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Brent Larkin Brings Population Loss, Blight to Forefront

What population loss is costing Cleveland -- and why it matters

By Brent Larkin, Northeast Ohio Media Group

For a major American city to lose 23 residents in a single day is no big deal.

When it happens every day for 43 years, people tend to pay attention.

That, in effect, is what's happened to Cleveland. Between 1970 and 2013, the city lost just about half its population, tumbling from 10th to 45th on the list of largest U.S. cities.

In and of itself, the latest Census Bureau estimate projecting that Cleveland lost another 6,702 residents between 2010 and 2013 (to 390,113) is merely the continuation of a 60-year trend we’ve grown uncomfortably used to.

And the gentrification of a handful of city neighborhoods seems to signal that young, educated Millennials with good jobs understand what several generations before them have obviously not: Core cities matter.

Some argue Cleveland can thrive by aspiring to be a smallish big city with lots of green space and amenities, especially with its abundance of cultural gems. It can – provided it can show measurable progress dealing with the intractable problems relating to poverty, blight and education.

Other, less sophisticated, views hold that central cities no longer matter much, provided the region as a whole continues to hold its own. But even if that theory has some merit, it doesn’t apply here.

That’s because, as the Northeast Ohio Media Group’s Rich Exner reported May 22, the Census report showed that every one of the region’s 10 largest cities – and two out of three of the other cities and villages - lost population in the latest estimates.

Greater Cleveland is blessed with at least a dozen deep thinkers on issues relating to population, blight and the future of Rust Belt regions. Three of them are: Jason Segedy, director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (Greater Akron’s version of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency); former County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, now vice president of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy; and Brad Whitehead, president of the Fund for Our Economic Future.

In a worth-reading piece published in April, Segedy wrote generically of a place that frighteningly describes Greater Cleveland (http://thestile1972.tumblr.com/post/82706606733/a-tale-of-273-cities).

“The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and outward expansion. In a region like this, there is not only more costly ‘stuff’ (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more ‘stuff’ with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.”

Rokakis said Greater Cleveland’s population problem “screams out for regional government,” pointing out that voters in far more conservative southern cities have been more willing to embrace regionalism than those in the Rust Belt.

As population flees Cleveland and the inner-ring suburbs, Whitehead argued that fixed expenses remain – without the resources to pay for them.

“What this means for our core asset, our central city, is that you’ve got all these fixed expenses and the demand has gone away,” explained Whitehead. “If you lose population, those fixed costs don’t just disappear.”

To test this theory, I visited the City Hall archives, dusted off a copy of Cleveland’s 1970 budget, and compared it to this year’s.

What I found should surprise no one. Cleveland’s steep drop in population has not been followed by a corresponding decline in the expenditures required to service its residents and maintain an infrastructure that once served nearly a million residents.

Cleveland may be about half as big, population-wise, as it was in 1970, but in inflation-adjusted dollars the cost of running the city is about the same. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator estimates $1 in 1970 spending power would cost $6 today. Because of Cleveland’s low cost of living, my guess is it would be closer to $4 or $5 here.

The 1970 budget called for spending $107.5 million. The 2014 budget is for $532.6 million. Spending on police and fire services took up about half the General Fund budget in both years. Spending by the mayor’s office and City Council is higher as a percentage of the budget today than in 1970.

Curiously, spending on building and housing code enforcement is significantly lower in 2014 (1.8 percent of the budget) than it was in 1970 (2.9 percent), a figure that’s difficult to justify given the blight-spreading condition of Cleveland’s housing stock.

Although Cleveland spends five times more in actual dollars today to serve a city with twice the population in 1970, Councilman Michael Polensek said city services are the worst since he took office in 1978.

“In all my years of public office, I’ve never experienced such a breakdown in the level of city services,” said Polensek. “Quality of life services – street repair, grass cutting, waste collection, caring for abandoned property, police protection – have never been this bad. And that includes when we were in default.”

Although the city has far fewer residents, it must pay to maintain an infrastructure built to support a million residents. Every city that shares a border with Cleveland has also shed population in the past 44 years, as have many cities that aren’t contiguous.

The result is a massive waste of tax dollars by the central city and suburbs, a waste that cries out for more shared services between municipalities, if not outright mergers.

“We need greater transparency around the economics of what’s going on,” said Whitehead.

Voters who oppose regionalism tend to be the same ones who complain loudest about high taxes for city services and school systems.

Truth is, the people who complain about wasteful spending are the ones who are doing more than their fair share to cause it.

