A Model Survey: Understanding Our Communities’ Assets Important Step in Achieving Growth & Opportunity

by | May 15, 2015

Last summer, a number of Akron residents canvased the city’s streets, mobile devices in hand, taking photographs and logging information about the condition of every property in the city—a total of more than 97,000 parcels. The data they collected over the course of four months have been used to create a detailed assessment of the city’s properties and maps that can guide Akron’s efforts to address problem areas, as well as inform future development activities. The results of the undertaking, described here, revealed relatively good news: The City of Akron has done a good job keeping up with vacant and deteriorating properties during the recent housing and financial crises, and has positioned itself well in planning for a future that doesn’t include blight.

The comprehensive property survey was led by Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Institute (TCI), with support from the Fund for Our Economic Future, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, GAR Foundation, Akron Community Foundation, and other funders, and with the help of the City of Akron Department of Planning and Urban Development and the East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp. TCI was created in March of 2011 with the initial goal of establishing and supporting county land banks in every county in Northeast Ohio to help communities acquire and address the tens of thousands of abandoned homes in our region.

TCI’s work soon expanded to include the raising of funds to remove blighted properties from these communities. To date, TCI has raised $182 million dollars for blight removal statewide. As TCI’s work progressed, several communities across the region began requesting tools to help them identify and manage vacant and distressed properties. TCI developed comprehensive spatial databases for the cities of Lorain and East Cleveland, and for the Mt. Pleasant and Buckeye neighborhoods of Cleveland.

What distinguished Akron from other cites we have worked in is how well it has managed blight. Of the more than 97,000 parcels surveyed in Akron, only 774—or 0.7 percent—were graded as “deteriorated” or “unsafe or hazardous” properties, as opposed to East Cleveland, where 23 percent of properties we surveyed were graded as such, or the Mount Pleasant and Buckeye neighborhoods of Cleveland where 9 percent of the 13,503 properties we surveyed graded this low. The numbers in Akron, which translate to relatively little blight, are reflective of tough code enforcement policies and an ongoing commitment from the city to addressing distressed properties. It’s conceivable that Akron could remove the vast majority of these properties in the next several years by working closely with the Summit County Land Reutilization Corporation. If so, Akron can channel its resources on efforts to continue to stay ahead of properties that threaten to become vacant. Indeed, one of Akron’s major challenges is that 35 percent of its housing stock is more than 75 years old, and three-fourths was built before 1970.

Property inventory is a valuable source of data that can help communities better understand not only the problem properties that need to be addressed, but the opportunities for growth. As the Fund has stressed, our region’s economic growth hinges on ensuring that those who have been left out of the recovery are prepared for and have access to good-paying jobs with the opportunity for advancement. A TCI post-project analysis identified several vacant commercial locations positioned in high-density areas where significant portions of the population had income at or below poverty level. This type of information can help leaders in not only Akron, but across Northeast Ohio make wise development decisions that lead to jobs for those residents who need them the most.

Jim Rokakis, a former Cleveland City councilman and Cuyahoga County treasurer, is vice president of Western Reserve Land Conservancy and director of its Thriving Communities Institute. 

Paul Boehnlein, GISP, is the associate director of applied GIS for Western Reserve Land Conservancy.