Community Development: More than Housing

“Waking up after sleeping in a crack house feels the same whether you have used or not.”

Commentary by Brian Davis

            A group of activists met in the Glenville neighborhood to take over an abandoned building as part of the National Housing Awareness Day.  Volunteers from Oberlin, Ohio Policy Matters, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Food Not Bombs, and local shelters came to the house on E. 107th behind the Glenville Development Company.  The three bedrooms, two story red houses were completely stripped of everything of value.  The carpeting was still intact and the walls were nicely painted.  The house has two years of use by local people looking to crash and feed their drug habits.  One of the neighbors who actually grey up in the house she said that some drug dealers was using the house as a boarding house for drug users.  They would charge I nightly rent for people to use a room in the house for lighting up.

            This blight on the community seemed to be structurally sound, but needed some extensive renovations.  This house was one of three abandoned on the street.  The one regular tenant of the red abandoned house, Sweeney, said all of the abandon houses on the street were occupied.  He was the subject of repeated calls to the police and the source of a great deal of frustration by his neighbors.  The next-door neighbor and that she calls every week and the police have stopped coming to the house.

            The local development company has attempted to get rid of this blighted house for two years.  One member of the development company came out and was not happy to see housing activists taking over this building.  She was offended by outsiders coming into “her” neighborhood, and doing an action in this particular house offended her.  There seemed to be an effort in the in the neighborhood to take this building down in order to deal with the blight.  There was never a thought of addressing this individual with social services, but instead with social services, but instead with the criminal justice system.

            The purpose of this action was to get public attention was to get public attention to the affordable housing crisis that exists in Cleveland.  The activists gathered to ask community leaders to support the National Housing Trust fund proposal, which is currently making its way through Congress.  Finally, the goal was to say that shelter is not the answer to homelessness, and destroying these buildings will only exacerbate the housing crisis in our community.  Sweeney, the lone tenant of this building will still be homeless in the neighborhood if he is arrested or if the red house is destroyed.  There is a lack of leadership in our community to address this crisis.

            Two problems that exist with regard to this house!  The ownership was still in question and there were current squatters in the building.  The man who used this house as his residence had been homeless for over 30 years in the neighborhood.  He had wandered around from one abandoned building to another venturing only blocks away from his mom who lived on an adjoining street. He was never linked with the appropriate social services.  In fact, the neighbors and the development company seemed unaware that there were any social services that could help.  Instead, neighbors and community leaders had attempted to use law enforcement tactics to address Mr. Sweeney’s homelessness. 

            The story in the neighborhood with regard to the house was that the original owner died, and the property was sold for a small amount; around $15,000, according to a woman who grew up in the house and now lived down the street.  The new owner took out a second mortgage on the house for a sizable amount of money.  They slapped some paint on the building and abandoned it.  They sucked the equity out of the property and left it for scrap. There are liens on the property and bank notes that make final disposition of the house complicated and will probably involve court challenges.

            While all these games with the house played out over the last two years and the boards went up, Cleveland watched as the shelter for men opened and operated at nearly 150% capacity on a regular basis.  There were many homeless people over the last few years that had died on the streets, while this building was left to rot.  There were a number of shelters shut down in Cleveland, moving mentally ill women into inappropriate facilities while this little red house became a hang out for drug activities.  Alcohol and drug treatment beds were transferred in our community to the criminal justice system, while neighbors in Glenville attempted to destroy the house.

            In November, activists gathered to remove the boards from this little red house.  They congregated to ask that the new Mayor of Cleveland to address the affordable housing crisis as a top priority and to urge Senators Voinovich and DeWine to pass legislation to create a federal funding stream that could renovate abandoned properties.

            Sweeney is still sleeping in this cold dark house sealed behind plywood that was reapplied to the building.  The neighbors are still fed up with the city dragging its feet with regard to destroying or renovating the little red house.  Everyday, more and more homeless people are turned away or leave the shelters for safety reasons and take up residence in abandoned buildings and houses in Cleveland.  The development community has no concept of social services and the social services toil in isolation.  Never do the two entities meet at the same table.  They both attempt to address poverty: one building structures, the other building up people and yet neither are creating communities.

  Copyright NEOCH published December 2001 in Cleveland, Ohio for Issue 51