping 14.3 percent to just 751,000 people. A major exodus of industry, residents, and retail business occurred in the 1980s as the population crashed by 23.6 percent to reach just 574,000. Most of Cleveland's housing stock, which served the working-class residents feeding Industrial Valley's heavy industry, was abandoned. Vast tracks of cheaply built, clapboard, Victorian housing lay uninhabited. The once-thriving area between Euclid and Woodland Avenues became a quasi-ghost town. Tremont, Brooklyn Centre, Brooklyn Heights, Cuyahoga Heights, and Newburgh Heights suffered immensely. But the collapse wasn't over. By 1990, Cleveland had lost another 11.9 percent of its population, falling to 505,000 people. Another 30,000 people, or 5.4 percent fled the city in the 1990s, but the city took another massive population hit in the first decade of the new century as 17.1 percent of the population fled -- bringing Cleveland's population to just 397,000. Total population loss over 60 years: 57.5 percent. Total population loss since 2000: 18.7 percent

Half the city's housing stock now stood empty.

How can a city deal with that?

Let's consider Detroit. During the same 60-year period, Detroit lost 63.3 percent of its total population. Since 2000, Detroit has lost 28.5 percent of its population. Total population loss is roughly equal, although Detroit's collapse since 2000 has been far more severe.

This year, the City of Cleveland decided to do an inventory of all housing stock in the city. It quite literally had no idea how much housing stock there was, or whether any of it was still standing. The city had long ago seized vast quantities of housing stock over unpaid taxes. But the housing stock just sat there, without maintenance or care. With so much housing stock abandoned, was any of it habitable? What should be demolished? What should be rehabilitated and sold? The city just completed that inventory.

Now what?

Detroit is working on the "now what?" answer.

Detroit identifies neighborhoods on the cusp of dissolving or which have only recently depopulated. It uses eminent domain or tax liens to seize abandoned housing, sells it at an extreme loss (one-tenth the price), and then issues a grant (worth about two-thirds the price of the house) to the new owner to bring the home up to code.

Because housing costs in Detroit are so low -- a typical two-bedroom home sells of just $38,000 -- the city can recreate a neighborhood almost overnight. The re-created population density lures in businesses, especially small retail and dining, which makes the neighborhood stable again. The real estate market gets restarted, and property values rise.

What's interesting about this program is that it's almost entirely publicly funded. At first, that seems ludicrous: Detroit can't keep the lights on, so why is it spending millions of dollars on this program?

Because Detroit's financial base is about property taxes. It is generating none. By spending a little money now, Detroit is not only stabilizing its population, but the city is creating valuable housing stock from abandoned property. The city is seeing property values rise in neighborhoods which had been abandoned and had zero property value before. As residents return to Detroit, the city sees its sales tax revenue and its income tax revenue rise.

In the long run, the expenditure is better than not having intervened. It pays off. It revives.

Listen up, Cleveland. This is your future, too.


  1. Part One

    Detroit offered urban homesteading back in the mid-1970s when City officials there realized that large numbers of houses would end-up vacant and neighborhoods would suffer as a result if the City didn't just give away vacant houses. Just give vacant houses to people for $1 if they agree to bring them up to code and live in them for a minimum of five years. How else with cities beset with lots of vacant housing continue to maintain water and sewer infrastructure in neighborhoods with more and more vacancies?

    Odd that you should be so down on Cleveland when Detroit lost hundreds of major factories over many years and yet kept building more and more freeways and modern divided boulevards to whisk traffic as far away from downtown as-possible too, far further from downtown than Cleveland suburbanites are willing to drive. Remember back when both Hudson and Packard collapsed during the 1956-1958 Eisenhower recession, which eventually killed Continental Engine and the entire east-side of Detroit near their plants too? Nobody even thought of trying to bail them out.

    There is far more to this sad story and building freeways to whisk suburbanites between distant neighborhoods and downtown was not what killed either Detroit or Cleveland, as both cities had been trying to kill themselves long before the first freeway was built in either city.

    Remember when the Van Sweringen Brothers built their Shaker Rapid Transit and opened once-toney Shaker Square in the 1920s, that allowed wealthy Clevelanders to abandon the city and even shop in their new suburb away from the madding crowds downtown? Heck, even A & P opened a grocery store in Shaker Heights back in that era too, and right next door was a Woolworth's. Many wealthy Clevelanders had already been living and shopping outside the city 15-20 years before the first freeway was built in-fact.

    Let me ask you my man, would you be willing to live in Tremont today if America hadn't passed the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, and not only was Republic Steel was still going full blast 24/7 but also J & L and American Steel & Wire too, which together used to cause coal smoke in Tremont so thick that you couldn't see one end of Lincoln Park from the other?

    What about the many grand boulevards of both Detroit and Cleveland, to what extent did they allow people to move away from the city? Did you know that Detroit's Woodward Ave, eight lanes wide divided, running 28 miles from downtown Detroit's Grand Circus Park to Wide Track Drive around Pontiac, was built in the 1920s too, almost 20 years before the War Department built what is now I-94 on the west side of Detroit to speed war workers to and from the Willow Run B-24 bomber plant?

