A place to call home: The quest to create safe, affordable housing options

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

Shear King is hanging onto hope. Her experience over the past year exemplifies how life can abruptly turn south for those with limited resources.

In 2021, King lived in a duplex in Cleveland and worked at a Valley View auto parts store. She didn’t own a car, so she took an Uber to her job every day.
King had lost custody of her four children to Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services but was hoping to get them back. She was trying.

Shear King didn’t blame her housing situation on racism, but in a city ranked the second-most impoverished municipality in America, racism can’t be ignored as a possible factor.Then, last November, a fire left King homeless. The American Red Cross paid for a temporary hotel stay, but after that, she had no place to go. She moved into an emergency winter shelter at Franklin Circle Christian Church on Fulton Road in Ohio City.

King searched for an apartment. She needed three bedrooms for when her children started living with her again, but she was unable to find a rent as low as the $550 a month she paid at the duplex.

Luckily, the shelter referred King to Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), which helps homeless people find housing. Stephanie Thomas, city neighborhood street outreach worker at the nonprofit, assisted King in applying for the Rapid Rehousing Program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The program provides rent payments for one year. Anyone who’s homeless automatically qualifies.

Rapid Rehousing seemed like a godsend to King, but there were snags. The program pays only $650 a month for a single person, and it’s not easy to find a rent that low in Cleveland nowadays. NEOCH’s Thomas says renters are lucky to pay $800 to $1,000 per month.

Additionally, every apartment application requires a fee, typically $45, which is not easy for a homeless person to scrounge up.

“It’s so difficult to find housing right now,” Thomas says. “There is a housing shortage. Shear is not the only one I’m working with who’s scrambling to find something affordable.”

Some landlords make the process even more difficult by rejecting tenant candidates with certain backgrounds and histories, like previous convictions and low credit scores.

Also, Emerald Development and Economic Network (EDEN), the agency designated by HUD to administer Rapid Rehousing in Northeast Ohio, has a vigorous home inspection program that can take weeks. The inspections are meant to protect tenants but can also be another obstacle.

Earlier this year, Thomas thought she had located a place for King. But while the two waded through the approval process with EDEN, someone else slapped down cash on the home.

“EDEN doesn’t have enough inspectors,” Thomas says. “Everybody there is busy and they’re nice and they’re doing their jobs and they care, but we have a housing crisis and there are a lot of people in Cleveland needing housing. We don’t have an adequate system in place to help lift the community out of this.”

Stephanie Thomas, scene here with Shear King (right), does housing intake every Tuesday at Cleveland Public Library West Branch.In August, Thomas said EDEN might have finally approved an affordable home for King, nine months after the fire. So much for rapid rehousing.

During her months of waiting, King has slept in homeless shelters, in the homes of friends and in her car. She says she never anticipated that finding another home was going to be this difficult.

“I’m just keeping my head up high and I’m staying motivated,” King says. “I keep pushing myself because I know that God is going to eventually open doors. I don’t know when, but he’s not going to ever leave me or forsake me.”

King, who is Black, didn’t blame her housing situation on racism, but in a city ranked the second-most impoverished municipality in America, and where Black people represent 48% of the population, racism can’t be ignored as a possible factor.
Two years ago, the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County declared racism a public health crisis. Housing is a critical aspect of health.

Molly Nagin, a certified healthcare navigator and grassroots organizer at Universal Health Care Action Network“If you have don’t have quality or affordable housing, and you have housing that is run down or infested with mold or you’re living on street, you are exposed to more environmental toxins,” says Molly Nagin, certified healthcare navigator and grassroots organizer at Universal Health Care Action Network (UHCAN), which fights against healthcare and hospital discrimination.

“There are some direct links from housing to health,” Nagin says. “If you live near any industry with pollution, which a lot of low-income people do, there are impacts there.”

Cleveland City Council, under new Mayor Justin Bibb, finally made legislative progress this year to provide affordable housing for residents. Whether council’s actions are enough, and how long it will take before the legislation brings change is open to debate.

Abatements & evictions
In May, Cleveland council amended its policy on property tax abatements. The city has awarded abatements to residential developers since the early 2000s to foster the construction of new housing.

Under the policy, before it was changed, the city abated 100% of new property taxes – the amount of taxes generated from property improvements – for anyone building new or renovating existing housing. The abatements lasted 15 years. The hope was that new and/or improved housing would pop up in blighted areas.

The abatements did result in a building boom downtown, on the near West Side and in University Circle, but not on the East Side where the poverty rate is high and where the Black population is concentrated.

Council amended the system so that, generally, tax abatements will remain at 100% for residential developments in weak housing markets like neighborhoods on the East Side. The abatement was dropped to 90% in median housing markets and 85% in strong housing markets.

Developers of large apartment complexes will receive a 100% tax abatement wherever they build if they make some living units affordable for lower-income people. Council defined “affordable” as what a family earning 100% of the area median income can pay. That calculates to more than $1,000 a month.

If large-apartment developers don’t provide affordable units, they will have to pay the city $20,000 for each unit. The city will, in turn, place the money into a trust fund it will use for affordable housing programs.

Bibb wanted council to set the affordable rate at 80% of the median income, but Council members said it would discourage developers from including affording housing in their projects—choosing instead to pay into the trust fund.

Molly Martin, director of strategic initiatives at NEOCH, asked council to exclude strong markets like Ohio City and Tremont entirely from the abatement program, since those neighborhoods already have several high-end residential developments.

