A place to call home: Cleveland's Black community is hit hardest in affordable housing search

This is part one of a two-part series on affordable housing in Cleveland and how it relates to racism as a public health crisis.

Ja'Kaila Banks has faced a lifetime of obstacles in her 20 years of life. One of her biggest challenges is just finding a place to lay her head at night.

Banks lived in foster care until she was 17 and has fended for herself ever since. She had a baby when she was 18 and, after living in Cleveland for a while, found an affordable $750-a-month apartment in Strongsville. It was a nice community to raise her little girl while she studied at Strongsville High School.

<span class="content-image-text">“Two bedrooms now go for about $1,200 a month,” Banks says. “There’s usually no washer or dryer. Most apartments don’t have fridges and stoves"</span>“Two bedrooms now go for about $1,200 a month,” Banks says. “There’s usually no washer or dryer. Most apartments don’t have fridges and stoves"Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Banks’ rent jumped to $1,300. She couldn’t afford the additional $550 per months and was given only two weeks to move. In February 2021 she found a duplex in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, where she would pay $750 a month, receiving rental assistance from a nonprofit agency.

At first, the apartment was fine, but the building soon developed rodent and mold problems that still haven’t been addressed. In late May, Banks received notice that the landlord was selling the property and that she must move again. She wasn’t sure what to do.

“Two bedrooms now go for about $1,200 a month,” Banks says. “There’s usually no washer or dryer. Most apartments don’t have fridges and stoves. Some don’t have closets. These landlords think they can put any price on it and people will pay it.”

Banks, who is Black, came across an apartment in Elyria where most of the tenants were white. The rent was just $850. Her background check came back clean, and her credit score met the minimum rate required.

However, after Banks applied for space, the apartment management raised the minimum credit score. Her credit rating still qualified but the landlord red-flagged her because she had been the victim of identity theft.

Management demanded documentation showing that the matter had been resolved. Banks provided the paperwork, but the management still held up her application.

Banks says she believes the landlord was discriminating against her because she is Black. She sought help from the Cleveland nonprofit Fair Housing Center for Rights & Research to fight back and has also enlisted paralegals. Her living situation continues to be in limbo.

“I feel people in power take advantage of others,” Banks says. “It’s very unfair because as American citizens we don’t have enough help from the community and people in charge.

“It frustrates me and angers me, but you can’t point your anger at a particular person,” Banks continues. “It has stressed me out a lot, because I’m a full-time mom and I’m still in school. It sickens me that there is limited help.”

A racism crisis
Stories like Banks’ prompted the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County two years ago to declare racism a public health crisis. Housing is considered a critical aspect of health.

“When I look at all social determinants of health—like healthcare, economic stability, criminal justice, and access to education—housing is the bedrock for all of our healthcare wellbeing,” says Lita Wills, commissioner of the Division of Health Equity and Social Justice at the Cleveland Department of Public Health.

“If you remove housing, everything else will crumble,” Wills says. “Without housing, you have no access to anything else. Where you live has more to do with your health than anything.”

Yet Cleveland is sorely lacking in affordable, quality housing, experts say, and the Black population is most impacted. That’s not surprising, considering that, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, Black people represent 48% of the population in a city ranked the second-most impoverished large municipality in the country.

Yes, housing developments are popping up, many of them luxury apartments—like Ohio City’s The Quarter and Intro—on Cleveland’s West Side. But residents struggling financially can’t afford them.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the housing market locally and nationally has been active in an upward and forward momentum,” says Michael Lewis, real estate director for Union Miles Development Corporation, a Community Development Corporation (CDC) that supports and seeks to improve the Union-Miles neighborhood.

“But in Black and poverty-stricken areas in Cleveland, and I can speak for Cleveland’s southeast side, we have not seen those comparable levels of coming back,” Lewis says of the newer developments.

Since the racism-public health declaration, the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have taken steps to turn conditions around. Cleveland City Council, for example, has revised its system of granting tax abatements to encourage new, affordable housing in blighted areas, including the East Side.