    Did you know that the War Department also built a portion of Cleveland's East Shoreway during World War II in order to speed war workers to the former Thompson Aircraft plant out in Euclid, plus they improved some surface streets into a higher-speed roadway in order to get war workers out to the former Cleveland tank plant (today's IX Center) at Hopkins Airport too?

  2. Part Two

    So what Federal policy really led to suburban flight which actually started before World War II, and also greatly contributed to post-war suburban flight too?

    You don't think that FDR's Housing Act of 1934 with its 20-year fixed-rate mortgage and its subsequent revisions or later VA mortgage funding combined with War Department war factory location and roadway building policies, and then immense post-war housing shortages combined with the fact that before the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act America was an apartheid country, and the Housing Act wouldn't fund minority mortgages had anything to do with White Flight, which was very heavy in the post-war 1940s and 1950s, before any of Cleveland or Detroit's major freeways were complete?

    What about the necessary suburban housing and retail developers without which a lot of today's suburbs wouldn't have been built? Don't they and the get rich quick crowd get some of the blame? How about the Van Sweringen Brothers, who not only built Shaker Heights but also owned a major Cleveland-based railroad empire that collapsed like a house of cards during the Great Depression, shouldn't they get some of the blame too? How about short-sighted planners of yesteryear who didn't act to annex more land in-time to mitigate the loss of wealthy residents to suburbanization?

    Am I saying that freeways didn't cause substantial hardship for America's old cities often hemmed-in by their surrounding suburbs and unable to annex more land?

    No, however, freeway development hurt such cities in a much different way than is commonly thought among the anti-freeway urban planning crowd. The development of a national system of freeways freed inner-city industry from having to locate right alongside railroad tracks where land had been extremely expensive before the Interstate Highways were built.

    Suddenly over a period of just 20-30 years starting in the 1960s inner-city industrial/warehouse and commercial land along railroads became virtually worthless, which killed city tax collections.

    Look around suburban Cleveland at the age of factory buildings in older outlying industrial parks, such as in Solon right off of US 422 at Cochran Rd or in Bedford Heights at Richmond and Miles. Those buildings were all built in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and most were built to replace former factories in the inner-city tied to railroad access too.

    So what really killed Cleveland and Detroit (and Youngstown too)? I blame more and more increasingly-expensive environmental protection legislation that was mainly passed by Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr with the coffin nail being the 1986 law that forced southern Great Lakes manufacturers to either install smokestack scrubbers or quit burning lower-cost locally-mined coal.

    Did you know that the acid rain law was signed by President Reagan the same year that he signed WTO and the first free trade agreement between the US and Canada, which was from the outset supposed to include Mexico too?

    Let me ask you, given just the cost differences between US and Mexican worker's rights, health, and safety laws; environmental protection laws; tax laws; and employer contributions to fund healthcare and retirement, if we were to pay our Mexican workers $5.00 per-hour, how much could we pay our American workers and still break even?

    Did you even see the movie "Less than Zero", as we can't afford to pay our workers anything and still compete with Mexican labor if they are paid $5.00/hour.

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  4. Part Three

    Back to my Tremont air pollution question. Here is a very nice color photo of Weirton Steel back in 1957. Now Weirton Steel was only about 1/6th as-large as Cleveland's operating industrial Flats steelmakers were back in the 1950s. Would you be willing to put up with living in a pall of heavy coal smoke or would you, if you could afford-to, move away from all that noise, odd chemical odors, and smoke, especially back when the Standard Oil Refinery was also down there running full blast too?

    There is a whole lot of blame to go around for the demise of southern Great Lakes industrial cities, and blaming freeways for allowing people to live outside of obviously unhealthy living conditions is counterproductive, as it creates an us versus them mentality. Cleveland and Detroit should have pursued metropolitan government many years ago as Houston and Columbus enjoy now, but that chance has come and gone.

    So how does a city in-decline with 8,000 vacant houses re-attract would-be residents back to the city, by bad-mouthing your suburbanites? Wouldn't it be cheaper to just give those vacant houses and even vacant commercial/industrial properties away to anyone willing to fix them up and occupy them for a certain time frame, than it would be to see entire neighborhoods vanish as has already happened all over Detroit? How can the City afford to maintain infrastructure when there are only 4-5 occupied houses on block after block after block?

    What is the worst thing that could happen giving vacant houses away for free, perhaps the city having to come back in and give the place away for free again? I know, some of us wouldn't want to live right next to the low-rent crowd but wouldn't that be better than having to endure the looming collapse of your water and sewer infrastructure?

    How about giving all those vacant houses away for $1 if the residents will agree to fix them up, live in them for a minimum of 10 years, and also agree to plant a couple of trees, which would also help rectify Cleveland's tree cover shortage too?

    One more thing I feel strongly about is that taking stock of the present and planning for the future is far more productive than harping about the past and pointing fingers is. Cleveland and Detroit are where each are today, and what can we do to fix the problems rather than who can we blame for what has happened.

    I am a former Cleveland State Urban Planning student (1986-1990) and currently a second-year MURP graduate student at the University of Colorado Denver focused-on Regional Sustainability, and I’m also an APA member too.