By Daniel J. McGraw
When controversy erupted in August over the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, race was at the very center of it all. And rightly so. Brown was an unarmed African-American, the officer who shot and killed him was white, and the racial tensions in an inner ring suburb like Ferguson were seen as critical to the discussion.
Ferguson was 99 percent white in 1970, and was 29 percent white in the 2010 census. Both those who believed Browns’ death justifiable and those who claimed police criminal behavior used those numbers to bolster their cases. Whites have argued that the higher black population was the cause of unruly behavior in Ferguson and that incidences like the Brown shooting were a result of that trend.
Many African-Americans looked at it quite differently, saying that the city’s police force had very few black members, and did not reflect the demographic changes in the city. In other words, the city was acting like things were as they were in the 1970s, when black citizens didn’t exist as part of the recognized community.
Of course, all these are simple explanations of a complicated case. But one of myriad factors at play in Ferguson is the role of the inner ring suburb in the American cultural narrative these days. What many whites won’t publicly say, but is in the forefront of many minds (especially older ones), is that suburbs like Ferguson came to prominence in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a result of white flight. The thought process follows that we (whites) came to places like Ferguson to get away from them (blacks), and now they’ve followed us. So we (whites) had to move further out.But what’s not being discussed is how this racial tension is happening in some inner ring suburbs and not others. And one of the factors that may be contributing in a strange way is the housing stock in some of those suburbs. And not just the age. The problem is that in some of these suburbs all the housing was built at once, and it is all getting old and unsaleable at the same time — and no new housing is being built to take its place.
[blocktext align=”right”]…these old houses are now wearing out all at once…[/blocktext]The suburbs that seem to be falling victim to quick decline (and the subsequent racial divides) are the ones that had most of their housing built between the end of World War II and 1959. About 60 percent of Ferguson’s housing was built in that time frame, meaning that these old houses are now wearing out all at once, hitting the point where they are not appealing to most new home buyers, regardless of race.
“It’s a real conundrum right now,” says Jason Segedy, director of the Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study, a regional planning organization. “These houses are getting old and they were never really houses that had any character. Now they are small, and the heating and plumbing and roofs are getting to the age where they have to be updated. But no one wants to take on that cost when they have so many other choices.
“Here in the Cleveland area,” he continues, “you can look at Euclid and Garfield Heights and see the houses are not old enough to be completely decrepit and vacant yet, but most of them are not owner-occupied anymore — they are rentals that are getting crappier and crappier over time because they are aging and it is not economically viable to rehab them. But you can see where 20 years from now, unless these cities find a way to build new housing, half of their housing might be abandoned.
“It’s never happened like this before in this country,” he says.
Crystal Avenue runs between East 200th Street and East 222th Street in Euclid. The east-west street has about 150 single-family lots on it, is less than a half-mile south of Lake Erie and a mile north of Interstate 90. Fifteen minutes from downtown Cleveland. Good location, as they say in the real estate business.
Most of the houses on Crystal Ave. were all built around 1950, and they are indicative of that era’s simplistic style: 1,200-1,500 square-foot brick cubes, three bedrooms with one bath, each on a lot that is about 3,500-5000 square feet. Garage in the back and very small front and back yards. No side yards, so the neighbors are close. As you look at them from the street, most have four windows (one in each corner) and a front door. Most for sale are selling in the $25,000-35,000 range, but even getting that much is difficult.
Like Ferguson, Euclid was almost all white in 1970, and is now 43 percent white. From a cursory view, the residents of Crystal Ave. are mostly black and, based on anecdotal evidence, most of them rent. Some of the houses are boarded up, and some of the lawns not maintained very well. It doesn’t appear to be overly poor and decrepit, but neither does the neighborhood seem to have much redeeming it either. As Gertrude Stein once said, “There is no there there.” In this case, literally.
About 67 percent of the housing in Euclid was built between the end of WWII and 1959. Much of it looks like the brick cubes on Crystal Ave. And given the economy in Northeast Ohio, the market for such homes has basically vanished. Millennials looking for starter homes can find cheap houses in urban redevelopment areas like Ohio City or Gordon Square in Cleveland, or move further out to suburban Mentor or Solon and grab a better home for not too much more. There is no middle-class anymore, so cheap starter homes as a bridge to a better one have little value.
Cleveland State University urban studies professor emeritus Tom Bier has studied housing trends for decades, and finds the aging housing in the Cleveland suburbs of Euclid, Maple Heights, and Garfield Heights to be at a spot where the best strategy may be to tear it down and hope that new housing might arise. “The problem is not so much the age, because all cities have older housing and then replace it over time,” Bier says. “The problem here is that some of these cities have most of their housing aging all at once. And it wasn’t very good to begin with.”
