Hazel Street is a small residential drag sandwiched in between West River Road North and Gateway Boulevard South and for many years 63-year-old Gary Shores looked out his window and watched his community crumble before his eyes.
It wasn’t the neighborhood his father, John Shores, bought into in 1950.
Five years ago, half the homes on the street — easy to count when it’s just eight houses — were vacant and falling apart. From that perspective, it was easy for Shores, who inherited the family homestead after his father died, to say Elyria had some of the worst housing stock around.
“It was a nice neighborhood until all these empty houses started coming around,” Shores said Friday. “No one would take care of them, and they were falling down.”
The homes drew squatters, criminals and drug dealers. Shores said.
Then, in 2013 with Kevin Brubaker, now an assistant safety service director under Mayor Holly Brinda, leading the charge, the city’s Building Department began aggressively targeting and demolishing vacant homes. The aim was to improve the city’s housing stock by first ridding neighborhoods of the worst properties — the kind of homes that screamed vacant because of tall weeds, broken windows and missing or collapsing roofs and porches.
Four such homes on Hazel Street are now gone after meeting the business end of an excavator.
“And I’m glad they tore them all down,” Shores said. “It made the neighborhood a lot better.”
Brubaker, whose reputation preceded him to the point where residents wondered what house was on his radar every time he cruised a neighborhood street in his city-issued car, said the work has made a noticeable difference in the city.
The thousands of homes left behind are of better quality, and the offensive ones are fewer.
“We have a solid base here in this community. Our code enforcement and demolition programs in the last four years have made a difference,’’ Brubaker said.
A 2016 property inventory report compiled by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy backs that up.
Assembled over the summer when six surveyors armed with mobile devices loaded with geographic information system software and digital cameras walked neighborhoods to conduct parcel-by-parcel inspections from the public right-of-way, the report paints a picture of the quality of Elyria’s housing stock.
On a grading scale of “A” being excellent and “F” being unsafe or hazardous, 96 percent of occupied homes in Elyria earned a “B” grade or better, according to the report.
“This gives Elyria a solid base upon which to build a strategy that protects the quality of the city’s residential housing stock,” the report said.
It was nasty work back in 2013 when Brubaker and city inspectors started identifying homes for demolition.
Suited in heavy work boots, long shirts and thick pants, workers had to painstakingly document all areas of a home’s deterioration through room-by-room inspections — or from the road if they couldn’t legally get into a house — to find the worst properties to come down.
Using four sources of limited revenue, the city had to strategically target properties. To date, the work has resulted in 232 homes disappearing from the city landscape in the last four years.
A home at 115 Glendale Court was the 100th razed in the city through the demolition program.
It was a bittersweet moment for Elyria resident Barbie Blackhall to watch the large claw of an excavator bite into the vacant house a chunk at a time until the entire three-story structure was reduced to rubble.
“This is a really touchy subject for me,” said Blackhall, who moved from Glendale Court some time ago. “I think the demolitions were exactly a step in the right direction, and the city should continue to do them, but it happened to be the home of one of my best friends in the whole world. They had to demolish the house, but I loved and cared about the people who once lived there.”
Blackhall said the home went downhill after the original homeowner moved out of state and left the property in the care of a relative. By the time the city stepped in, the home was flea- and roach-infested and a nuisance to the rest of the neighborhood.
“I couldn’t wait to see the place go, but by the same token I knew there was a family that used to live there and were really hurt by that situation,” Blackhall said.
Had the Western Reserve Land Conservancy started its survey four years ago, Brubaker imagines the city’s overall average would have been much lower — more “D”- and “F”-graded properties, he said.
In 2013, Lorain did the opposite of Elyria. It had the land survey completed first and has more that double the rate of structure vacancies as Elyria — 6.1 percent in Lorain compared with 2.9 percent in Elyria.
“Even with all the work we did, my biggest fear was the report was going to come back worse than what it was,” Brubaker said. “But this gives us hope. It tells us we were on the right track four years ago with where we focused our resources. Now, we have to focus on our “C” properties. It’s about 800 homes and those homes need our focus for home improvement loans and programs so they go up to A’s and B’s and not down.”
