In a March 2009 issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Alex Kotlowitz wrote about visiting Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood. He was accompanied by City Council representative Tony Brancatelli (former executive director of the Slavic Village Development CDC) as he made his way around a neighborhood devastated by the foreclosure crisis. It was so bad that Brancatelli, Kotlowitz wrote, “yearns for signs that something like normal life still exists in his ward.”
Suffering from predatory subprime lending by outside mortgage companies and outright criminal activity defrauding homeowners, at one point this working-class Cleveland neighborhood became known as the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis (based on the per capita rate of foreclosure).
In a September/October 2006 article in Mother Jones magazine, Alyssa Katz described what happened to East 76th Street, the block on which activist resident Barbara Anderson’s home stood: “Of the 20 houses that stood on Anderson’s block when they moved in, only 11 are still occupied; of the remaining 9 houses, 6 have been boarded up in the last two years by banks foreclosing on the owners. One has burned down; the others have had their siding pried off, row by row, and carried away in shopping carts.”
As Kotlowitz recounted, Councilman Brancatelli first discovered what was happening in 1999, long before it became a national crisis affecting millions of homeowners across the country. As hundreds of Slavic Village homes fell victim to foreclosure and abandonment, speculators descended on the neighborhood to buy the homes cheaply and resell them without needed repairs. Despite the best efforts of Brancatelli and the late Cleveland Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka, their ability to prevent this speculation was limited. Many of these foreclosed vacant homes were already identified for demolition due to vandalism and neglect by banks, as well as by HUD and Fannie Mae.
For more than a decade, Brancatelli, Pianka, and other neighborhood and housing activists continued to fight for action to prevent further foreclosures. They also helped to create the Cuyahoga County Land Bank in 2009 to create a process to deal with the thousands of foreclosed and abandoned nuisance properties in Cleveland and elsewhere in the county. They would use demolition if necessary, but also try to save as many as possible for rehabilitation.
Ironically, before the crisis, the neighborhood had been undergoing a renaissance led by Slavic Village Development (SVD). Working in partnership with the Cleveland Housing Network, SVD was one of the city’s most successful CDCs in renovating homes for low-income renters and building new homes for moderate-income buyers.
Slavic Village borders the city’s Industrial Valley. Historically, its modest homes housed European immigrants attracted by jobs in the nearby plants. Its population peaked at around 60,000 in 1950. Following the path of Cleveland’s decline as a result of suburbanization and de-industrialization, the population of Slavic Village had declined by half by 2000. By then its poverty rate was 27 percent, homeownership had declined, and the number of vacant homes had increased significantly.
SVD was addressing these issues when the foreclosure tsunami hit the city. Cleveland, unlike many other cities, had not been experiencing a housing bubble. And yet, foreclosures threatened to undo much of the work of SVD and other organizations in the community. By 2010, the neighborhood’s population had fallen to 22,432 and the number of vacant units soared to 3,587 (16.8 percent of the housing stock). The 2010-2014 American Community Survey estimates showed that 46.3 percent of residents were living below the poverty line (with 22.9 percent living in deep poverty) and a majority (54.1 percent) were living in unaffordable housing (paying more than 30 percent of household income).
Recovery Efforts and Planning
SVD did not lose hope. In addition to continuing its fight against predatory lending and foreclosures, SVD looked to the future. In July 2007, the CDC released a Development Action Plan. Prepared in collaboration with City Architecture and Neighborhood Progress Inc. (NPI), a local intermediary now known as Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, it announced a vision for the Slavic Village neighborhood to become “an active, vibrant neighborhood with a strong sense of connectedness and belonging.” Its planning processes were resident-driven and publicized through its newsletter and annual neighborhood summit meetings. In 2009, it released a follow-up report, and in 2012 updated the plan’s strategies and outlined its accomplishments.