County Executive Armond Budish says the county is using federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to revamp the homeless shelter system. The county has also appropriated $5 million—including $3 million in ARPA funds—to help for-profit developers and nonprofits build new affordable housing and rehabilitate existing housing.

Meanwhile, a $35 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant is helping to pay for a new 120-unit apartment building in Cleveland’s impoverished Buckeye-Woodland neighborhood. Dubbed the Woodhill Homes Choice Transformation Project, at least 90 affordable units will be set aside for residents who lived in an old apartment building that was torn down on the same site. Construction started in July.

The Woodhill project—intended to mix low- and high-income tenants with the goal of bringing safety and stability to the neighborhood—is supported by Case Western Reserve University’s National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities, an applied research center. Center members are part of a project implementation team and are partnering with the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) and The Community Builders, a national nonprofit that develops mixed-income housing, on the plan.

<span class="content-image-text">Amy Khare, research director at the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities</span>Amy Khare, research director at the National Initiative on Mixed-Income CommunitiesAmy Khare, research director at the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities, has worked nationally over the past 20 years as a practitioner, policy consultant, and researcher in urban poverty, racial justice, affordable housing, and community development.

“In Cleveland, there has been a definite need to address continued concentrated poverty and racial segregation on the East Side for generations,” Khare says.

East Side red line
Racial segregation certainly isn’t new. Past government policies and private-sector practices solidified it.

The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established in the 1930s to help citizens afford homes by backing mortgages given by FHA-approved lenders. The problem was that between 1934 and 1968, 98% of all federally backed home loans went to white people.

In the private sector, real estate agents and banks fashioned a system known as redlining—boundaries on maps within which Black people were segregated. No loans were approved for white people wanting to buy homes in Black areas, and Black people were shown homes only in slums.

Additionally, banks charged higher interest rates to Black buyers, believing they were higher loan risks. Thus, it was harder for Black families to accumulate wealth through property ownership, which is how most middle-class families gain wealth.

<span class="content-image-text">Ronnie Dunn, interim chief diversity and inclusion officer and associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University</span>Ronnie Dunn, interim chief diversity and inclusion officer and associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State UniversityRonnie Dunn, interim chief diversity and inclusion officer and associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, says redlining isn’t entirely an historical relic.

“I’m sure there is still aspects of it, steering people from different backgrounds to certain neighborhoods and charging higher interest rates to some, and in some case not giving loans,” Dunn says.

Roger Sikes, program manager at Creating Healthy Communities at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, says that according to a health board analysis, people living in the same areas redlined in the mid-20th Century have lower life expectancies, sometimes significantly so. 

“On Buckeye Road, the life expectancy is 23 years less than in Shaker Heights,” Sikes says. “One factor is housing conditions and access to housing.”

Lewis says high crime rates in southeast Cleveland help discourage development of new affordable housing and reduce existing home values. And crime results at least partly from poverty and lack of household wealth—which for Black people, stems from a legacy of mid-20th century real estate practices.

Tom Sutton, professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University, says a 2019 Federal Reserve study shows the median household wealth for white families was $188,200. For Black and Latinx families, the amounts were $24,100 and $36,100, respectively.

Meanwhile, housing rental rates are soaring and becoming unaffordable for many Clevelanders. Sutton says the median gross rent in Cleveland last year was $735 a month.

However, 32% of Clevelanders live at or below the poverty line, which is $26,200 annually for a family of four, and they spend 34% of their income, or $742 per month, on rent. HUD sets the maximum rate for affordable housing at 30% of gross annual income.

“With increases in property values, the rents are going up even higher,” Sutton says.

Myriad obstacles
Stephanie Thomas, a city neighborhood street outreach worker at Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), says the homeless are given top priority when it comes to receiving subsidized rental housing through the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) and its parent agency HUD.

The rentals are known as Section 8 housing, which refers to Section 8 of the Federal Housing Act of 1937.

Unfortunately, Thomas says, some landlords don’t accept Section 8 rent vouchers, even though the vouchers guarantee that landlords will receive rent payments. As a result, 35 homeless families in Cleveland were unable to find housing earlier this year. 