 

Blight and home abandonment now a persistent drag on Greater Cleveland's economy

By Brent Larkin, Northeast Ohio Media Group

In a meeting with about 60 senior citizens at the Cleveland branch library in Glenville the night of May 28, Councilman Kevin Conwell asked for a show of hands from residents who felt trapped in houses that have plummeted in value.

Every person in the room raised their hand.

Conwell, joined by Councilmen Mike Polensek and T.J. Dow, had invited seniors to discuss what he calls “shelter poverty,” people stuck in houses they can’t afford to leave, in neighborhoods overwhelmed by blight.

“Too many of our residents are surrounded by boarded-up homes, crime, poverty and hopelessness,” said Conwell. “Taxes and the price of government are high. Services are low. And their houses are now worth so little they can’t afford to fix them up.”

In many Cleveland neighborhoods, it’s every bit that bad.

A study of property records in Cleveland and five contiguous communities shows the median sale price of existing homes dropped an astonishing 62 percent (from about $86,000 to about $33,000) between 2006 and 2013. Those prices do not include nontraditional low-value transfers such as sheriff sales, quit claims and forfeitures.

tci graphic.pngView full sizeMedian sales prices of homes in communities considered distressedThriving Communities Institute, used with permission 

In Cleveland, sale prices dropped 63.4 percent. They dropped 80.9 percent in East Cleveland, 67.5 percent in Maple Heights, 67.3 percent in Garfield Heights, 62.3 percent in Euclid and 58.9 percent in Newburgh Heights.

Median sales prices for homes in Cuyahoga County’s other 53 municipalities dropped 21 percent ($154,000 to $121,000) during the same seven-year period.

The study, which used home-transfer data and assessed property valuations, was conducted by the nonprofit Thriving Communities Institute, with backing from Cleveland City Council, Neighborhood Progress Inc. and the Cuyahoga County Land Bank. It was completed in March.

Entitled “The Cost of Vacancy – Everybody Pays,” the report also explained why the dramatic drop in sale prices should bother every resident of Cuyahoga County, not just those in Cleveland and the five contiguous communities.

Declining property values in Cleveland and its inner ring have shifted nearly $45 million in property tax burdens to the more prosperous suburbs – meaning that taxpayers in outer-ring suburbs pay more to fund levies for things like county social programs, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, Cuyahoga Community College and the Cleveland Metroparks.

Countywide tax levies are based on assessed property values and paid by the property owners. In 2006, property owners in the outer-ring suburbs were responsible for paying 79.2 percent of the county’s property tax bill. By 2012 that figure had grown to 83.5 percent.

Lots of good things are happening in a few parts of Cleveland, but the threat that the inexorable spread of blight poses to this community cannot be overstated. That spread – and the crime and human misery that follow it – will not stop until those vacant buildings come down.

It is no coincidence that the primary recommendation of the task force convened by the Obama administration to attack the blight in bankrupt Detroit was to raise the $850 million needed to quickly demolish 40,000 empty buildings.

“Blight is a cancer,” said task force chairman and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert when the group issued its report in late May. It “sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.”

With a nearby view of what happened a few miles to the north, the Toledo Blade has launched an ongoing series of front-page stories entitled, “The Ugly Truth about Toledo.” The series focuses on the spread of blight and the urgent need to demolish at least 5,000 structures.

Closer to home, the latest figures kept by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy show that, as of June 19, there were a minimum of 9,430 vacant structures in Cleveland and 19,644 countywide.

At the present rate, the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium estimates that by 2040 an additional 175,000 homes will be abandoned in the 12-county region. The cost to take them down: nearly $2 billion.

“It’s a no-win situation: Ignore the problem and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money you don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and business away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse,” wrote Jason Segedy, director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, in a report that can be found at http://thestile1972.tumblr.com/post/71691657173/today-is-yesterdays-tomorrow

The most blighted communities are tearing down as many structures as possible. And County Executive Ed FitzGerald wisely wants to spend $50 million on clearing blighted neighborhoods. But because demolition is costly (about $10,000 for a single-family home), it’s not nearly enough.

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley knows that.

“This is a horrible problem,” said Kelley. “And it’s an expensive one. But these structures absolutely have to come down. “

For several years, the loudest voice on this issue has belonged to Jim Rokakis, director of the Thriving Communities Institute and a former Cleveland councilman and county treasurer.

“We can fix this problem,” he insisted. “If we as a community come together with the determination to take down these structures, clean up the soil and make land green – if we do that in a holistic way – we can actually turn a negative into a positive.

“It takes will. And it’s not as exciting as a chandelier in Playhouse Square or a new restaurant in Ohio City. I get all that. But if we don’t do anything about it, things will only get worse.”

That may seem to some like a prediction. It’s actually a fact.

Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer's editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.