by Doug Livingston
Akron Beacon Journal/Ohio.com

She’s staring down six expensive years in medical school and he’s working part-time before graduating this summer with a degree in construction management from Kent State.

And despite only 45 years of living between them and a whole life ahead, Molly and Jacob Curtiss didn’t blink at the $51,000 mortgage they signed last month on a 105-year-old home in one of Akron’s most distressed housing markets.

They live in Middlebury — a poor, old East Akron neighborhood of promise between new jobs at Summa Health’s main Akron Campus and the East End development where homes are notoriously worth less than the remodeling needed to sell them. And they just bought the most expensive one on the street. The house was recently upgraded and appraised at only $50,000.

It’s been challenging to stabilize neighborhoods and boost home ownership rates in areas just outside downtown and the University of Akron. It’s a common concern in most shrinking American cities. City planners consider a quarter of Akron homes to be “extremely distressed” — which includes thousands of units that would cost more to fix up than they’re worth. For a short-term investment, they’re a sure way to lose money.

But Molly and Jacob Curtiss take the long view and they’re not worried.

They bought their first home from the Well Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization that’s investing in the community until the local housing market can stand on its own.

“That’s what’s awesome about them, it’s all in good faith,” Jacob said. He explained how a guy from the Well climbed onto his roof days after buying the house to fix a minor issue that could have cost him a plumber’s service call. “They don’t sell to gyp a homeowner or screw them over. That’s why I was so confident in buying this house. If anything goes wrong, they’re for the community, they’re not just out to make a buck.”

Jacob, 21, and Molly, 24, were married two years ago at Citizens Akron, the church at the end of their street where the Well keeps its headquarters.

They volunteer in the new community that they and friends are rebuilding.

“I think in a neighborhood like this, you have to have the long-term view,” Well CDC Executive Director and Founder Zac Kohl said.

The Well CDC owns 12 homes, seven apartments and three commercial storefronts. Kohl is closing on five more houses through the Summit County Land Bank, which previously acquired the Curtiss’ new home through an expedited tax foreclosure process.

Progress is fueled by more than $1 million in donations to turn the tide on Middlebury’s broken housing market. Kohl is bidding only on homes around the church and Mason Elementary — the last two pockets of owner-occupied homes in neighborhood where nearly three-quarters of residents rent.

If successful, the model could work in Lane-Wooster, South Akron, Summit Lake, West Hill and East Akron, where similar housing issues prevail. It could work wherever out-of-town landlords and investors are capitalizing on local property.

First sale

The walls of the Curtiss homes tell a story of how real estate in some neighborhoods ended upside down.

Built in 1914 in a community that predates Akron, the two-story colonial has bounced from one young married couple to another.

A married couple in their mid-thirties bought the four-bedroom home in 1997 then defaulted on their mortgage by 2004 at the start of a national and local foreclosure crisis. A bank in Rhode Island had the sheriff toss them out, then it bought the property at public auction for $14,000 less than it had been appraised. 

The home on Adgate Place sat empty. The grass grew all summer. Akron’s Housing Appeals Board put the home on the demolition list before the year ended.

The bank stalled in court then swiftly sold to a house flipper from Ravenna for $8,250.

In five months from the demolition order, the repairs were done, the city backed off and the home was sold again, this time for $67,000 to a Cuyahoga Falls man who immediately fell behind on his property taxes and utility bills.

The tax bills piled up until 2016, when the new lender from California foreclosed on the Cuyahoga Falls man. This lender also purchased the property at a sheriff’s sale but soon decided to hand it over to the Summit County Land Bank, which was created in 2012, to avoid $17,190 in back taxes on a home valued by the county at $21,000.

Finally, the Land Bank sold the property to the Well CDC, which spent $50,000 to buy, fix and sell it for $51,500. That monthly mortgage will be $450 with insurance and taxes — exactly what Jacob and Molly said they could afford.

While the couple lived rent-free on Jacob’s grandfather’s property, Molly worked full-time for a year between undergraduate school and medical school, which should end with monthly student loan payments greater than their mortgage.

The couple went through a home preparedness class run by East Akron Neighborhood Development Corp. The Well CDC also runs how-to workshops on minor home repairs and loans out tools to those it serves.

Incremental growth

The Well’s plan requires incremental success so home values don’t skyrocket, which could be exacerbated if private builders see what they’re doing and start building new homes before the market is healthy enough to support them.

Kohl’s favorite phrases are “stabilize the good” and “investment begets investment.” He’s seen both in Middlebury.

Kohl spent many times more on interior and exterior repairs than than his own home is worth two blocks over on Jewett Street. A Jordanian family across the street saw the improvements, fixed up their home then bought and updated two more houses beside Kohl’s.

A woman is living a couple doors down in one of the Well’s rental units until she can afford to buy it. Kohl hopes that modestly converting existing homes and selling them to caring, community-invested homeowners will keep comparable sales in the area around $50,000. New homes could be constructed when existing ones start selling for more than $100,000.

“I would argue that you don’t want new homes yet,” said Kohl, who estimates that five to 10 more years of rehabbing is needed before incremental development positions Middlebury for new homes that don’t price out longtime residents.

“They’re not trying to jack up housing in the neighborhood,” said Jacob Curtiss. “They’re trying to make it better without gentrifying and kicking people out.”

This Is Akron: Get Involved

Journalists from the Akron Beacon Journal, The Devil Strip and WKSU will host a series of conversations in April with anyone who works, lives or plays in Akron and cares about the future of the city. 

If you want to participate, RSVP online at https://www.ohio.com/forums or to Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792. Please note which of the following conversations you will be attending:

  • April 9 (Tuesday) from 6 to 8 p.m. at Buchtel Community Learning Center
  • April 11 (Thursday) from 6 to 8 p.m. at East Community Learning Center
  • April 14 (Sunday) from 2 to 4 p.m. at Jennings Community Learning Center
  • April 16 (Tuesday) from 6 to 8 p.m. at Innes Buchtel Community Learning Center

Photo at top: Jacob and Molly Curtiss laugh as they chat in the kitchen of their home purchased from the Well Community Development Corporation on Thursday, March 28, 2019 in Akron, Ohio. (Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal/Ohio.com correspondent)

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