In most Cuyahoga County cities, no laws exist that prohibit landlords from discriminating against Section 8 renters—90% of whom are Black in Cuyahoga County, according to Sikes. 

“It’s a way for people to be racists legally whether they know it or not,” Thomas says.

Sikes says that because landlords can deny housing based solely on the rent funding sources, those needing Section 8 housing are forced into the same neighborhoods that were redlined.

Seventeen states have made it illegal to deny housing to those with Section 8 vouchers, Sikes says.

In Ohio, several cities—including Cleveland Heights, South Euclid, Toledo, University Heights, and Warrensville Heights—have passed Source of Income (SOI) protection laws that require landlords to accept subsidized rent payments, including those from HUD.

“There is momentum in Cleveland for this, and at the county level too,” Sikes says. “It’s a priority for the [Cleveland Mayor Justin] Bibb administration.”

However, even if SOI laws are passed, EDEN, which administers HUD vouchers for people experiencing homelessness in Northeast Ohio, is understaffed and needs more housing inspectors, Thomas says.

“They’re good people [at EDEN] trying to do their best and they have a vigorous inspection program that was put in place to prevent slumlords,” Thomas says. “But it slows down the process for people who desperately need housing.”

Another problem is out-of-state companies buying local houses and apartments. They outbid local property seekers, drive up rents and reduce the chances for Cleveland-area residents to purchase homes.

Lewis says Union Miles Development encourages owners of dilapidated houses to make repairs. But if the landlord is an out-of-state limited liability company it’s difficult to identify the responsible parties, let alone pressure them to maintain their properties. And often the LLCs are the ones that let properties deteriorate.

Gentrification factor
Another factor hurting Black residents and other minorities is gentrification, which happens when developers build upscale housing in historically poverty-stricken areas—forcing out existing residents who can no longer afford to live there. This has happened in some Cleveland neighborhoods like Tremont and Detroit-Shoreway.

<span class="content-image-text">Molly Nagin, a certified healthcare navigator and grassroots organizer at Universal Health Care Action Network</span>Molly Nagin, a certified healthcare navigator and grassroots organizer at Universal Health Care Action NetworkMolly Nagin, a certified healthcare navigator and grassroots organizer at Universal Health Care Action Network (UHCAN), which fights against healthcare and hospital discrimination, says gentrification has also occurred on the East Side, namely in the Fairfax neighborhood, where Cleveland Clinic has its main campus.

The Clinic’s sprawling and ever-growing main campus includes three hotels and three “specialized lodging options” where out-of-town patients and their families can stay. In May it announced plans for a new Neurological Institute and an expansion of its Cole Eye Institute.

Meanwhile, residents living in Fairfax are struggling. According to a 2021 study by The Center for Community Solutions, the median household income in Fairfax is $20,331 and 37% of the population lives in poverty.

“Cleveland Clinic is the largest employer in Cleveland,” Nagin says. “It’s also the largest property holder outside of the city itself, but it doesn’t pay much in property taxes. It’s supposed to donate to the city as a charity, but we found a lot of hospital systems aren’t putting that money back into the community but into research. The research is supposed to benefit the community, but it’s really a loophole.”

Nagin pointed out that the Massachusetts-based think tank Lown Institute, in its 2022 Hospitals Index Community Benefit ranking, showed that Cleveland Clinic, among 275 nonprofit U.S. hospitals, had the fourth-widest gap between the estimated amount of tax breaks it receives and the amount it invests in the community. In 2021, the Clinic had the widest gap.

Beth Hertz, Cleveland Clinic spokesperson, counters that the Clinic’s community benefit totaled $1.31 billion in 2020, the highest amount the hospital ever reported.

“The Lown Institute did not count charity care, education, and research toward their community benefit investment,” a Cleveland Clinic press release says. “Cleveland Clinic’s financial assistance policy provides free or discounted care to patients with incomes up to 400% of the federal poverty level and covers both hospital care and employed physician services.”