However, council didn’t want developers to concentrate solely on weak markets while abandoning the stronger ones.

Cleveland City Council president Blaine Griffin acknowledges the tax-abatement reforms were a compromise.

“All I can say is that what we put forth was fair and equitable,” Griffin says. “I know everyone didn’t get all the things they wanted.” 

On Aug. 10, Cleveland council took another step that affordable-housing advocates have supported. Council passed “pay-to-stay” eviction protections, which will prevent landlords from immediately evicting tenants if they fall behind in rent payments.

Under the legislation, tenants can meet and negotiate with landlords and possibly reach a settlement before eviction proceedings begin.

Other blocks to affordable housing still exist. For example, in most Ohio cities, landlords can deny housing to those receiving Section 8 rental assistance through HUD.

Griffin said “source-of-income” protection legislation, which would prohibit landlords from discriminating against Section 8 renters, is on council’s agenda.

Another problem is out-of-state landlords, often shielding their identities behind limited liability companies. They buy local housing and raise rents but fail to maintain their properties. Even public officials have trouble identifying them.
“Maybe we’ll look at registries to track these landlords,” Griffin says. “Whatever we do, we will need support from the state legislature because a lot of issues regarding out-of-state LLCs and real estate loopholes are state laws.”

County money
Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish says his administration has always appropriated funds to help provide affordable housing and has increased the allocation over the last year or so, thanks to federal assistance.

In 2021, the county received $103.7 million through the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. It’s one-time money the county must spend by the end of this year on rental assistance. The funds can cover past-due and future rent.

Residents, if their income is 80% or less of the median income in the area, can apply for this rent assistance through CHN Housing Partners, a nonprofit that provides county services.

“We are also working with apartment and home developers,” Budish says. “They often come to us seeking county funds to help them with projects. We are requiring them to invest part of the funds we give them in affordable housing.”

Sara Parks Jackson, the county’s deputy director of housing and community development, says the county annually receives federal HUD funds for affordable housing. It lends for-profit and nonprofit developers up to $450,000 at zero-percent interest for each residential project, and for every $125,000 developers are given, they must set aside at least one affordable unit for 15 to 20 years. If the developer does so, the county forgives the loan.

Meanwhile, the county is using money it was provided through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, also known as the COVID-19 stimulus package, to revamp its homeless shelter system, Budish says.

“We do well with homeless shelters, making sure homeless have a place to go, but shelters here and all over country don’t maximize independence or privacy,” Budish says. “We are changing the structure of our homeless shelters to maximize privacy so that people can prepare to move out and into the community as soon as they can.”

However, the county was criticized for allowing each of its 11 council members to divide and spend $66 million of the county’s total $240 million COVID-19 stimulus package on projects in their districts. The money could have been appropriated toward more pressing concerns, like affordable housing, instead of projects that might be considered superfluous.

For example, $4 million in stimulus money was earmarked for a new clubhouse at municipally owned Ridgewood Golf Course in Parma; $3.5 million was set aside for center-of-town improvements in Strongsville; and $250,000 will help pay for a trail in the Pepper Pike town center.

County Council members have defended their spending of the stimulus money, saying that it was a way to make sure the funds were distributed throughout the district, not just in one area. Budish’s office had no comment and referred questions on the matter to County Council.

Overcoming racism
Another key to affordable housing is simply overcoming racism. The county’s Parks Jackson says the county now trains its workers to recognize and acknowledge their own biases that perhaps they didn’t realize they had.

That knowledge can inspire them to help all citizens better, regardless of race, creed or color.

We all have inherent biases or lack of understanding of others,” Parks Jackson says. “When you serve citizens you don’t know, it’s helpful to understand where these folks come from and how they got there.”

Sometimes people view lower-income or homeless people of certain races as lazy, unambitious drains on society. NEOCH’s Thomas says the people she helps are nothing like that.

“You can’t judge anyone until you meet them,” Thomas says. “Until you know their story, you don’t know whether they’re working. Maybe they have worked their whole life and are now retired but they’re not getting enough income to afford the inflated housing we have now, and they end up on the street.”

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, is cautiously optimistic that racism can be overcome at its core, within us. That’s especially important as the country is becoming increasingly racially and ethnically diverse.

“We can put measures in place to reduce racism and the impact of it but first we have to have the willingness,” Dunn says. “And that’s what been lacking through the history of this city –acknowledging racism and addressing it head on.”
Michael Lewis, real estate director for Union Miles Development Corporation, a nonprofit community development corporation that supports and seeks to improve the Union-Miles neighborhood, says defeating racism in society will take time.

“As we continue to evolve and grow as a society and community, people will have to be willing to appreciate each other and work with each other,” he says. “It needs to come from the grassroots, and from our leaders in the city, county and state.”

Denise VanLeer, executive director of Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation in the Fairfax neighborhood, agrees that racism can’t be conquered overnight because it’s been ingrained in the culture for so long.

“If you have never had to deal with racism, you don’t recognize what it is,” she says. “It doesn’t make sense to you, but some people live it on daily basis.”

Dunn of CSU and Nagin of Universal Health Care Action Network say that according to research, racism is part of our socialization process. It’s manufactured, not part of our natural makeup, so it can be unlearned.

However, Nagin believes action should precede thinking when it comes to racism.
“Right now, we still have economic, material, legal and political institutions and systemic processes that engender racial inequity,” Nagin says. “We have to root those out before we can talk about ideas inside people’s heads.”

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.

Read more articles by 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.