On Oct. 12, 2020, a family still lived at 426 McGowan St.
In its final weeks, the house loomed empty, every window an empty socket. On the second floor, a thin curtain waved in the wind, pulled outward through a crack in the glass. Upstairs, cigarette butts and crayons littered the floor. A note taped to a door ripped from its hinges acted as a reminder: “No friends over until after the weekend — Mom.”
On Jan. 12, the house was gone. A layer of straw covered a muddy lot in its place.
“It is sad,” one resident says in passing as he looks over his shoulder at the lot across the street and walks inside his home. “But you’re used to seeing it in Akron.”
This block on McGowan Street is only about a tenth of a mile long. Yet the block between Clark and Johnston Streets in Middlebury, south of Mason Community Learning Center, has seen at least seven houses torn or burnt down in the past decade.
The Summit County Land Bank demolished 322 housing units in Middlebury between January 2010 and September 2020. That’s 12.8 demolitions per 100 homes, the second highest rate in the city, behind Summit Lake.
The houses that are still standing are often in need of serious repairs and renovations. But with property values struggling accordingly, neighborhood advocates and nonprofit developers say it is very difficult to attract new construction to fill vacant lots in the neighborhood.
And today, more than two-thirds of Middlebury homes are rentals, meaning many residents have limited control over the safety and health hazards that often accompany aging housing stock.
‘Lost cause:’ Foreclosures hit Middlebury homeowners hard
Middlebury, which stretches from Grace Park in the north to I-76 in the south, was the city’s first neighborhood.
In the early 1900s, an uptick in industry along East Exchange Street spurred a housing boom. According to the City of Akron, 70% of all homes in Middlebury were built before 1940. But the 1970s brought an economic downturn that left Middlebury residents struggling to find employment and cut off from the rest of the city by freeway construction.
By 2018, Middlebury’s unemployment rate was nearly double the City of Akron’s unemployment rate, and the neighborhood’s median household income was among the lowest in the city.
Patrick Bravo, the executive director of Summit County Land Bank, says Middlebury, like many Akron neighborhoods, was devastated by foreclosures during the Great Recession.
“At the end of the foreclosure crisis in 2008, there were an estimated 100,000 abandoned or blighted structures throughout Ohio, and we knew that number was severely underreported at the time,” Bravo says.
Between 2000 and 2014, there were at least 13 tax and mortgage foreclosures on McGowan Street between Clark and Gage Streets — a three-block stretch with just 37 total residential lots.
By 2020, the city estimated 68% of 2,668 housing units in Middlebury were rental properties.
Today, grass lots dot McGowan Street. Homes still standing from the housing boom more than a century ago sit crooked, sinking into muddy lawns, many of them in need of serious repairs. Near the corner of McGowan and Corley Streets, one yard is littered with scrap metal. A thin blue tarp covers a hole in the roof.
But it wasn’t always this way, says Pam Vaughan. She’s lived in this area for about 30 years, 16 of them in the home she owns on McGowan Street.
She watched the neighborhood change as people left for one reason or another, until landlords leasing properties outnumbered homeowners and properties fell into disrepair.
The way Vaughan sees it, the area is a “lost cause.”
“I wish they would just tear them all down,” she says.
When asked if she’d move given she had the time and money to do so, Vaughan shrugs.
“This bulls— happens everywhere here.”
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Hundreds of homes have been demolished in the last decade
In 2012, the Summit County Land Bank received federal funding to begin demolishing the county’s more than 5,000 blighted and abandoned structures. By 2014, the agency had demolished more than 900 properties, and it planned to raze an additional 600 via its Neighborhood Initiative Program through 2019.
Drew Reilly, a staff attorney at the Land Bank, says deteriorating properties aren’t just dangerous for the people living or working near them, but also for unhoused people who sometimes use them for shelter. Without regulations, repairs or access to utilities, these homes often become ongoing safety and health hazards.
“It’s like going to the dentist,” Bravo says. “You have to remove the bad before you can start rebuilding the good. You have to take care of the cavity that’s sort of left behind for these abandoned and blighted properties.”
After a dangerous structure is demolished, the Land Bank and other agencies turn their focus to other parts of the housing puzzle, like building new properties, renovating existing homes or selling properties to other organizations who will help renovate them.
‘He won’t fix it’
Of the 16 remaining homes on the 400 block of McGowan Street, 12 are renter-occupied. Several tenants told The Devil Strip their landlords do not complete adequate repairs.
“I got cracks in the foundation, the water leaking through the hole in the roof, creatures in between the ceiling and floors,” says Larry Carter, a tenant on McGowan Street. “[My landlord] says ‘oh, you’re just missing shingles,’ but no, there’s a hole in my roof. He won’t fix it.”
Carter’s property is owned by Gary Thomas. Thomas also owned 426 McGowan St. before it was torn down by the Summit County Land Bank, a reutilization corporation that aims to strengthen neighborhoods and communities hit hard by abandonment, blight and foreclosures.
Patrick Bravo, the Land Bank’s executive director, says landlords like Thomas are all too common in neighborhoods like Middlebury.
“Those landlords are a problem,” Bravo says. “We’ve had problems in some of the properties Mr. Thomas owns where we’ve had stoves heating up by themselves. Properties with no front door or no windows on the second floor.”
“The folks who were living in [that] housing don’t oftentimes have a lot of options,” Bravo adds. “They don’t have great credit scores to just be able to quickly move to another apartment. They’re in those properties and putting up with that for a reason, and they’re being taken advantage of.”
In 2018, the Land Bank acquired scores of Thomas’ properties, with a collective tax delinquency approaching $1 million.
Even when state and local agencies know about landlords like Thomas, Bravo says there are few legal options to keep landlords like him from acquiring more properties.
