In Saving Neighborhoods, Demolition & Preservation Are Not Mutually Exclusive

By Richey Piiparinen

I am a researcher on an ongoing study commissioned by the Thriving Communities Institute that has sparked a debate about what to do with the glut of vacant houses in Cuyahoga County, which number 26,000. The debate is being played out curiously, with lines drawn between those who want to preserve vacant houses versus those who want to demolish vacant houses. But solving the area’s housing woes is not an either/or proposition, meaning the dichotomy between preservation and razing is a false one.

Yet the vacancy plague we face is real, and it is high time officials in Washington D.C. know this.

On this last front headway is being made. For instance, a conference call was recently held between staff at the Thriving Communities Institute and the Cuyahoga County Land Bank with members of President Obama’s National Economic Council (NEC). The meeting was initiated by the NEC once they received word of the aforementioned study, which aims to examine the effect demolition has on nearby property values, as well as the likelihood of whether or not removing vacant properties will decrease risk of foreclosure.

The White House’s interest arose out of increasing Federal awareness to the housing problems plaguing the industrial Midwest, in which blight, decreasing housing values, increasing foreclosures, and increasing vacancy rates creates for a cycle of neighborhood decline that—minus major intervention—will persist, regardless of a broader national housing recovery.

One such intervention is strategic demolition. Why demolition? Because, according to studies completed by the Cleveland Fed, we know blighted properties erode neighboring property values, not to mention quality of life. Such factors influence whether or not a person stays in a given house or neighborhood. Thus, by removing those vacant structures that act as a destabilizing effect, the intent is to preserve existing households so that a bottom to the region’s housing decline can be found.

Yet while all of this makes intuitive sense, definitive empirical evidence of demolition’s impact on stabilizing the housing crisis, particularly related to mortgage foreclosure, is lacking. Without such evidence, the White House is having difficulty unlocking billions of dollars of Hardest Hit Funds for strategic demolition; hence the eyes on the local study.

But the study is not without its critics. Specifically, Cleveland City Councilman Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, among others, contend the study’s results are predetermined, with Councilman Johnson recently saying, “[T]hey want this study to legitimize their opinion, when in fact a number of us don’t agree that demolition is the right solution”.

Two things: First, the results of what will be a rigorous empirical investigation are not “fixed,” as handing over fudged numbers to very smart people at the Federal Treasury and the National Economic Council will, to say the least, not be advisable for all involved, including this author.

Second, strategic demolition is and always has been one solution to the problem of neighborhood blight. This is beyond the pale. Residents who live near blighted, crime-ridden structures know this. Policy makers know this. Even Councilman Reed knows this, telling the Plain Dealer recently: “I agree that 75 [percent] to 80 percent of the [vacant] houses in my ward need to be torn down.” One aim, then, is to provide Councilman Reed and other local politicians the funds they need to answer their constituents’ pleas related to vacancy, if only to preserve an existing constituency.

Now, does this mean that demolition is the only solution to Cleveland’s housing crisis?

No, and no one associated with the study, including Jim Rokakis—the man leading the charge in regional vacancy abatement—makes that claim. Both strategic rehab of architectural gems and strategic demolition of so-called “zombie properties” are two of several tools needed to build back the area’s housing value. And the menus of services offered by the Cuyahoga County Land Bank—mothballing, renovation, and demolition—reflect as much. In fact framing the issue as an either/or proposition is not only illogical but disingenuous, and such tactics say far more about the territorialism that has historically undermined the region’s ability to meet a crisis head on than it does about the reality of a crises itself.

To that end, here is where Mayor Jackson’s recent statements in his annual remarks on the state of the city are more than prescient. There, the Mayor stated he envisioned a city that no longer observes the cultural divides and territorialism that has kept the region fragmented. Addressing the region’s vacancy crisis outside of false dichotomies and identity politics would be a good first step in realizing the Mayor’s vision.



Richey Piiparinen is a Clevelander, a writer, and a city strategist. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including the Atlantic Cities, New Geography, Huffington Post, and Next American City. Richey is co-editor of the book Rust Belt Chic: A Cleveland Anthology. His musings and work can be found at and




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9 Responses to “In Saving Neighborhoods, Demolition & Preservation Are Not Mutually Exclusive”

  1. Mansfield Frazier

    The majority of the homes waiting for the wrecking ball are certainly beyond repair and need to be torn down. But what we’re attempting to do here in Hough is turn some of them into BioCellars (underground growing environments, see Biocellar Phase II Report online, or visit our website, where food can be grown year-round, thus building wealth in these communities instead of simply ending up with more vacant lots.
    The problem is, too many politicians are short-sighted and relatively clueless when it comes to out-of-the-box solutions. They also are so risk-averse they are unwilling to try anything new. Nonetheless, we plan to drag them (kicking and screaming if necessary) into the 21st century.

