Cleveland Councilman Jeff Johnson calls for more vacant homes to renovated, not demolished

Johnson worried study will recommend demolitions

CLEVELAND - Cleveland Councilman Jeff Johnson says he believes more condemned homes can be saved and occupied by owners who care about the community.

According to Johnson, more than 15,000 Cleveland homes are unoccupied and that number continues to grow.

Johnson pointed to a vacant house on South Boulevard, a house owned by the Cuyahoga Land Bank, that is now on the demolition list.

"This house has strong bones. It's a beautiful house," Johnson said. "This house can easily be saved. Why should it be torn down?"

Johnson said he's concerned about a study that is partly being funded by Cleveland City Council. He said he believes that study may recommend that a greater number of Cleveland homes be taken down, not renovated.

The study is being funded by 13 different agencies and is designed to show the connection between the demolition of condemned homes and neighborhood growth and improvement.

Johnson praised the efforts of the Cuyahoga Land Bank in acquiring foreclosed homes from Fannie Mae and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"The land bank has the ability to mothball a house and to rehabilitate it," explained Johnson. "But recently they've moved away from those strategies and are focusing on a demolition first strategy."

Johnson plans on working with the community development corporation in his ward, and seek help from the private sector, in an attempt to save a greater number of vacant properties.

"The city of Cleveland can't pay for all the renovations. We need to use the models being used in wards," said Johnson. "Bring in the private sector to grab these houses, and rehabilitate them for rental or purchase."

However, Thriving Communities Institute Director Jim Rokakis said he doesn't believe the study he helped to create will have a negative impact on housing stock that can be saved. Rokakis said the study is independent of attempts to save viable or historic vacant homes, it's a badly needed effort to generate demolition dollars.

"We're just trying to make a case to the U.S. Treasury Department, an agency that is now backing up nine out of 10 mortgages, that they need to look at tools in their toolkit that will reduce the number of foreclosures in cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Lorain," said Rokakis. "So this study is not anti-renovation."

Rokakis said he believes there are simply too many homes in Cleveland, a housing stock designed to accommodate a million residents, in a city that now has a population of 400,000. Rokakis pointed to evidence that links vacant homes to increased crime, and a significant drop in property values, which in turn leads to more foreclosures.

"So we didn't come in here trying to determine which properties are historic, and which properties need to be saved," Rokakis said. "Those are local decisions to be arrived at by leaders like Councilman Johnson."

The findings of the 130,000-demolition study are expected to be released this fall, and according to Rokakis  not a moment too soon.  Rokakis estimates the region will be completely out of demolition funds by the end of 2013, thus the importance of additional federal funding.

Meanwhile both Johnson and Rokakis praised NewsChannel5's Building Better Neighborhoods for its balance approach and coverage on how to best deal with vacant homes.

NewsChannel5 continues to try and spark neighborhood involvement by residents, who volunteer to make a difference when it comes to vacant and condemned properties. We're inviting residents to report nuisance properties through our Building Better Neighborhood initiative.

Just send us pictures and information on vacant homes in your neighborhood and we'll forward the information to your city building department, in an effort to move the properties to progress.

We are also giving residents information on how they can volunteer in their neighborhoods to make them better. Those interested in starting a volunteer effort in their neighborhood should contact Hands on Northeast Ohio for more information.

Those interested is starting their own neighborhood volunteer effort can find step-by-step instruction from the NewsChannel5 Building Better Neighborhoods Volunteer Toolkit.

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