‘Good is skewed’
The Western Reserve’s report is broken down across the city’s seven wards.
All but one fare extremely well in the property survey, according to the report.
In Wards 3 and 4, 99 percent of the properties earned grades of “A” or “B.” Wards 6 and 7 showed 98 percent of the top grades, Ward 1 was at 94 percent and Ward 2 at 93 percent.
To hear that Ward 2 — the area that includes Cascade Park, Midway Mall and Warden, Parmely, Brace and Morgan avenues — has that many properties deemed excellent or good is shocking to Blackhall. She lives at the corner of Lake Avenue and Furnace Street in a home that is next to a community garden — a transformed vacant lot left behind after the city demolished a rundown house.
“I’m absolutely 100 or 1,000 percent positive that what is being said that more than 90 percent of these homes are in excellent or good condition is just wrong,” she said. “I can’t wrap my brain around that knowing I can walk down the street and take pictures of so many homes that are not in good shape.”
Blackhall said the report could give residents the false impression work to rebuild the neighborhoods is done.
“That is so far from accurate,” she said. “Their idea of good is skewed.”
The report’s collection methods aimed for consistency in evaluations, according to the 27-page document. For each parcel, surveyors took photographs, used a series of questions to assess each structure and then gave each property a condition grade.
“It should be noted that the outside appearance of structures does not always correspond to indoor conditions; property inventory results should only act as an initial flagging of problem properties,” the report said.
Blackhall said the city can’t wane in its commitment to condemning and destroying vacant homes. Also with the rental registration program up and running, Blackhall said, it’s time to take things a step forward with code enforcement for property owners.
“There is a big difference between taking care of something and collecting your $600 a month,” she said. “There are plenty of rentals that are in really nice shape, but the good majority of homes in Ward 2 are rentals, and notoriously these rentals have had a coat of paint slapped on the front to just make it appear that they are decent places to live.”
Ward 5 — the city’s south side — shows the highest level of housing distress.
Only 83 percent of the properties earned grades of “A” or “B” with most of the remaining occupied housing — 244 structures — falling into the “C” category.
More than 10 percent of the properties in Ward 5 are vacant — much higher than the city’s overall average of 2.9 percent of the 21,827 parcels falling into the classification of vacant. Ward 5 also has the highest percentage of properties graded out as “D” — deteriorated — and “F” — unsafe/hazardous.
“This report validates the concerns I have and continue to share with the stakeholders that live in the 5th Ward,” said Councilman Marcus Madison, who grew up on South Maple Street. “It also presents the challenges we have in tackling the housing stock in the ward. The residents want to live in quality housing that is safe, comfortable and up-to-code. They just need access to the resources to do so.”
While the report does not break down by ward how rental properties play into the housing stock of any particular part of the city, Madison said rentals remain the biggest concern on the city’s south side.
“There are a lot of homeowners who live in their homes and have invested in them for years,” Madison said. “We have to figure how we can support the homeowners living in the neighborhood and how we can make sure people are investing in their rental properties as well. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to look at the rental registration and vacant home registration programs through legislation so we can have the tools to fight blight in our neighborhoods. We can’t just address things by tearing them down.”
You can’t just draw a line between good and bad homes and put landlords and rental properties right in the crosshairs, said property owner Terry Wacker. At least not without looking at how Elyria got to the point where renters occupy 39 percent of the homes and the median income is $42,272.
“A very large percentage of people can’t afford a house,” Wacker said. “How can you really? If you don’t know if you are going to have a job from one month to the next, you won’t buy a home. That falls to rentals to fill the housing gap. But Elyria landlords are not making enough cash flow because of the quality of tenants that have no place to work.”
Wacker calls it a vicious circle — someone gets a job, saves enough to move into a place and can maybe make the rent for five or six months. They fall behind, and after a few months of not paying the rent, the tenants move out or face eviction, he said.
