04-24-18

Adventures in the Inner-ring

 

Nice neighborhood street viewCleveland’s first-ring suburbs are at a turning point. Many of these communities sprang to life after World War II, in response to growing demand, increased prosperity, and rising birth rates. Life in the suburbs offered privacy, mobility, and choice. On the downside, suburban development also contributed to white flight and segregated housing patterns.

The mid-20th century was a time of rapid growth and development in the first-ring suburbs. But now, housing demand has moved inward to Downtown Cleveland and some of the city’s vibrant residential neighborhoods. At the same time, housing demand also continues to move outward, to larger houses in growing suburbs at the edges of the region. First-ring suburbs are literally caught in the middle.The aging housing stock in Cleveland’s inner suburbs doesn’t appeal to home buyers as it once did. Housing values in these communities declined during and after the foreclosure crisis, and median housing sales prices have yet to recover their peak pre-foreclosure value.

In 2017, Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Program completed a property inventory of five of Cleveland’s first-ring suburbs: Euclid, Garfield Heights, Maple Heights, South Euclid, and Warrensville Heights. Every building and parcel in these five communities was evaluated and graded, from A (for excellent) to F (for unsafe or distressed). The CUDC worked with the Land Conservancy to communicate the outcomes of this work and to help provide context for the survey. The results are compiled in Communities at the Crossroads: A Survey of Five First-Ring Suburbs.

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The inventory revealed good news—visible blight has been largely eliminated in the suburbs through rehabilitation efforts and demolition. But some concerns remain. The number of vacant houses in first-ring suburbs is increasing. Unlike in some city neighborhoods, where vacant housing often deteriorates and becomes unsafe and unsightly, vacant housing in the suburbs is mostly well-maintained. But long-term vacancies reflect weakness in the real estate market and the potential for future disinvestment and distress.

Owner-occupancy in first-ring suburbs is also declining, while the percentage of rental units in some suburban neighborhoods is on the rise. Renters can make suburban neighborhoods more diverse and dynamic. And renters may eventually become homeowners in communities where they feel comfortable and welcome. But a rapid transition from owner-occupancy to tenant-occupancy can have a destabilizing effect on a neighborhood, especially if landlords do not maintain properties to established community standards.

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The Survey of Five First-Ring Suburbs provides provides a valuable platform for conversations about the future of first-ring suburbs. The key question is, how can older suburban housing and neighborhoods attract new interest, while continuing to meet the needs of long-time residents who are aging in place?

First-ring suburbs have a big advantage when it comes to affordability. In the inner-ring, housing tends to be sturdy, well-maintained, and reasonably priced. However, bank financing for mortgages and home improvements can be surprisingly hard to come by. Banks are often hesitant to finance smaller mortgages and to lend rehab dollars to homeowners with modest incomes. But access to capital is needed for rehab, upgrades, and adaptations to make houses safer and more comfortable for existing residents, Bank financing is also important for mortgages and rehab loans for new homebuyers who want to upgrade and customize housing in the first-ring according to their own preferences. Without new investment, the well maintained housing in these communities may begin to deteriorate.

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First-ring suburbs also offer walkable, bikeable neighborhoods and access to nature. The stereotypical view of the suburbs implies homogenous housing and lush green lawns–the so-called crabgrass frontier. But on closer examination, there are a variety of housing types in these communities. And nature abounds in the inner-ring. Garfield Heights and Maple Heights sit at the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Euclid is rediscovering its lakefront. Warrensville Heights rests along Mill Creek. And South Euclid has numerous neighborhood green spaces on vacant lots where houses have been demolished, and a growing portfolio of innovative green infrastructure projects that manage stormwater and a host of ecological benefits.

Cleveland’s first-ring suburbs are ripe for rediscovery. City residents looking for a stable and affordable place to raise their families and establish home equity are already settling in these communities. Inner-ring suburbs also serve as a gateway to the “American Dream” for new immigrants. And although Millennial households show a distinct preference for urban living, some will likely opt for suburban living as they get older and have children. Having come of age during the Great Recession, Millennials may appreciate the affordability of housing in first-ring suburbs and reinvent these communities to reflect their values and preferences. Changes in local, regional, and national policies are needed to encourage reinvestment in first-ring suburbs, along with new visions of suburban living that appeal to a larger and more diverse swath of prospective residents.

The CUDC is proud to have played a supporting role in Communities at the Crossroads: A  Survey of Five First-Ring Suburbs and we’re excited to see these communities plot a new course forward.

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