Thomas could not be reached for comment.
Carter is at a loss. He thinks his rental could eventually be torn down — but he doesn’t care to stick around and find out.
“I just need to move to a better neighborhood,” he says.
Ebony Simmons, who lives a few doors down from Carter, agrees. She’s been at her home for about two years — “two years too long,” she says.
She was happy to see 426 McGowan St. go. As the mother of a 9-year-old boy, she was anxious about the dangers the dilapidated house posed to her child.
“It’s better because I can see my son walk to the store [across the lot]. It’s better that way,” Simmons says. “I don’t know if people was inside there doing meth. I didn’t let my son go down that way. There’s no telling what a kid could get into.”
The safety concerns about surrounding houses mount on top of health concerns in her own rental property: Mice have eaten through her son’s new school clothes.
Simmons says when she complained about the rodents, she was told they were her responsibility.
“I’d rather just move,” Simmons says.
The home Simmons rents was built in 1889. According to Summit County property tax records, the property is owned by Grandesco Real Estate, LLC. The company acquired Simmons’s home in 2018 and has been charged a $100 penalty for failing to register the two-unit property as a rental with the county every year since.
According to the Summit County Fiscal Office, Simmons’s home still isn’t registered with the county — though it was registered in the City of Akron’s rental registry in 2019.
But a second database of rental properties maintained by the city lists an owner identification number for Simmons’ property that names Eco Realty Investments, LLC as the owner.
Ohio business filings identify Sarah Melton as the incorporator of Grandesco Real Estate. The Devil Strip reached someone by that name who denied any affiliation with the company. Zac Hoyt, who is listed as the owner of Eco Realty Investments, LLC, did not reply to requests for comment.
Many landlords work with property managers, who deal with tenants directly, adding a layer of friction between tenants and landlords. At times, prospective landlords invest with companies that offer to help them purchase properties as well as manage them.
Further, property investors can bury their identities beneath LLCs, making it difficult to untangle who owns a given home.
For tenants, multiple layers of ownership and management can make it difficult to know who should be responsible for addressing health or safety hazards in their homes.
What will it take to bring housing back to Middlebury?
Areas where teardowns are concentrated are at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting new development. For-profit developers typically pass over neighborhoods like Middlebury and opt for investments in neighborhoods where home values are already stable.
Nonprofit developers such as Habitat for Humanity can subsidize construction with federal funds and volunteer builders. But if a for-profit developer can build the same home in another neighborhood or suburb and turn a profit, they will do so, says Rochelle Sibbio, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Summit County.
“I’m at a loss from the time I put a shovel in the ground and dig that hole,” Sibbio says. “I know I’m losing money. A for-profit builder is not going to come into neighborhoods like that because they know they’ll go bankrupt.”
Habitat for Humanity of Summit County, has built five new homes in Middlebury since 1986 and completed 27 home repairs since 2010, when they started their renovation program. Sibbio says Habitat loses at least $20,000 with every house it builds.
“A lot of these neighborhoods are at a tipping point,” Sibbio says. “A lot of demolition and blight took place, but they aren’t quite ready to be redeveloped.”
Further, she says, many families buying homes through Habitat choose to leave the neighborhood.
“Habitat families are eligible to select a piece of property, and if we own land outside the city of Akron — in Twinsburg, Stow, Copley, other parts of Summit County — those lots get picked first over lots in Akron,” she says. “The biggest reason is they want to raise their kids in a safe neighborhood with a yard and good schools.”
Akron is attempting to slow flight to the suburbs through housing initiatives like a 15-year tax abatement. That policy dismisses property taxes on new construction and significant renovations.
In Middlebury, the nonprofit East Akron Neighborhood Development Corporation applied for a tax abatement on the Middlebury Commons, a 40-unit apartment complex for older adults. During a 2020 interview with The Devil Strip, the developer called the tax abatement “incredibly helpful.”
Generally, though, new home construction that qualifies for the tax abatement has been concentrated in neighborhoods where housing markets are more stable.
Although certain major home renovations qualify for the tax abatement, most basic home repair projects like new roofs or siding do not. The city does, however, offer the City of Akron Minor Home Repair Program, which targets low-income, elderly homeowners or homeowners with disabilities to assist with repairs such as new roofs, new furnaces and plumbing and electrical updates.
Nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and The Well Community Development Corporation are trying to help stabilize Middlebury’s housing market by helping homeowners repair their aging homes or rehabilitating existing properties themselves.
The Well is in the midst of renovating 60 homes in 60 months, an initiative they plan to complete later this year. They rent out 35 of those units and have sold two of the completed homes at cost of the projects.
“One of our arguments is to rehab first,” says Reuben Auck, The Well’s housing manager. “With our rehabs, we believe that, for the most part, we could sell and recoup those funds, then put that back into the next project.”
The Well will break ground in a few months on a duplex, their first new build in the neighborhood. The project is heavily funded by federal dollars. Auck does not believe it would be likely that new homes would be built without government support.
Of the duplex project, Auck says, “we’re trying to maintain the identity of the neighborhood… We want to make it feel like it belongs there. A lot of times in low-income neighborhoods, you can go by and pick out who built what at a reduced cost. We didn’t want the neighbors to feel like it didn’t belong on the street.”
Auck, who lives in Middlebury with his wife, acknowledges his neighbors can’t help but feel hopeless about housing conditions in their neighborhood. But through his work, he wants to bring hope back.
“We view everything as being very much intertwined and linked. Housing is just one of our three initiatives: restoring housing, creating economy, supporting place,” he says, citing other programs like working in schools, supporting food entrepreneurs and more. “We try to do all three of those things for our neighborhood, and we think that’s the only way to restore the hope.”