Bier likes to point out what the housing build up was in the decades before the suburban housing boom. Because of the Depression in the 1930s, and then WWII, little to no housing was built in Cuyahoga County in those years; just about 5 percent of all the housing in the county was built from 1930-39 according to Bier’s research (down from 14 percent of the county’s current housing that was built in the 1920s). Very little was built in the early 1940s either, as the country’s resources were being used for the war effort.By then end of WWII, the housing occupancy rate in Cleveland was 95 percent. Families had moved in together because of the Depression and the war, and when the war ended the floodgates opened. It wasn’t only white flight that caused so much suburban housing to be built, Bier says, it was that people were tired of living on top of each other. Little new product had come on the market since 1930 and, after years of privation, the population was restless.
So the building began. Euclid added 9,832 single-family homes between 1946 and 1959, or nearly two a day. The other suburbs had like numbers: Parma (16,602), Maple Heights (6,581), South Euclid (6,978), and Beachwood (3,203). In all, about 115,000 single-family homes were built in the Cleveland suburbs in those decades, and just 23,000 in the city of Cleveland proper.
It’s interesting to read the newspaper accounts of the time and see how quickly this building boom came and went. In a Euclid News Journal piece from January 26, 1950, the headline read “Suburbs Continue to Take Industry, Residents from City.” The story had the building numbers from 1949, when there was $130 million worth of new building construction In Cuyahoga County, and $100 million of that was in the suburbs. And there were already ads in the paper listing new homes in the outlying areas of Wickliffe and Mentor Township for those who thought Euclid was getting too crowded.
But on January 14, 1954, just four years later, the same newspaper headline read, “Boom Over; Euclid Building Drops.” And the message in the 1954 article – and remember that these small papers back then generally had approval of the city’s political leadership – was a warning of future problems from all the housing being built. “What our town needs is more industrial and commercial construction if we are to hold tax rates within reason,” the un-bylined story read. “Homes are very desirable, but they cause additional demands for service by the city and for additional schools. No home pays enough in taxes to cover the services required.
“At the rate homes are being added, the balance is slipping.”
And it is that imbalance of older and aesthetically unappealing housing, little commercial retail, and lack of jobs that has left these inner ring suburbs with much less taxable property value than in years past. Bier has found that Euclid’s total property values have declined by 39 percent from 1994 to 2013. Other similar suburbs have all declined in similar numbers: Parma (-24%), Maple Heights (-36%), South Euclid (-24 percent). Beachwood is up by 15 percent, due largely to the construction of retail along Interstate 271.
[blocktext align=”left”]…as housing gets older and deteriorates, its residents are usually poorer, and with a poorer population come more problems…[/blocktext]How all this figures into race and crime is both obvious and opaque. Bier says that as housing gets older and deteriorates, its residents are usually poorer, and with a poorer population come more problems for a city. Those occupying houses like those found on Crystal Ave. tend to be renters, and property owners tend to not take care of rental properties as well as if they were living in them themselves.
And you can see that cities like Ferguson and Euclid, where the poverty rates have shot up as the housing has aged. About 25 percent of Ferguson residents live under the poverty level, and about 19 percent in Euclid. And that’s not anything new. Poor residents of Cleveland have moved to Euclid in search of better schools and housing, as have poorer residents of Ferguson getting out of St. Louis. Because as bad as the housing is getting in the inner ring suburbs, it’s better than what’s available in the ghettoes the new suburbanites are escaping.
For Bier, suburbs like Euclid and Ferguson have only one option at this time. That is, getting extremely strict on code enforcement to keep the existing old housing from getting worse. “Those cities don’t have the money to buy properties through eminent domain and tear them down, and developers aren’t going to do that either because it costs so much and they have better options in other parts of the region,” he says.
“So if you try to raise the standards for even these older homes through code enforcement, you will at least get residents and property owners to pay attention more to the quality of their housing. What it will do is separate the constructive from destructive. That may give them some time to figure out how to get newer housing into their communities.”
One question that keeps coming up is how other inner ring suburbs, which also had big increases in single-family home construction in the 40s and 50s, have stayed more economically stable. Cities like Evanston, Illinois, and Gross Pointe, Michigan, or Lakewood and Shaker Heights, outside Cleveland, are also close to the central city but are not seeing the falloff like Euclid and Ferguson and Maple Heights. The key words are “balance” and “quality.”
Take Lakewood, Ohio, just west of Cleveland along Lake Erie. Lakewood was pretty much built out by 1929, with three decades of steady growth, instead of all of it coming in a short period of time. In Shaker Heights, 90 percent of the city’s housing was built out over 40 years (1920-1959), with almost identical numbers in neighboring Cleveland Heights. And much of the housing in these more wealthy suburbs was built before New York’s Levittown inspired a boom in factory homes that could be cranked out quickly to meet the demand not been addressed during the Depression and WWII.
In effect, these inner ring suburbs have had their housing stock age more incrementally and not all at once.
