CLEVELAND — The Cuyahoga County Land Bank was born out of the doom-and-gloom of the foreclosure crisis and the staggering increase in blighted, dilapidated and forlorn properties. Ten years after the unique program’s inception, the demolition and rehabilitation of thousands of homes across Greater Cleveland has had $1.4 billion impact, according to a new study conducted by Cleveland State University.
The study’s findings were released Wednesday morning during a celebration of the Land Bank’s creation 10 years ago. The economic impact evaluation quantified the measurable economic outcomes of Land Bank-related activities, including increasing property values, distressed properties going back on the tax rolls and job creation. The study estimated the land bank’s economic impact to be $1.43 billion. For every dollar spent by the land bank, $8 in economic impact was generated, according to the study.
To date, the Land Bank has demolished more than 7,000 homes. Another 2,100 homes were rehabbed or renovated as part of various for-profit and non-profit programs. The study found the Land Bank – also known as the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corporation – helped to generate higher home values, stronger neighborhoods, more jobs and more overall economic activity.
“The time went by fast. I think so much has been accomplished that is beyond even what we thought could be accomplished,” said Gus Frangos, the president and general counsel for the Land Bank. “The most gratifying thing for me is working with so many people and seeing lives changes. I love the numbers but there is nothing more exciting to me than seeing a mom coming out of the City Mission with her kids and saying, ‘we have our own bedroom now. We have our own home now.’”
Made possible by new state laws passed in 2008, the land bank absorbs properties – many of which are severely blighted – through the property tax foreclosure process, an oftentimes lengthy process that requires the cooperation of six different county agencies, including the clerk of courts, prosecutor, treasurer and sheriff. After the land bank takes control of a property, the structure is demolished, if necessary, and the property is ‘banked’ for future development.
Perhaps one of the largest examples of the Land Bank’s success was the shuttered Randall Park Mall, which was eventually redeveloped into an Amazon fulfillment center.
“We’ve got 2,500 employees and it would not have happened if it hadn’t been for Gus Frangos and the Land Bank,” said North Randall Mayor David Smith.
While some of the Land Bank’s work has been widely publicized, perhaps its greatest impact has been on the neighborhood-by-neighborhood level. Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis. At its peak, two homes in Slavic Village were foreclosed upon every day.
“Without the Land Bank, our neighborhood would have been a ghost town,” said Councilman Tony Brancatelli (Ward 12). “It’s pretty tremendous. We talk a lot about bricks and mortar. We talk about the number of demolitions. We talk about renovations but it’s more personal: it’s human capital.”
Brancatelli, who also serves on the Land Bank’s board of directors, said the Land Bank’s systematic demolition and rehabilitation of the area’s aging housing stock helped to provide stability to the changing neighborhood. After the foreclosure crisis came a secondary crisis, he said. People who remained in their homes were often surrounded by blighted properties, which drove down the value of their home. With homes in the area worth less, banks were highly resistant to issuing line of credit loans to, for example, repair a leaky roof.
Oftentimes, people would just walk away from their property.
“Now we are starting to see a lot of a brighter future. Some of the people want to come back into the neighborhood,” Brancatelli said. “When you talk about the domino theory of one bad house, another bad house, it really escalates fast. By being able to stop and put a sand bag against that tide that is rising, made a big difference. If it wasn’t for the land bank, I can’t imagine what our neighborhood would look like.”
Perhaps one of the best examples of the land bank’s impact – and the work that remains to be done – is in the part of Slavic Village near Cleveland Central Catholic High School. Up and down Foreman, Chambers and Sebert avenues between East 67th and East 69th streets, there are a number of open parcels of land where blighted homes once stood. Dozens of new homes have been built on the available land. However, there are still a number of homes that are pending demolition.
John Rzeczycki, a homeowner that has lived in Slavic Village since he was born in the 1940s, said the neighborhood has improved significantly in the years since demolitions and rehabilitation's started ramping up.
“After the recession, all the businesses and all the housing suffered. As the city went down so did the neighborhood,” Rzeczycki said.
A home next to his was recently torn down and he is considering buying the property to expand his side yard.
“It was empty for about three years. We had squatters in here. We have the school right here. The kids would be going [the blighted home] every single day,” Rzeczycki said. “I’m glad it was torn down.”
The Land Bank’s demolitions have been complimented by the rising number of demolitions being undertaken by the City of Cleveland and the Safe Routes to School program. The efforts by the two programs have allowed large swaths of property to be used for the construction of new homes, which often require at least two of the narrow lots that are prevalent across the city.
The Land Bank has also recently been prioritizing the rehabilitation of homes that can be saved. Just a block away from Rzeczycki’s home, Rosa DeBose’s sister purchased a home that was rehabilitated by the land bank. DeBose said his sister immediately started taking pride in the upkeep of the property.
She now has the most well-manicured lot on the street.
“Yeah, she loves it. She always keeping the property up and her grass cut. She works hard,” DeBose said. “You’ve got to have something to show for the hard work.”
This story is part of A Better Land , an ongoing series that investigates Northeast Ohio's deep-seated systemic problems. Additionally, it puts a spotlight on the community heroes fighting for positive change in Cleveland and throughout the region. If you have an idea for A Better Land story, tell us here .