Veteran housing expert Thomas Bier is on a crusade to save Cuyahoga County. Where once he issued warnings, now he’s rushing to pull the county back from the edge of a cliff. And he sees similar factors affecting Ohio’s other major cities.
Tom Bier has been preaching about housing markets, population movement, urban sprawl and urban redevelopment since he worked as a chemical industry consultant in Billingham, England, for five years beginning in 1969.
It was there the native Clevelander first observed that European housing patterns were markedly different from those in the United States. Briefly put: In European metropolises, wealth tends to locate in the central city. In the U.S., wealth locates out at the suburban edges. And that’s not good for the state’s central cities when the disparity has become extreme as it has.
Bier, 80, senior fellow at Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, says that housing trends in Cuyahoga County are a vivid example of the consequences of public policy being so supportive of suburban development and outmigration. As people move farther and farther out into surrounding counties, he says, deterioration spreads from city to suburbs.
The situation has been going on so long, Bier says, that Cuyahoga County is now at a tipping point. Unless the county alters course through extensive redevelopment and renewal of its older suburban communities as well as Cleveland, it will face spiraling decline from one end to the other. “It’s coming,” he says. “And we’re virtually on that doorstep.”
Bier sounds the alarm in his latest book, Housing Dynamics in Northeast Ohio: Setting the Stage for Resurgence. He puts “resurgence” in the title because he believes there is indeed a solution: Communities experiencing tax-base growth can share some of the gain with the places that need renewal. After all, he notes, it’s the region that creates growth, not the communities where growth happens to be located.
“Wherever growth is occurring in tax base, a small portion—I would say 20 percent—can be put it into a kitty and then distributed on the basis of a rational formula which can be easily established,” Bier argues. “Distribute it to places that didn’t have growth or had less growth. And do that every year. That will provide resources for jurisdictions to renew and redevelop. Then outmigration will decline as people will have more choices that are attractive when considering where to live.”
He believes the renewal of downtown Cleveland and neighborhoods such as Ohio City—a ray of sunlight in an otherwise overcast picture—reinforces his point. “The whole pattern of movement in the region is toward the new or renewed places,” he says. “The basic flow is always toward new and newer. What has happened downtown? They renewed it! They created newness with the help of government.”
We talked about the dilemma in the county’s cities and neighborhoods, what caused it, the political will that will be needed to solve it, and why it is that everyone should care.
Q: We’re both kids from Cleveland’s Collinwood neighborhood. You eventually settled in Cleveland Heights while my wife and I joined the far-west migration to Avon. Are we the problem?
TB: No. I don’t think anybody’s the problem. The problem is the system, the way government promotes growth in some places but not re-growth where needed. The state promotes development of new communities such as Avon but doesn’t promote the renewal and redevelopment of old places, at least not anywhere near the extent to which it does the new places. That’s the issue, and it’s the same across the state
Q: Government has it backwards?
TB: I put it this way: It’s a matter of balance. I would say it should be 50-50. As it is now, it’s 90-10. The impact of government on communities amounts to 90 percent going to the development of new communities such as Avon while 10 percent promotes the redevelopment of Cleveland or Lakewood or Parma or Cincinnati, anyplace that is old.
Q: And highway spending contributes to the problem?
TB: Very much so. Right now as we speak, ODOT is widening I-271 to facilitate traffic flow between Summit County and Cuyahoga County. I-77 is being widened. Some years ago the state widened I-71 into Medina County. The impacts of those roads are enormous as they promote rural development and movement out of Cuyahoga County.
Q: If it’s contrary to the overall public good why does the state do that?
TB: It is acting on behalf of what most people apparently want. Most people don’t question the development of outer areas. It’s seen as growth. Build new, move on, forget about the old. And we are all enculturated to think in terms of home rule where each place is considered independent and responsible for itself. Therefore a place that has gotten old—and all places eventually get old—and needs redevelopment, needs renewal, the mindset is: Who’s responsible for that? The state says “not us” even though it facilitated movement away from the old place. The only place considered responsible is the one that has the need.
Cleveland or Cleveland Heights, Euclid, name any aged city—you have needs for redevelopment and renewal, that’s for you to do. Good luck. That’s the system of 90-10 imbalance.
Q: The system has been in place for a very long time. What’s urgent about fixing it now?
