Hosted Tuesday night by the city of Cleveland in a room of the Blythe Avenue Family Support Center, participants learned about some of the income-related hurdles facing city residents, and brainstormed ways to improve various aspects of city life.
Cleveland regularly receives a Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that can be used for various improvements in areas where residents make low to moderate incomes.
The city is in the process of creating a consolidated plan and an analysis of the state of the city’s fair housing choices to the department for the five years spanning 2014 to 2019, a move that will help determine how much funding local needs receive.
Each city that receives one of the grants has a specific entitlement amount, based on a variety of factors. Teresa Torbett, Cleveland’s grant manager, said the city has received about $300,000 annually since 2004.
Torbett was joined by Paul Johnson, executive director of Nashville affordable housing organization The Housing Fund, and Adriane Harris, principal strategist for Nashville urban planning organization Impetus Strategies, as attendees gathered to learn more about the grant and how its funds could be used.
Johnson explained the grant was created back in 1974 as a way to consolidate multiple federal grant programs. If a city wanted money for something like building a community center or new sidewalks, each concern required a different grant application.
“All the cities that wanted to apply for all these funds had to apply for all these things,” Johnson said. “It was kind of insane.”
He reminded attendees the grant can be used for a wide variety of projects, and not just one type, which is by design. However, there are some specific related guidelines.
Federal regulations state the grant must benefit areas where most residents make low to moderate incomes, “aid in the prevention of slum and blight” or be an urgent need, like fixing damage caused by a natural disaster such as a tornado.
Johnson then turned his attention to a study about the affordability of housing in Cleveland. Showing a slide with a map that divided the city into tracts based on data from the latest U.S. Census, he shared what the data said about residents and their ability to make rent or mortgage payments with the incomes they reported.
He said some in Cleveland are “burdened” by housing costs that were too high given their incomes. By his definition, “burdened” meant a family is spending 30 percent or more of its gross income on housing and associated utility costs.
As an example, he told residents about Tract 107, which included the location on Blythe Avenue where the meeting was taking place. Some 26 percent of the area’s residents were facing that problem. However, about three quarters of those residents either had that problem currently or where “at high risk.”
Johnson said that is a big problem because it is the kind of thing that can lead to homelessness.
“All it takes is — someone not even losing their job but maybe losing their overtime pay, having their hours cut,” he said.
In Tract 107, the median family income is $24,710, according to income levels represented by the most recent census data. Using an estimate based on that income, Johnson said the average amount of rent a family could afford would be $617 per month, including utilities. Assuming things like someone having absolutely no other debt and being able to get a 30-year mortgage with an interest rate of 4.5 percent, the average home a family with that income could buy would be one valued at $116,087.
Those numbers differed from what Johnson said was the average cost of rent and the average home value inside Cleveland’s city limits. The city’s median rent cost is $669 per month, and the average home price is $155,200.
As part of the meeting’s goal was to gather information about the presence of affordable housing in the city, attendees were given surveys to fill out that asked questions about affordable housing. Those questions ranged from simply asking if there is enough affordable housing in Cleveland to asking whether or not the person taking the survey had experienced any discrimination while searching for housing.
After Johnson spoke, Harris turned attendees’ attention to the task of figuring out what areas needed to be improved upon in hopes of getting an idea of where the biggest needs in the city were and which could be covered by the grant.
Attendees were divided into groups to take part in a map exercise. Using large paper maps of Cleveland, residents were instructed to indicate which areas has the city’s strengths and which had weaknesses. They were also asked to list what would be some good opportunities for change and what factors might threaten the areas if left unchecked.
After 20 minutes of discussion, representatives from each of the five groups shared their thoughts. While some chose to focus on specific neighborhoods, many of the positives and negatives applied to more than just one.
Some of Cleveland’s strengths included the promise of economic growth, the number of factories and other businesses, the number of churches and the concentration of cultural diversity in some areas of town.
Those present expressed hope the city would continue to see such growth and diversity.
Weaknesses included having an inadequate public transit system, a lack of adequate storm drainage, homelessness and the homeless breaking into vacant buildings for shelter, “slum lords” committing building code violations and the presence of drug and other criminal activity.
While explaining their lists, people said such factors can combine to make life difficult for the residents of some neighborhoods. For example, a person might not have a car or being able to walk to work, so homelessness can result.
Some opportunities for improvement the attendees mentioned including adding to the number of hours public buses operate, adding transitional housing and other resources to help the homeless, attracting more businesses to low-income areas so residents can more easily find work and adding more public parks and playgrounds for families.
Some perceived threats to the community include the continuation of some of the aforementioned weaknesses like drug activity and the absence of any action taken on opportunities to remedy them.
Harris said she, Johnson and the city of Cleveland would be working together to compile a needs assessment based upon input received from local public hearings before coming up with a strategic plan. That plan is expected to be presented during a meeting of the Cleveland City Council in early April.
While the hearing’s organizers were in the process of making a five-year plan, individual “action plans” are supposed created each year.
“You do have an opportunity every year to ... say what needs to be done,” Johnson said, adding that any other concerns that might not be addressed by this year’s grant could be addressed as soon as next year.
Tuesday night’s hearing was the second of three taking place to help the city determine how to distribute the money officials expect to receive from the grant. The third is set to take place in early April, before a plan is totally finalized. The details for that hearing have not yet been set.