CMHA: Six Decades of Affordable Housing

by Dawn Starry

During a time when children had to drop out of school to sell apples on the street in order to support their families and when the future only showed bleak predictions of economic collapse, there were a few strong advocates that set out to help the indigent populations. Advocates such as Franklin Roosevelt, with his "New Deal" in the White House, and Ernest Bohn, with the idea of the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority here in Cleveland. In 1933, four years prior to the U.S. Housing Act, and four years after the market crash came "Public Housing." Public Housing was a way to deal with the "slums" as Robert Navin put it in his 1934 book, An Analysis of a Slum Area in Cleveland.

In 1922, twenty-one percent of all murders in Cleveland where committed in what was called the "slum" area, between Central and Woodland avenues from E.22nd to E.55th streets. Also, seven percent of all boys that went to juvenile court resided in this area. Not to mention the twelve and a half cases of tuberculosis reported here prior to the housing project years. The people of these areas were in serious need of assistance and public housing seemed to be the answer.

Ernest Bohn, born in Germany in 1901, was the major influence in housing reform. At age eleven he came to the United States with his father. He served in the Ohio House of Representatives for one term and later was elected to city council. While in the council he became very involved with the idea of public housing and in 1933 he wrote the first state housing legislative act to be passed by the Ohio State legislature.

He served as director of the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, now known as the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, from its establishment in 1933 until 1968. He passed away the fifteenth of December 1975. CMHA was a well accepted idea and became a model for housing reform programs set up in other states.

"To help the [slum] problem, four housing projects have been completed in Cleveland and three others are under construction. Each is literally a bright spot in the blighted area, said F. Leslie Speir, in Cleveland: Our Community and Its Government. The project was sponsored by the government and no private builders were involved.

CMHA had all powers of a municipality excluding that of taxation and had complete control over subsidized housing in Cuyahoga County, excluding the city of Chagrin Falls. The first three projects were Cedar-Central Apartments between Cedar and Central avenues housing 654 families. Outhwaite Homes located between Woodland and Scovill avenues housing 579 families. Finally, Lakeview Terrace at the end of West 29th street. The cost of the three buildings in 1933 was 10 million dollars.

In 1968, Earnest Bohn retired from the CMHA projects. Terrible times followed the retirement of the founder. CMHA did not run out of money, because the Federal government was supplying the housing project with plenty of money. However, corruption and mismanagement of funds surrounded the CMHA projects in the 1970s. For more than 15 years CMHA became increasingly corrupt with allegations of payoffs to political friends and some connections to organized crime.

During the 1980's the corruption was made public. Headlines revealed a misuse of money. CMHA was chosen for a U.S. study/investigation in 1983. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) ordered CMHA to fix up their estates and tenants feared eviction after the HUD review was completed. Money was not going toward fixing up the units. "The projects were not seen as a safe areas to even travel in," according to tenants. It was not until the 1990's that things with CMHA actually began to get better. Money was beginning to be handled correctly once again and CMHA attempted to clean up its image.

Who exactly is CMHA for? From the beginning of the project the units were intended for low-income families and later in the mid 1950's came the Golden Age Centers for the elderly. However, for a long time single people could not get into a CMHA unit. Today, CMHA is still not centered around housing the homeless. A public housing project is generally seen as most likely a project intended to house all economically disadvantaged. The homeless population is one of the impoverished populations that CMHA attempts to serve.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March – April 1996 – Issue 14