The spirit reflected in these plans was exemplified in a 2009 op-ed, “Slavic Village Is Battling Back” in The Plain Dealer. In that piece, Marie Kittredge, Tony Brancatelli’s successor as executive director of SVD, wrote: “Broadway/Slavic Village’s response to the foreclosure crisis highlights Cleveland’s toughness, its creativity, its resilience, and its vision as we manage the effects of an international meltdown. Here, we are embracing the opportunity to redesign our community as a sustainable 21st century, urban community-of-choice, moving from the epicenter of foreclosure to the epicenter of recovery. . . . We still struggle with the problems of poverty, crime, and disinvestment, as do many urban neighborhoods, but we are in control and are defining our future. . . . The emphasis is on intelligent and collaborative solutions. Fully engaged residents, business and nonprofit community development corporations are working in a coordinated and aggressive fashion with city government to stabilize the city.”
Recovery efforts in Slavic Village were comprehensive, using a full suite of time-honored community development techniques. They focused on both people and place, and addressed short-term problems while keeping an eye on long-term visions.
SVD’s ability to move forward with its stabilization efforts was in part due to the presence of anchor institutions. The Third Federal Savings and Loan Institution, founded during the Great Depression, is an important lender, and its foundation provides support for housing and education programs. It elected to stay in the Slavic Village neighborhood and build its new campus there.
Adjacent to Third Federal is Central Catholic High School, which also elected to stay in the neighborhood and expand its campus. And even though the neighborhood lost its hospital to the construction of Cleveland’s Velodrome, the MetroHealth county hospital located a clinic across the street from Third Federal. Other major anchor institutions include the University Settlement House, the Boys and Girls Club, and several historic Catholic churches.
A Healthy Community
With foundation funding, SVD was able to initiate and promote its Active Living By Design program. In 2006, the Morgana Run Bike Trail opened on an abandoned rail right of way and became part of the route of the annual Pierogi Dash. SVD also sponsored a farmers market (recently known as the Slavic Village Market) and worked with block clubs to bring community gardens to life on vacant lots. By 2016, the Cuyahoga County land bank had demolished over 1,500 homes in Slavic Village.
Despite the loss of population and the demolition of a significant portion of the neighborhood housing stock, SVD did not entirely forego its earlier housing efforts. Beginning in 2008, it participated with several other CDCs in a Model Blocks program as part of the Strategic Investment Initiative spearheaded by Neighborhood Progress Inc. in partnership with the city, lenders, and other agencies. Called the Opportunity Homes program, this demonstration program implemented in Slavic Village on East 74th and 75th streets provided for the demolition of nuisance properties, rehabilitation of salvageable vacant homes, and construction of new infill housing. The goal of this pilot project was to give hope that areas devastated by the crisis could be rebuilt.
The year 2012 saw the beginning of two major affordable housing projects that are currently underway. Trailside Slavic Village is new housing for moderate-income owner-occupants to be constructed on the open land adjacent to the corporate campus of Third Federal. Its overall goal is to build 95 for-sale homes. So far, a first phase of 10 homes has been built and sold. It is part of the Broadway Development initiative, which includes Broadway Place, a 42-unit senior housing project across from the Third Federal campus.
The Slavic Village Recovery Project is a partnership of several organizations, including SVD. The concept is to rehabilitate around 200 vacant homes provided by the Cuyahoga County land bank at low cost and sell them at modest prices without public subsidies.
A 2015 evaluation by the Greater Ohio Policy Center found positive results in both sales and reception by homebuyers and neighbors. The Greater Cleveland Neighborhood Housing Services, which is located in Slavic Village, is assisting with financial counseling. As of 2017, 44 homes had been rehabilitated and purchased.
SVD also created a sweat-equity rehabilitation housing program called “Neighbors Invest in Broadway” to transform distressed vacant homes into homeownership opportunities primarily for Slavic Village residents. Through 2017, 60 to 65 homes have been occupied under this program.
Though the combination of these housing programs has not replaced all of the housing destroyed in the foreclosure crisis, it has demonstrated that there is new and rehabilitated housing available in Slavic Village that can retain current residents and attract newcomers.