  2. COndoms,cops,culture islands…

    WERE gonna find EVEN HALF OR FOURTH of the people to take these properties off of peoples hands…or COUNTY’s… WE are JUST MINI version of DETROIT DISASSEMBLED…I agree with Mansfield to a POINT but… vicious cycle… WHA do You do with WHA kind of property WERE that USED to be used for what again… I DONT want to REtread all THAT all over again… were want to start..SUNNY cheap warm low cost low tax South,deindustrialization,etc.etc. ENOUGH studies done to THAT affect as it is… heck..BURBS…STUFF getting leveled…AND NOT replaced…BLEW MY mind NO takers for semi prime land along CENTER RD rt.303 out in Brunswick… hey… THEY have own mishmash of this n that built over X time periods whose own viability,etc. WHA can I say… I TRY n be FAIR.. TREND seems to be if NOT able to sell,rent property fast ENOUGH ESPECIALLY if a CORPORATE entity to LEVEL the place and SAVE on security,tax $,upkeep,etc. which to a point makes sense…. kinda SAD but hey… PONDEROSA still TRYING to sell THAT lot…. half waiting for some medical satellite facillity to move in there tooo..

    MUELLER art cover DID same thing… fairly modern big facility and GONE… WAS in a LOW valley area…maybe flood isssues…

    THE one property THAT got leveled THAT blew MY mind…w.150th&Brookpark by I-480…THAT TRUCK REPAIR facility…this mega bay repair shop and sale room…GONE…LEVELED…THE place was relatively new… AND CERTAINLY had a use..NO idea WHA happened but surprised THAT got trashed…

    WHA politico can or would peddle ANY project right now…SERIOUSLY… JUST listen to the news…NATIONAL to LOCAL….A WAR out there..always was…

    U GOTTA bring THAT $ cost prototype cellar figure DOWN by a LOT ….COULD U IMAGINE REACTION gonna get ANYWAYS from ANY foundation,hood association,other if waltz thru door with THOSE cost figures.. GET AN A for the concept,planning,etc.and a D for the dollar cost figure… I realize get into some plumbing,pump,blower motor,etc.issues which pushes up costs..BUT… CAN still get a NICE house for THAT kind of $…

  3. CROWDFUNDING, foundation $,a OFBF loan,FHLB,etc. IF nothing else… sorta suites THEM and THEY have a model to work with… Good old Westside Mkt and similar ilk may jump at something like this tooo……

  4. WANT the honest truth…POLITICOS n rest gonna hug MED MART…sing praises of and LET THAT be the ECON engine or ONE of em…… WE blew HOW much sweat,blood,$,tears,POLITICO capital and all the rest of it to get THAT…I DONT want to Rehash all THAT EITHER but HEY… this 18M ton elephant in the room…. to be HONEST… a GOOD idea THAT can really CAN be the jazz… JUST the way WHOLE thing got handled,etc.

    PUT IT THIS way….THE NAME change…CAN read WHUTEVER INTO ALL ‘that’…sure EVERYONE wanted SOMETHING like that ‘change’ to crawl out from under the….

    JOBS thing…hotel maids to culinary supplies to… and surrounding entities going towards CUYAHOGA RIVER…u pretty much know WHO I am referening… LETS face it….SERIOUS UPRIGHT insane concrete NO one at COunty,cityhall or down in COLUMBUS..or DC wants to foo with….

  5. On HOUSING……call FIRE DEPT… HOSE DOWN buildings,homes of THOSE STILL LIVED in…set rest on fire,level… if a demo outfit RATHER make MY $ NOW vs.GOSH ONLY knows in THIS financial crapfest WHA gonna get…or NOT get… WHA CITY councilperson let alone REST wants to stand THERE before all this ulcer trip and TRY and…

  6. I FEEL for poo slobs…and they are semi vicitims of lot of this economic n politico fallout BUT….but POLITICALLY…U GOTTA admit..SOME of em…DANG… wow..ICK… THEY cant help their situation or whatever…. BUT TRY n peddle THAT before news,etc. MORE LIKELY SHOVELED out of way n shoved into a official vehicle “WHite Style” and dropped off at…(anywhere?)PUT THIS ANOTHER WAY and SURE gonna hear *$*@ for it… GREAT SOCIETY…. (ok so THAT got sidetracked and attacked..)… I DONT have to say anymore… NIXON ( half enlightened actually…and WILY) and REAGAN LIVE!….

    WE HAVE HOW many programs and other such and THIS IS END RESULT?…and THEN wunder WHY CMSD n CTU n OFT has a issue Sen bill 5 and other such land on doorstep…JUST a bad vicious cycle….

  7. MEANTIME….good ol Mr.REED… IF gonna do anything with HIM better DO IT WHILE HE is still free…..and ALIVE… HE keeps pushing his luck w/booze n being behind wheel of car…or being in those trendy Warehouse deal bars… SOME OTHER guy gets all *$82 n wiggedout n jealous and YOu know HOW THAT can turn ugly fast… gals get off on that stuff…. NO idea if HE believes HIS own invincibility and gonna be one of the Council survivors or wha it is…

  8. Dear CSU…were art thou… probably pinning hopes on MED MART,Yuppies,GBLT,SHALE OIL n wha left of mfg… hey… DEAR ECOwatch…HERE is your chance… U got contacts,etc. Help Mansfield with SOMETHING…

  9. Richard

    It is unfortunate that people will not give this subject the seriousness it deserves.

    This selective demo plan needs to be accompanied by plan to regrow and revitalize neighborhood business districts and community learning and recreation centers.

    You know how to eat a elephant? One bite at a time.

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