Rentals are a part of the city’s economics, he said.
The city is not alone in wanting to see improvement in the housing stock.
With the worst homes now gone, a lot of property owners have matched the city’s enthusiasm with a little DIY passion of their own.
“You can go into a lot of neighborhoods and see that owners have started to take pride in their homes and put money back in their homes,” Brubaker said. “People just saw the opportunity and decided to work on their houses. I have seen that ripple effect in some neighborhoods.”
Shores said Hazel Street is a good example of people taking back their community nail by nail.
“We started to fix ours up because it was an older home — like all of these are older homes,” he said. “It was time to start sprucing up the neighborhood. We started, so everyone else started, too.”
Brenda Warren, a 30-year resident of 10th Street, said a combination of needing to be near Mount Nebo Baptist Church, where she and her husband serve as pastors, and the quality of the housing stock on the south side drew her to the neighborhood from Cleveland decades ago.
“Our Realtor was avoiding the south side,” Warren said. “She took me all over the city and never went to the south side. When we came over here on our own, we were led to this house. Her impression was the south side was the very last place she needed to consider for us. When we bought the house, it was in good shape with siding, a newer roof, nice windows and a three-car garage.”
A lot has changed in the neighborhood since, but one thing has remained constant, Warren said.
“I see the people who own their homes who work to keep their homes up,” she said. “They do the necessary repairs and so forth so they are livable and comfortable. Generally, when there is a problem home, it’s because it’s rental property with absentee landlords not keeping properties up.”
Warren said a lot of young couples are moving into the neighborhood to find starter homes they can afford. Even those who eventually move out and make their first homes rental properties do a better job of maintaining the properties because they have roots on the south side, she said.
“We suffer because there are a lot of rental properties,” Warren said. “We have those landlords who buy older homes they can get low rent for that lower-income people can afford to move in. They don’t do much work, and when one tenant moves out, they can just get another one.”
Warren said she owns three homes in her neighborhood.
“There was a house on our street that was a problem with drugs. We bought the house and did the work to make it nice,” she said. “I did it because I wanted to have more control over who lived in this community.”
Less home, more potential
Every time Elyria demolishes a home, it raises the potential of the other ones around it.
But with potential comes the possibility of good and bad. The city’s next struggle with its housing stock will undoubtedly be how to maintain and improve, said Brubaker, who still has a hand in how neighborhoods change through his work at the mayor’s office.
“We the have programs — the Community Housing Improvement Program or the CDBG Emergency Owner-Occupied Home Repair Program — but if residents most in need don’t know how to access those programs, they won’t work. We have to get grant money into the hands of people to help them renovate their homes the best we can.”
The Western Reserve also offered some suggestions along with praise.
“The city has a strong code enforcement program that is aggressively pursuing properties in disrepair,” the report said. “They should continue these efforts including, if necessary, the prosecution of the most-serious offenders.”
The report highlighted the programs Brubaker mentioned as well as other avenues the city could explore like developing a low-interest loan program with the county treasurer’s office modeled after one in Cuyahoga County or encouraging organizations like Habitat for Humanity to renovate more homes instead of building new.
It’s an approach that has worked before, said Kelly LaRosa, executive director of the Lorain County Habitat for Humanity.
In the past six years, three homes in Lorain and three homes in Elyria have come to Habitat through donations, and volunteers gutted and rehabilitated them into new owner-occupied homes. The result was homes that would have been demolished becoming viable in the community again.
“This works for people making less than 60 percent of the area median income because they can qualify for the lower mortgages based on the value of the homes,” she said. “I can put them in a home that is affordable to them.”
Brubaker said the city is changing, and it will take across-the-board work to keep more homes at the “A” level.
Every little bit helps, he said. Even the churches working with the Community Development Department on minor home repairs do a lot of good work that he would like to see more of in the future.
“I wish we had the money to take one street or one block and work with them,” he said. “That would be a great thing. Do that block by block or by area, you will see an improvement.”