Something Hopeful In Cleveland's Foreclosure Crisis
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Public officials are so widely mocked, it's a real news event when one of them earns the right to say: I told you so.
Jim Rokakis, the treasurer of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which is Metro Cleveland, warned that there was a mortgage foreclosure crisis for eight years before the world noticed in the fall of 2008. He said that a housing catastrophe had been building since the mid-1990s, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, and now, a year and a half after the crisis broke and politicians pledged to address the problem, we asked the treasurer if conditions are better.
Mr. JIM ROKAKIS (Treasurer, Cuyahoga County, Ohio): It's actually worse, and unfortunately some of the advice weve offered, and not just me, there are a lot of really great people working in this around the country, some of the advice weve offered continues to be ignored, and as a result, the problem continues to be what it is, which is the crisis of our generation.
Mr. ROKAKIS: The consequences in Cleveland, well, Cleveland has about 473,000 people, according to the 2010 census. I think Cleveland is going to be at about 325,000 people when the census figures are released next year. Which we think, with the exception of New Orleans, and they have good reason, will be the largest population decline percentage-wise in the history of the 220-year census for urban areas - 30-plus percent.
SIMON: What hasnt happened over the past two years that you were hoping national attention would bring about?
Mr. ROKAKIS: There were a few things weve been advocating for. One is, we had hoped that the bill Senator Durbin and others have tried to pass through the Congress, which would allow the bankruptcy laws, bankruptcy judges to say in a case where there was $100,000 mortgage, when the property was only worth 50 as part of the reorganization, it would say that the new value of this mortgage is $50,000, but bank lobbyists have stopped that in its tracks. The HAMP Program Ohio...
SIMON: Home Assistance Mortgage Program.
Mr. ROKAKIS: Right. With - so much hope was put into this program. We find a way to get mortgage companies to come in, and banks and servicers to redo loans, right?
Mr. ROKAKIS: Well, as we come to learn about HAMP, its voluntary. So if programs like these are voluntary and it involves banks, there's a pretty good chance they're not going to do it. The tragedy about all this is that you talk about banks who have really trillions of dollars worth of mortgages underwater. By failing to modify these, they almost guarantee that these houses will be foreclosed. The folks who live there will be evicted and the value will plummet in that property to far less than the modified mortgage would have been. So tell me how that makes any kind of sense.
SIMON: City Councilman Tony Brancatelli is trying to make sense of those losses by seeing abandoned empty spaces as opportunities to retool his city. Mr. Brancatelli represents Cleveland's 12th Ward, which is largely the old Slavic Village neighborhood. He first showed us around his ward in 2008, a place that once bustled with 70,000 people, many of them immigrants who came to work in Cleveland's factories - had block after block of small abandoned homes that had been torched black and vandalized by termites, scavengers who strip the ruins of all wiring and tubing and sold it to wind up, according to reports, in new skyscrapers in Dubai.
But today, Councilman Tony Brancatelli often sounds optimistic.
Mr. ANTHONY BRANCATELLI (Councilman, 12th Ward, Cleveland): This was an old steel mill landfill.
SIMON: There's little left to scavenge. Many of those blistered homes have been torn down and city lots have given way to green space.
Mr. BRANCATELLI: At this site were - I think - I believe it was about eight units of substandard housing. We tore down all the houses, cleaned up the land and created the community garden, which is now 40-some gardeners coming in using these plots of land to raise corn, tomatoes, collards, you name it. And it's also a learning garden where we're teaching residents how to plant, when to plant, and how to take the products of each season and turn it into a meal.
We have a wonderfully integrated neighborhood and being able to capitalize on that really helps build pride in our community.
(Soundbite of beeping)
Mr. BRANCATELLI: I'm stopping here briefly. This is one of our connectors within our community, the trail on our right and our left. This is where we took a rail spur and converted it to rails. The trails, it connects all the way through our neighborhood as a three-mile path.
SIMON: We have come to a halt in front of the Union Community Garden. I think this is the third or fourth community garden that I have seen just in the past two minutes with you on this tour. I'm not sure we would've seen that many -I'm not sure we would've seen that many tomato plants in Iowa.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: There are experiments and signs of revitalization like this all over Cleveland. But Treasurer Rokakis reminds us there are still about 14,000 foreclosures a year in Cuyahoga County, and with unemployment at 10 percent and a shrinking population, fewer people are buying any homes. In the end, Cleveland is not Iowa. How many urban gardens can a city have?
Jim Rokakis is leaving office this year after 13 years as treasurer. He says he'll leave politics but wants to bring new life to his city by working on plans and projects that re-imagine a future place. Yet he cautions...
Mr. ROKAKIS: It won't happen overnight. That's part of the problem here. Everybody's looking for a quick fix. These solutions we're talking about are a generation. Fixing the housing problem in Cleveland is not a year or two or three or four; you have to start thinking 15 or 20, and that's a hard pill for people to swallow, especially if they're suffering.
SIMON: Accepting what you say, that a lot of these solutions will take a generation - I mean youre a politician - that's a hard thing to make fly politically. Do this, not that you'll necessarily benefit from it in your lifetime, but your children will or your neighbor's children will. And when people are suffering now and this is the only life they're ever going to have, how do you...
Mr. ROKAKIS: Well, we clearly, we are doing things now that will address - I mean weve got 35, 40 thousand vacant properties in this county right now. We have, pick a number, 15, 16, 18, 20 thousand properties that probably should've been torn down yesterday.
Mr. ROKAKIS: And we're moving on that. I mean weve created a land authority that has its own revenue stream, that will enable us to be very involved in either - in both gathering properties and holding them for the future, but also doing demolition. We're involved through the land bank and deconstruction efforts, where we're not just demolishing properties with bulldozers and dumping them into landfills, but we're taking them apart board by board and trying to reutilize these materials. So we're trying to be creative. You know, it's the old lemons/lemonade metaphor youve heard so many times.
SIMON: And that doesnt mean trying to make Cleveland into some kind of Iowa along the Great Lakes. Councilman Brancatelli used to be a community organizer. In his 20s he locked arms with groups trying to halt bulldozers from razing homes and apartments for new developments. But today, Tony Brancatelli is practically lyrical when he talks about demolishing abandoned homes so that factories can expand.
Mr. BRANCATELLI: Even though the bulldozers are an aggressive act, it's actually a positive act for some of the residents because they see finally we get rid of that nuisance. They see the positive that can happen.
SIMON: In fact, demolitions have just helped the Press-Rite Company expand their manufacturing plant in Mr. Brancatelli's ward. They can now hire 25 more people, and the councilman showed us their lot.
Mr. BRANCATELLI: And as part of the expansion of Press-Rite, we're taking half the land for them. The other half we built a brand new football field for a high school which had no green space.
This is South High School, my alma mater.
SIMON: South High School. Okay.
Mr. BRANCATELLI: So you can kind of see where...
SIMON: And it's a good football field.
Mr. BRANCATELLI: Yeah.
SIMON: A track and stands and I guess it could also be soccer field.
(Soundbite of children playing)
SIMON: And on this summer afternoon, half a dozen youngsters romped around on that field in Slavic Village. There are new jobs in their neighborhood, schools just down the street, and urban gardens just around the corner.