TB: What’s urgent today is the situation that Cuyahoga County is in. It has no more new suburbs to build. The land is essentially used up. And therefore the county can no longer grow its tax base the way it always had been able to do. Hamilton County is close to being in the same boat. All of Ohio’s main central counties eventually will be fully developed. Then what?
At the same time, much real estate in Cleveland is reaching the end of its lifespan and properties in suburbs that have become old and obsolete are losing value. We have real estate that’s losing value within the county and we are not rebuilding and renewing enough to offset the loss. The county has never been cornered the way it is now. Eighty percent of the new housing now built in Northeast Ohio is outside the county. You go back 75 years, most of it was inside Cuyahoga County.
Q: When the wave to Avon began, it was less expensive to build a house in Lorain County than it was in Westlake or Rocky River. So you understand the impulse that caused many of us to build there.
TB: Absolutely. The state makes it cheaper to develop on a farm. Redevelopment in old places typically is more expensive. Government basically promotes the cheaper alternative and leaves the more expensive one to the place that is stuck with the need to renew and redevelop.
Q: Why should suburbanites and exurbanites be concerned?
TB: Decline does not stop at a city line. Because of the lack of balance between building new places farther out and rebuilding and renewing old places, the decline just keeps spreading. Thirty or 40 years ago, the outer neighborhoods of the city of Cleveland were in very good shape, and some of them still are today. But gradually decline has spread outward. Now we have suburban decline.
The suburbs that are the oldest—mainly the ones that were built before World War II and then in the ‘50s and ‘60s—have gotten old enough that they themselves are in the exact same situation that the city of Cleveland is in. They’ve gotten old, they need renewal, they need redevelopment, but they don’t have the tax base to cope with what they’re facing. Hamilton County has many suburbs like that.
As deterioration sprouts here and there, people are repelled and move farther out. And when they move, they cause the economic level of their former community to erode. Today it’s the inner suburbs. If we keep going the way it is now, in another 30 or 40 years it will be the next ring of suburbs. It doesn’t stop.
Q: You believe tax-growth sharing is the only solution.
TB: There is no serious and effective way forward without a new mechanism to finance renewal and redevelopment at the scale needed. It may take another 10 or 20 years for that to become painfully obvious but it’s unavoidable.
Q: What level of confidence do you have that the situation will be solved anytime soon?
TB: It’s not going to be solved next week. But in the next few years, all we have to do is pay attention to what is happening to the tax base of this county to spark motivation. To me, the most striking numbers in my book are these: Over the past 20 years, the value of residential real estate in the city of Cleveland dropped by $2.3 billion. The inner suburbs—the ones that share a border with Cleveland—as a group lost $4.7 billion. The outer suburbs gained $3.2 billion for a countywide net loss of $3.8 billion.
Meanwhile, Avon, North Ridgeville, Medina, Hudson, Mentor—the areas outside the county that are all growing—gained over $14 billion. That’s the bottom line. It will only get worse until there’s a lot more redevelopment in Cleveland and in the inner suburbs.
Q: What would be your wish to happen over the next several years?
TB: For the officials in Cuyahoga County to come to grips with reality. We have to produce a lot more renewal and redevelopment in Cleveland and the inner suburbs in order to have a tax base that’s growing. And the officials of this county have to figure out how to accomplish it. Because nobody is going to do it for us. It’s up to us. And we can’t let Cleveland alone try to deal with it, or the inner suburbs individually, each on its own, try to do it. We as a county collectively have to do it.
Q: Don’t we need the state?
TB: We need the state as a partner, but it’s not going to lead the way. As far as the state is concerned, it’s happy to see other places keep growing, fueled by the economic strength that is moving out of Cuyahoga and Ohio’s other central counties. That’s what the state is doing. It is promoting the economic—I’m going to overstate it but it’s partly so—collapse of the county. Economic strength and value are being facilitated out at an unprecedented scale.
Q: Do you think any of this will factor into the gubernatorial campaign?
Q: But it should.
TB: Oh, yes, it should. But no. This is fuzzy stuff.
Q: You’ve been talking about this fuzzy stuff for your entire career. How long will you continue the crusade?
TB: As long as I can get up in the morning. To me, it’s all fascinating and very important.
Housing Dynamics in Northeast Ohio: Setting the Stage for Resurgence is available for free download on Cleveland State University’s website. Print copies are available at libraries, can be picked up for $9 at CSU’s Michael Schwarz Library or mailed for $14. Visit engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/msl_ae_ebooks/4/.