But there are other factors at play. The housing in suburbs like Euclid and Ferguson became obsolete almost as soon as it was built. First-time home buyers wanted more space almost immediately; the average size of a home in the United States has increased from about 1,000 square feet in 1950 to 2,500 square feet in 2010. And while gentrifiers continue to say that urban cores are growing at exponential rates, people are still mostly moving further and further out.Also, starting in about 1960, social factors began to come into play. Household sizes were going down, as people were having less children thanks to the availability of birth control. There were more divorces and people were marrying later in life, meaning more singles in the housing market. Dual income households became more the norm, as women went into the workforce. What this all means is that the suburban model – with dad working in the factory and mom staying at home with three kids – stopped being the dominant housing buyer in the market.
According to U.S. census figures, 98.7 percent of the population growth in this country from 2000 to 2010 took place beyond a two-mile radius of any downtown area. About 70 percent of that growth took place 15+ miles out. And in the 51 national major metro areas (those with a population of more than one million), the increased population in the 5-15 mile range was 4.4 million, while the increase was 11.5 million in the areas 15+ miles from the central core.
The reason these numbers are important is that the political decisions made in state capitals often follow where people are moving. Hence, governors are more likely to steer money to sprawl cities for interchanges and road widening than to move funds into inner ring suburbs for rehabilitation or economic development. And the reason for that is the changing demographics of these suburbs: once Democratic union strongholds, they have morphed into part older white Republicans and part minority Democrats. In effect, they have little political pull.
“The decay of these suburbs is happening all over the country, and there hasn’t been a feeling of the importance of doing things in these suburbs to prevent the decay that is taking place,” says William Hudnut III, a former mayor of Indianapolis and currently a professor at the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University. “The government is favoring greenfield development out in the far suburbs and the recent downtown development. These inner ring suburbs are in the fiscal crosshairs.”
Hudnut examined Euclid in his 2003 book, Halfway to Everywhere (Urban Land Institute Press), and wrote that Euclid and other suburbs’ “gasoline taxes help pay for the sprawling road building elsewhere.” He told Belt Magazine that the gas taxes are still not being kept within communities like Euclid, so “they are helping to pay for their own demise.”
“The housing crisis in inner ring suburbs is so severe,” Hudnut says, “that in cities like Euclid it would probably be better to just tear down a lot of the houses and leave the lots as grass right now.”
Bernadette Hanlon is a professor of city and regional planning at the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University. In her book about inner ring suburbs, Once the American Dream (Temple University Press), Hanlon writes that “relying on the private market to revamp and to revitalize older inner ring communities is insufficient, particularly in areas that are economically depressed and where redevelopment is risky.”
But the problem in the Cleveland and Detroit suburbs, she says, “is that in cities like San Francisco or Chicago you can have smaller-sized housing that is old but it has value to be rehabbed because their economies are growing. In some cities they take this old housing and add a floor or push out into the back yard, but I think in the case of Euclid and Ferguson and other Midwest inner ring suburbs there doesn’t seem to be the market to do that.”
[blocktext align=”right”]“The fact that all the housing is aging at the same time is a big problem.”[/blocktext]“The fact that all the housing is aging at the same time is a big problem,” Hanlon says. “The only way to rectify that problem is to have regional thinking that makes investment into these inner ring suburbs instead of in sprawl areas. But the economics of doing that is very difficult.”
What Euclid has going for it is its location, less than a half hour from downtown Cleveland along Interstate 90, and with about four miles of Lake Erie shoreline. But unless there is public investment in replacing the old housing with new, planners say, the downward spiral will continue.
“The state’s policy up through the present is equating outward growth with economic development,” says Akron’s Segedy. “It is almost completely off the radar with the Ohio state legislature, and I find that troubling, because this state has the largest number of shrinking cities and these suburbs are in a crisis situation. Investment policies at the state level aren’t doing anything to counteract that.”
“A big part of that problem is the politics of it all,” he says. “The inner ring suburbs were traditionally Democratic in the past, and still have that reputation with some statewide politicians, but they are far more moderate now. But they have been left behind in the larger political narrative.”
Within that political narrative is the question of whether demographic change caused the housing problems, or whether the housing caused demographic changes. There is no clear answer; it becomes a chicken and egg question. But the clear and undisputed fact is that about two-thirds of the houses in some of these inner ring suburbs were built 65 years ago, and they are too small and too crappy and too expensive to rehab. There is no market for them now, and unlikely to be a market for them in the foreseeable future.
Like cars, houses go through multiple owners, wear out, and eventually end up on the scrap heap. When that will ultimately happen in Ferguson, Euclid, and elsewhere is up for debate, but any way you look at it, the options on the endgame are not good.
Dan McGraw is Senior Writer at Belt.
Support paywall free, independent Rust Belt journalism — and become part of a growing community — by becoming a member of Belt.