Driving through Cleveland's Ward 8, it's hard to tell that it's been a decade since the nationwide housing collapse.
Some call it Ohio's “post-housing crisis hangover,” but to those who live in and advocate for these neighborhoods, it's an uphill struggle.
Thousands of homes are vacant, abandoned and crumbling where owners are evicted, but not informed by the bank that their names remain on the title. That means no one maintains or lives in these “zombie homes,” sometimes for years, and no one claims responsibility.
Cleveland City Councilman Michael Polensek doesn’t have to walk far from his office at the Greater Collinwood Development Corporation to show the impact of the housing crisis. Vacant lots sit on both sides of the street.
“You can see a great deal of demolition, but it’s not enough,” he says, noting that his district, Ward 8, has another 300 structures that need to come down. He says that it’s not worth rehabilitating the abandoned properties because of the cost — double what it costs to remove the blighted building.
Polensek adds that since the housing collapse in 2007 and 2008, “not a single house has been built in our community.”
Walking around the neighborhood, it’s not hard to see why people are reluctant to build. Decaying, crumbling buildings, mostly boarded up, surrounded by overgrown shrubs are everywhere, which in turn reduces the property value of the homes that are kept in good shape.
Polensek says Cleveland now spends about $2 million a year just cutting grass on abandoned properties.
The problem, he says, is multi-pronged. It started with predatory lending. Polensek points to a structure built by his development corporation and initially sold for $242,000.
“What did that person put down on the home?” he asks. “$42.13 — and they were given a loan.”
He also mentions redlining — the illegal practice of denying loans to minority applicants who then can’t get the funds they need to keep up their payments or improve their properties. But he says what’s happening in Cleveland is not necessarily the traditional type of redlining.
“I believe it’s redlining by community, by ZIP code,” Polensek says. “Does racial consideration factor in some cases? Without a doubt.”
But he notes that in his ethnically diverse district, white families have the same problem. People who live in poor neighborhoods across the board are not given loans.
As he drives around the district, Polensek tries to answer the question of why this is still happening in 2019. He maintains that the economy, contrary to what many believe, is still “very very rough in neighborhoods like these.”
To illustrate, Polensek points to shuttered businesses and manufacturing plants. The city of Cleveland, he says, has lost between 20,000 and 25,000 manufacturing jobs. He notes that there are about 4,000 abandoned structures in Cleveland — a city of about 400,000 people.
People in these neighborhoods have been either unable to make their mortgage payments or have fallen so far behind on their taxes that they can’t put money into the property. Eventually, he says, they just abandon it.
Polensek says he’s critical of Cuyahoga County for not being more efficient when it comes to collecting taxes.
“The county has done a terrible job at collecting taxes. We have the worst collection record in the state,” he says. “So you had predatory lending, then you had absentee landlords. And then the county, where we could have saved these structures, had there been a reasonable foreclosure process. These properties went on for years and years.”
“Had they collected or foreclosed within a reasonable period of time, you wouldn’t have houses sitting vacant for six, seven, eight years,” he adds. “They would have been sold at a sheriff's sale and been put back into productive use.”
The one thing that has worked, Polensek says, is the Cuyahoga County Land Bank. It takes abandoned structures and lots which have gone through the foreclosure process and sells them off to private developers.
“The Land Bank is only as successful as the amount of properties that comes to them,” he notes. “When the county fails to collect taxes, it starts a chain reaction, a domino effect ... neighborhood disinvestment, neighborhood despair.”
Polensek says he doesn’t want to see foreclosures, but the alternative is worse — decay, safety issues, and plummeting property values for neighbors who “play by the rules.”
He says part of the problem would be solved with a law stating that if you foreclose on someone, you have to put the title of that property into your name. Otherwise, you end up with the zombie home, which is when homeowners think they no longer own the home because they’ve been evicted, while lenders wash their hands of the property because they know the homeowner still holds the deed.
Polensek stops his car near a neatly tended house, surrounded by vacant lots. Archie Morris and his wife are tending the lawn. Morris says living in the blighted neighborhood is difficult.
“It’s terrible. It’s terrible,” he says. “People are getting killed in those houses. Raped and beat up and all kinds of dope fiends and crack heads. They have to make a change.”
As his wife carefully seeds the lawn, he says people often come by and throw garbage on the property.
Though he’s frustrated by the empty lot next door, which often goes unmowed, he says it's preferable to the dilapidated homes, since the empty lots have the potential to be sold and developed. Morris says he’s hoping that will happen on his block. Though he’s considered leaving, he knows he can’t sell his property because no one is buying.
Parking in front of an apartment demolition site, Polensek says the situation is a constant struggle.
“No one is more frustrated than I am by dealing with this stuff because I see historically as a senior member of the city council, I see what this has done to my community,” he says. “Every one of these empty lots is a property that isn’t paying taxes to support our schools.”
He says the situation is insane, but it’s entirely “man-made.”
“We weren’t hit by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Michael. This was a man-made natural disaster,” he says. “Now why did other areas survive much better? Because of the state laws they had on the books, particularly as it pertains to zombie mortgages … And the taxpayers, taxpayers have paid the ultimate price for this.”
This segment aired on October 16, 2019.