Ever since the Great Recession of 2008, the cities of Akron and Cleveland, Ohio, and the surrounding municipalities have struggled with “problem properties” – vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated residential and commercial properties. The Akron Cleveland Association of REALTORS® (ACAR) has long had an excellent relationship with area officials and has worked in the past on local legislation addressing vacancy issues. To build on their earlier work and expand their outreach, ACAR participated in the NAR Transforming Neighborhoods program to offer a place-based training to community leaders to help them develop the knowledge, tools, and resources that will empower them to revitalize the neighborhoods in Northeast Ohio that are affected by blight.
Jamie McMillen, Vice President of Government Affairs for the 6,000-member association, explains the challenges that Akron, Cleveland, and other area municipalities are facing as a result of problem properties. Vacant and abandoned properties contribute to higher property tax delinquency, resulting in lost revenue for schools, safety services, and social services. Appraisals in neighborhoods with problem vacancies tend to be lower, making it difficult for property owners to obtain appropriate sale prices for buildings and homes, and for homeowners to secure home renovation loans. In addition, property owners in these areas often experience a loss of equity and home value, and the neighborhoods as a whole are faced with higher crime rates. Finally, distressed properties tend to be in areas with higher minority populations, creating an outsize effect on communities of color.
Through the Transforming Neighborhoods program, McMillen states, ACAR was able to partner with the Center for Community Progress to offer a training in September 2019. The training aimed to help regional community leaders develop best practices for code enforcement; to find innovative strategies for local governments with tight budgets; and to position REALTORS® and ACAR as community partners. In attendance were area mayors, members of city councils, city staff, including economic development and housing officials, REALTOR® members, and other strategic partners with a vested interest in vacancy issues. McMillen notes that it was important for ACAR to include a variety of participants to make sure that all voices were heard. “We wanted to invite people who may not have the same policy positions as ACAR,” McMillen says. “We wanted this to be a benefit for everybody.”
The training, titled “Analyzing Data and Markets to Tailor Revitalization Strategies,” featured notable speakers such as Allan Mallach of the Center for Community Progress, Anthony Brancatelli, a Cleveland City Councilman, and Snapper Poche and Lindsay Woodson of the Innovation Field Lab New York. Major topics covered included analyzing market data on a neighborhood level to assess its effect on problem vacancies; exploring local data sets to create effective, equitable strategies and partnerships; strategic code enforcement; and developing rental programs that encourage compliance in landlords. For the last topic, McMillen says that it was particularly important for the training to focus on success strategies that reward good landlords rather than focusing on penalties. “You don’t want to punish the whole lot,” McMillen states. “You really want to focus on supporting the people who are doing a good job.”
At the end of the training, McMillen notes, all the participants who completed the evaluation form indicated that the session provided them with information that they could use in their daily work—and that it equipped them to create positive change. The benefits for ACAR were equally important, says McMillen, noting that the association was able to strengthen existing relationships with community leaders and to develop new ones, positioning ACAR as a resource for all of Northeast Ohio. “REALTORS® do more than sell homes,” says McMillen. “We are some of the best advocates for our neighborhoods.”
Building relationships, McMillen adds, is the key to successful collaborations with public officials and community leaders, and she points to ACAR’s prior work with the city of Akron on their vacant building registration ordinance as an example. In 2018, the chairman of the city council’s planning committee contacted the association to inform them that the ordinance was pending before the city council. McMillen says she knew right away that ACAR couldn’t miss the chance to speak up on behalf of area commercial practitioners.
The association spoke to several of their commercial members, McMillen said, and obtained a copy of the proposed ordinance. ACAR made a note of areas for concern for their members, and also requested an analysis from legal firm Robinson & Cole LLP through the REALTOR® Party’s Land Use Initiative program that looked at the ordinance in depth and commented on how the proposed rules could affect commercial real estate in the area.
Then ACAR met with city staff and the city’s legal department and went through the entire ordinance discussing what it could mean for Akron’s commercial property owners.
In the end, McMillen is pleased to report, all of ACAR’s recommendations were implemented in one way or another.
One of the areas of greatest concern to the association was that the term “vacant” itself wasn’t defined in the ordinance. The fear was, McMillen said, that a ten-unit building, for example, might be considered vacant if only one or two of the units were unoccupied. The association was able to get the ordinance amended so that it defined “vacant” as 60% of the building being empty. “The term wasn’t defined at all,” McMillen said. “So getting that was important for our members.”
ACAR was also concerned about the length of time the building had to be vacant before the registry would be triggered. Under the original proposal, a commercial building would be considered vacant after being empty of tenants for 60 days. ACAR believed that that time frame was too short for a commercial property, and successfully lobbied to get the time frame changed to 180 days. “That length of time is more in line with what a commercial property owner needs in order to find tenants,” McMillen said.
Among the other key compromises that ACAR was able to obtain were a change in the fee structure—from a flat fee of $400 to $300 for properties under 10,000 square feet and $500 for properties over 10,000 square feet—which the commercial brokers believed was fairer. And the ordinance also called for the creation of an appeals board, which was a provision that ACAR supported—however, the only qualifications required to be on the board were that a member be a US citizen and a resident of Akron. ACAR was able to get one of the association’s commercial members and a community development expert added to the board. “We felt it was important to get some experts on the board who had an understanding of commercial properties,” she said.
The amended ordinance was passed by the city council and went into effect in 2019.
ACAR has also just completed a housing affordability study in the city of Akron, McMillen says, made possible by an Issues Mobilization grant, and the association is recommending a down payment assistance program, among other incentives, to help boost homeownership numbers based on the study’s findings.
McMillen encourages associations to reach out to their public officials and proactively let them know that the association is there as a resource for them and the community. And she recommends reaching out to city and municipal staff in addition to elected officials. “Get to know the members of your city staff and build relationships with them,” she says. “Very often these are the people who will help you work on the details.”
To learn more about how the Akron Cleveland Association of REALTORS® are working to address issues with vacant and abandoned properties, contact Jamie McMillen, Vice President of Government Affairs at jmcmillen@AkronClevelandRealtors.com.