Additionally, Hertz says Cleveland Clinic is partnering with Meijer, Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation and the City of Cleveland to develop a grocery market and 196-unit apartment complex near its main campus to provide neighborhood necessities to Fairfax residents. Officials broke ground in December.

Also, Cleveland Clinic has announced that it’s investing more than $50 million over the next five years to make Cleveland homes safe from lead.

Fighting the tide
For decades community development corporations like Fairfax Renaissance have fought the battle for affordable housing. They seek grants for housing projects from the city of Cleveland, the state and federal governments, banks, foundations and private donors.

Denise VanLeer, executive director of Fairfax Renaissance, says her organization in 2000 built 40 affordable three- and four-bedroom single-family homes scattered throughout the neighborhood. The project was developed with tax credits from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency.
“These are rental homes, and the tenant has to be low-income to occupy a home,” VanLeer says. “After 15 years, the tenant can purchase the home at a reduced price. The idea is that a tenant will become more financially stable as a result of stable housing and can work toward purchasing a home.”

In 2006, Fairfax Renaissance, again using tax credits, constructed two single-family ranch homes specifically for grandparents raising grandchildren and a 54-unit apartment building, Renaissance at Fairfax Park, for senior citizens.

In 2014 and 2015, Fairfax Renaissance developed Griot Village, a 40-unit townhome complex for seniors raising children.

Union Miles Development, like Fairfax Renaissance, also offers a rent-to-own housing program. It buys homes from the City of Cleveland Land Reutilization (Land Bank) Program and Cuyahoga Land Bank, renovates them, and then leases the homes to residents at affordable rates.

Lewis says Union Miles has sold more than 80 homes over the past three to five years to local residents who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford home ownership.

“We’re focused on stabilizing our neighborhoods,” Lewis says. “The situation didn’t devolve overnight so it’s not going to bounce back overnight. But we’re making great strides toward home ownership opportunity. We want to be able to continue to improve the quality of life for residents, and it starts with single, affordable homes.”

Union Miles hopes to break ground later this year on the Walt Collins Veterans Housing and Service Initiative on Harvard Avenue at East 95th Street. The plan initially will include 10 single-family housing units for unsheltered veterans and a service center where they can receive help for mental-health and substance-abuse problems.

As for the HUD-funded Woodhill Homes Choice Transformation Project, Khare with the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities says the project is more than an apartment building. It’s designed to uplift the entire neighborhood and prevent gentrification by including both high-income and lower-income residents.

“The people living there now on Woodhill already have a strong sense of cooperative, informal neighboring, and a feeling for how they want the space to look like and how it will be governed—and they want to help govern and control it,” Khare says.

For example, the Woodhill project will have a cooperative laundromat run by its residents. A laundromat might not sound like much to outsiders, but the nearest washer-drying facility is several miles from the neighborhood.

“It will probably take two decades to see some results of the Woodhill project,” Khare says. “It’s the children raised in that new environment who will benefit, perhaps by better schools and more career opportunities.”

Perhaps until then, Clevelanders like Banks will continue their search for affordable housing. Banks is still living in her Detroit-Shoreway apartment but knows her time to move is approaching.

“I just want to find something that best suits my and my child’s needs,” Banks says.

Tomorrow: What Cleveland City Council and Cuyahoga County have done to create affordable housing. Is it enough?

This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media that investigates how racism contributes to poor health outcomes in the Cleveland area and uncovers what local institutions are doing to tear down the structural barriers to good health. The project is funded by the Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.

In the coming months, FreshWater will be covering affordable housing, access to food, access to resources, and neighborhood improvement as we explore the declaration that racism is a public health crisis.

Bob Sandrick
Bob Sandrick

About the Author: Bob Sandrick

Bob Sandrick is an award-winning multimedia writer and reporter who has worked at Cleveland.com and Sun News. His exhaustive body of work includes investigative reporting on the Cleveland Division of Water and the City of Beachwood. Today he continues to write for cleveland.com as a freelancer and also writes for Community Leader magazine, The Medina Gazette and the Cleveland Clinic.