Cleveland State Report Reveals Housing Deficiencies


Image courtesy of Kirby Date, Cleveland State University

This graph shows the percentage of households in different cities receiving cash public assistance, supplemental security income and food stamps, in blue, red and green, respectively.

Olive Sherman

A recent study of Oberlin’s housing shows that the city has an aging housing stock and lacks affordable housing for seniors and low-income residents. City Council will reference the study, conducted between May and December 2016 by Cleveland State University, when considering future policies on housing as well as when the city creates its new comprehensive plan this year, a plan that is revised every 10 years and sets the priorities for city government.

Even though the report wasn’t expected to provide immediate ideas for policy improvement, City Councilmember Linda Slocum was pleased with the result and the direction it provides.

“They told us from the beginning that [the study] wasn’t a solution; that it wouldn’t tell us what to do,” Slocum said. “But it gave us more direction than I had thought, and I’m grateful for that.”

One of the main issues — aging houses — was identified through exorbitant city spending on repair and maintenance. CSU’s report indicates that 36 percent of the city’s houses were built before 1939 and 64.8 percent built before 1969, making Oberlin’s housing stock substantially older than the average in Ohio. In Lorain County, the percent of houses built before 1939 and 1969 were 15.7 percent and 51.2 percent respectively. This has led to a significant amount of wasted money because of faulty heating, cooling and old appliances, according to Councilmember Sharon Soucy.

“When I ran for council, I put flyers on people’s doors, and that was when it really struck me that our housing stock is aging,” Slocum said. “It is my number one concern for Oberlin housing, currently.”

The report also found a lack of adequate housing for middle-income seniors, low-income families and young families seeking starter homes. High tax rates are also a problem. According to one PowerPoint, 48 percent of Oberlin is not taxable because it’s owned by either the College, churches, parks or municipal institutions.

According to the report, Oberlin’s African-American population has dropped from 18 to 15 percent since 2000, partly due to a lack of smaller, affordable family housing in good condition.

“One of the things that deeply concerns me is that in the last census we lost 200–300 members of the African-American community,” Soucy said. “[Oberlin is] defined by [its] diversity, so this is really concerning for the future.”

Oberlin’s Director of Planning Carrie Handy and councilmembers stressed that while the report was not intended to prompt immediate decisions on future housing policies, it was necessary to back up claims that overall renovations need to be made.

“Honestly, I wasn’t surprised [by the results],” Handy said. “I work a lot with housing code enforcement, and I knew we hadn’t had new housing stock in the last 10 years at least, so we’ve needed to give some attention to it.”

According to Handy, the need for the housing report came about after the city was unable to agree on development of the Green Acres property a year ago.

“There were a lot of comments made during the Green Acres planning process that we didn’t need affordable housing or we needed some other type of housing,” Handy said. “We really wanted to know what the demand was. You look at demographic trends with certain people aging while you’ve also got millennials and need to cater for everyone.”

Green Acres was a proposed mixed-income housing development that was going to be located on a large open property on the east side of town.

According to Soucy, one solution for the affordable housing problem for seniors and low-income families could be the creation of a new plan for Green Acres.

“We thought the Green Acres housing project was something everyone could agree on, but when it got so contentious, the project stopped,” Soucy said. “Instead of basing it on speculation, we’re basing it now on the need demonstrated in the study.

According to Ben Franklin owner Crista Long, a working group of Oberlin residents separate from city government is advocating for the establishment for a community land trust, which would allow a nonprofit corporation to develop affordable housing, community gardens, civic buildings, commercial spaces and other community assets on behalf of the Oberlin community.

One townsperson worried about the future of housing for elderly residents is Ginko Gallery owner Liz Burgess, who wishes there were more options for those who can’t afford to live in retirement communities like Kendal at Oberlin.

“My selfish interest is for those of us who are aging in Oberlin and, there’s Kendal retirement community, and there’s Section 8 apartments, but those of us in the middle who can’t afford a continuing care community but have just enough assets that we don’t qualify for some of the subsidized housing,” Burgess said. “We’re worrying for our futures.”

As liaison to the city’s housing committee, Slocum is working on a plan for residents to acquire low interest loans so they can move into better housing situations. Since aging housing is also a risk to sustainability, she also hopes residents become more aware of programs to better conserve power, such as the EnergySmart program.

On the positive side, the report found Oberlin to have market strengths in its inclusive, small-town lifestyle and culturally diverse amenities and attractions, including the College. Improving local schools and overall affordability in line with most of Lorain County were also listed as strengths to help the city attract new residents.

Although CSU urban planners Kirby Date and Kathryn Hexter mostly carried out the project, the organizers received some input from the city as well as a Housing Study Steering Committee of community stakeholders, a Community Open House and interviews with residents and business owners. CSU also analyzed data taken from the U.S. Census and looked at other communities in northeast Ohio and several college towns along the East Coast to make comparisons.

The project cost the city $22,566, according to Handy. Handy, who managed the study along with the CSU workers, said there weren’t any specific geographic areas that accounted for the aging houses and lack of elderly or low-income housing.

“We did a property conditions survey a couple years ago, and it was really scattered all over,” Handy said. “There wasn’t a pattern where you could say, ‘This neighborhood was the worst.’”

Handy said that the results were first reported in late December, but since then the study managers have released several PowerPoints analyzing the data. She added that a final document assembling all the reports would be released in late February.