Several Cleveland CDCs have embraced the arts as a catalyst for community development. Examples include Northeast Shores/North Collinwood and the Waterloo Arts District, Detroit Shoreway, and the Gordon Square Arts District, and Tremont. Their theaters, annual arts festivals, and regular art walks attract visitors. Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, financed through a cigarette tax, supports many of these neighborhood-based activities.
While Slavic Village does not have a designated arts district, it has embraced the arts. The Broadway School for Music and the Arts is a cultural anchor institution. The 2010 Slavic Village Neighborhood Summit was titled “Broadway’s Creative” and focused on the arts. A Morgana Run mural titled Pixelating Morgana had been dedicated previously, and in partnership with LAND Studio, the Cycle of Arches sculpture park was created as a gateway to Slavic Village.
Beginning in 2014, an annual “Rooms to Let” event has transformed abandoned homes scheduled for demolition into temporary venues for displays by local artists. In 2015, the Cleveland Orchestra’s “At Home” neighborhood residency program came to Slavic Village, with performances at various neighborhood venues. City Music has also been a performing music partner in the neighborhood. Most recently, creative businesses like The Magalen, a mixed-use art gallery and studio, and Triple Threat Press have opened.
Broadway P-16 is a major initiative sponsored by the Third Federal Foundation in partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Its aim is a child-centered collaborative model to increase literacy and graduation rates and stabilize family life. The Cleveland Housing Network’s Family Stability Initiative has kept several dozen school-aged children from having to relocate during the school year due to eviction, foreclosure, or other housing crises.
Over half of Cleveland’s children live in poverty and most attending the public schools are eligible for free lunches. Programs at the MetroHealth Broadway Health Clinic and the in-school health clinic at Mound School have improved student health.
Commercial Infrastructure Reinvestment
A predecessor community organization to SVD had originally organized to fight redlining at the hands of insurers. With the foreclosure crisis, obtaining investment capital became even more difficult.
But SVD persevered. It successfully converted Fleet Avenue, a major commercial stretch, into Cleveland’s first multi-modal “complete and green street,” at a cost of $9 million. This has attracted new businesses (including The Magalen and Triple Threat Press).
According to SVD, a total of $55.7 million had been invested in projects in Slavic Village since 2010.
Even after more than a decade of recovery effort, the record is admittedly mixed. Slavic Village is still marked by hundreds of vacant homes, and the poverty rate is extremely high. Housing prices have not yet recovered from the effects of the foreclosure crisis, and are significantly lower than the citywide average.
Nonetheless, Slavic Village has accomplished a lot given where it was 10 years ago, and has won a reputation for being persistent and innovative.
What are the major lessons learned from the Slavic Village recovery experience?
- Strong community organizations like SVD and their leaders are critical in providing leadership.
- Even at the depths of the crisis, SVD had a long-term vision for the recovery and transformation of the neighborhood. The ability to plan and implement a vision for the community is essential for redevelopment and attracting investment.
- SVD planning has been done with participation of neighborhood residents. SVD’s 2016-2018 Strategic Plan had considerable involvement from residents in the visioning process. “Over 400 SVD stakeholders contributed . . . to the planning process through a combination of individual interviews, thematic focus groups, a large community meeting, and a community-wide survey distributed both in print and on-line. . . . Focus groups, in particular, were organized with the intention of including residents from Broadway/Slavic Village’s distinct neighborhoods and ensuring that no group was left untouched by the outreach effort.”
- Anchor institutions provided necessary and collaborative support for the work of SVD.
- SVD worked cooperatively with the City of Cleveland and received its support for many of its projects.
Slavic Village is just one of many neighborhoods in Cleveland and elsewhere devastated by the foreclosure crisis. It is possible to see a more positive future emerging for this neighborhood despite the serious damage done; that future should be available to other neighborhoods as well with the right supports.