Now that 20 homes are gone, there's a clear view of Sandra Saulsberry's back porch from any of the public bus stops on Miller Avenue, which runs from Summit Lake to Main Street.
“You didn’t [always] have all this empty space around here,” said Saulsberry, 61, who left Detroit in 1982 after Chrysler laid off her husband. “This neighborhood was full of homes. It’s a ghost town over here now.”
Nowhere is the long decline of Akron’s housing more visible than in the low-income ring around downtown — in neighborhoods like Saulsberry’s that have been cut off from the rest of the city by the lake, Interstate 76 and a set of train tracks at the bottom of a trench.
Two-thirds of her neighbors in Summit Lake rent old, high-maintenance homes, which attract a disproportionate number of the city’s eviction notices, foreclosure cases, condemnation orders and demolitions. It’s here, where two of the city’s poorest wards touch, that housing inspectors are the busiest.
After 19 years of aggressive city demolition, Saulsberry lives on a checkerboard of old homes and green rectangles. The city is the biggest property owner on her block, owning and paying to cut the grass on more than 150 vacant lots in her neighborhood.
“There were some good houses that could have been rehabbed,” Saulsberry said. “They were all torn down as if they were never at a point where they could be refurbished to give someone an opportunity to be a first-time homeowner. You know what I’m saying?”
Today, the Beacon Journal is exploring the state of housing in Akron with a focus on how residents, the city and community groups are dealing with blight. On Monday, we look at the city's residential tax abatement program and new home construction, which is at a 150-year low.
Housing hasn’t been this critical to the future of Akron for 100 years.
The city adopted the first comprehensive plan for how neighborhoods should develop in 1919, out of necessity. The population since 1900 had exploded from 42,000 to 208,000. No American city was growing faster.
Akron annexed the residential enclaves of Kenmore, Ellet and Northwest Akron by 1930. The city, now the 120th most populous in the nation, was in the top 50 until 1969. By then, 90 percent of its homes had been built, meaning only 10 percent of Akron's housing was constructed in the last 50 years, according to a Beacon Journal analysis of county property records.
Industrial decline and migration to the suburbs meant 78,000 people, or 28 percent, would leave Akron in the next 50 years. The result has been an oversupply of aging, empty homes that flood the market, driving down prices and devastating equity and — in the hardest hit areas — destabilize neighborhoods.
By 2008, more than $200 million in federal funds was spent on pent-up demand to demolish and rehabilitate homes. Taking down the nuisance properties eased caseloads for the same staff of eight housing inspectors employed by Akron since at least 2012. But gone are the massive federal grants that allowed inspectors to storm entire streets before clear-cutting and rebuilding homes.
By 2016, a report by the U.S. Home Equity and Underwater Report ranked Akron third in the nation for homeowners seriously behind on their mortgages. Cleveland ranked worse.
City Planner Jason Segedy’s strategy for adding 50,000 residents by 2050 estimates that one-quarter of Akron’s housing is “in great shape, while another one-quarter is extremely distressed. The remaining 50 percent could be characterized as being at a tipping-point of sorts — largely solid, older homes, in middle class neighborhoods — for now.”
The oldest of the inner-ring neighborhoods that comprised Akron in 1919 — Lane-Wooster, Middlebury, Summit Lake, South Akron and West Hill — are home to the most distressed houses. Entire streets are pocked with empty rectangular lots, like headstones of tall grass where houses once stood.
Neighborhood revitalization is driven by homeowners who remodel in distressed communities, organizations that support them and the hundreds of millions of state, federal and local tax dollars the city has spent to remove blight, stop the bleeding and spur development.
Sitting on a cement-block wall painted blue to match her front porch, Saulsberry looked down Ira Avenue toward the lake. Halfway down the quiet street is a 114-year-old house appraised at $300. A third-party tax collector acquired the home, which has since been sold and gutted.
Summit Lake Build Corps (SLBC), a youth empowerment and job skills organization, is fixing it up and using the detached garage as a base of operations. Teenagers in the program are paid to learn how to build and budget while eventually reclaiming homes and empty spaces in their community. They're just getting started.
But their headquarters rests between a city-owned vacant lot and a man squatting in an abandoned house. SLBC and other community advocates like Let’s Grow Akron (which has 12 community gardens feeding and teaching horticulture in Summit Lake) are investing in the community without knowing what will become of the 150 city-owned empty lots.
Joe Tucker, the executive director at Front Porch Ministries, joined them in asking the mayor to explain what's to become of the empty lots. Several meetings followed but no plan yet.
Tucker said he just wants to “stabilize the good.”
"Let’s not wait for some big fish, some big developer," he said. "If there’s a chance to stabilize the neighborhood, let’s do just that. If there’s a chance to shoot for the stars, fine. But communicate that. Neighbors should hear about that.”
Segedy said Summit Lake isn't a marketable neighborhood to investors or home buyers at this point "because the price points are so low."
“But the city owns a lot of the land so we want to be diligent in how we work with the residents to figure out what to do," he said. "It’s probably not practical to have 150 community gardens."
Some residents wouldn't mind an urban farming hub, which would grow jobs and food instead of tall grass.
Banks foreclosures hit Summit Lake and Akron hard in 2006.
The Summit County Fiscal Office, which has since acknowledged the adverse effect on low-income communities, facilitated a second wave of foreclosures in 2015 after selling the rights to collect back taxes to a third-party debt collector from California, which filed foreclosures in Akron by the thousands.
Residents lost credit and future access to it. Banks sat on properties. Landlords bought them at public auctions or out of foreclosure. And Akron slid toward a city where nearly half the housing units are rentals.
Today, more than half of the city's tenants are rent-burdened, meaning rent checks consume 30 percent or more of their monthly incomes, according to the U.S. Census.
Some landlords and speculators neglected repairs, which fueled blight and further depressed neighboring property values.
South Akron native Reggie Bennett, 56, signed a land contract in 2012 for a house that was last used as a rental. For $17,000, he had acquired a 2,500-square-foot, two-story “labor of love” built in 1913 on West Long Street.
“I love old homes. And I’m kind of handy so I enjoy doing that type of work," Bennett said of converting the three-unit apartment back to a spacious single-family home with room for his grandkids to run around.
The home came with $6,000 in property taxes the previous owner never paid. Bennett has paid his share since, but none of the old debt. And the house came with a list of housing code violations that need addressed.
When the weather and his budget permit, he's tackled the jobs in an order that makes sense, like fixing the front porch before someone fell through instead of replacing the missing pieces of siding, which inspectors want done now.
“It’s been kind of challenging trying to work with [the city],” said Bennett.
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.