A century ago, Akron was the fastest-growing city in the country.
With four major tire manufacturers located in the city, industry and opportunity was attractive. Between 1910 and 1920, the population swelled from 69,000 to 208,000. By 1920, half the tires in the world were produced in Akron.
But after 80 years of leading the nation in rubber production, industry began to sputter to a halt. By 1982, not a single passenger tire was built in the city.
As a result, population numbers were gouged by a third since the 1960s, when the city peaked at 290,000.
Now, Akron has slightly fewer than 200,000 people. But officials have set an ambitious goal: to recoup some of what they’ve lost and grow the city’s population by 26% in just 30 years.
When Dan Horrigan took the mayoral reins from Don Plusquellic in 2016, he set an ambitious goal: get 250,000 people in Akron by 2050.
The reason for setting that goal, aside from the snappy branding of “250,000 by 2050,” is to recoup about half of what Akron had lost.
“When you look at Akron’s trajectory loss, our peak was 290,000 and we’re right around 200,000 now. It’s the idea we could climb more than halfway back to our peak,” says Jason Segedy, Director of Planning and Urban Development. “It is ambitious but view it as a guiding star. Even if we get half that goal, that’s a major win.”
The goal is not simply about bringing people in — it’s also about retention. The city cannot grow without serving the people who already live here, Segedy says, as many Akronites ultimately leave for the suburbs.
So far, the focus is on “stopping the bleeding” before the city can move into meaningful growth, Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development James Hardy adds.
According to census data, the city has not grown since the 1960s, but retention efforts in the last decade appear to be working. Between 2000 and 2010, there was an 8.3% drop in population, translating to about 18,000 residents. But between 2010 and a 2019 estimation (2020 census data is not yet available), there was only a .8% loss, or 2,000 residents.
In an effort to turn retention into growth, the Horrigan administration has identified housing policy as their key strategy.
Development in Akron slowed significantly after the population boom, with 64% of homes in the city built before 1960 and more housing built during the Great Depression than since 2000. In 2015, just 14 new houses were built in Akron.
Much of the city’s remaining housing stock is not only old but in disrepair.
In 2017, the city released Planning to Grow Akron, a report outlining its strategy to stimulate the housing market and attract residents to live in Akron. That report detailed the state of housing, problems facing the market and proposed solutions.
One of the solutions to the downtrodden housing market was a 15-year property tax abatement, which meant residents who built new homes or significant additions did not have to pay any property tax on the home or addition for 15 years.
The program, launched in 2017, is intended to spur population growth by spurring the construction of new housing in the city.
Though the city is forgoing nearly $2 million in property taxes through the program, city officials view it as a success. In contrast to the 14 homes built in 2015, development has since boomed, with approximately 1,800 housing units completed or in the planning, design and construction phases in the last four years.
Home values are rising too, in line with nationwide trends, says Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development James Hardy.
“For the first time in a long time, we’ve seen a significant increase in property values,” Hardy says. “We’re getting more equity in homes that people lost and thought they wouldn’t get back in the 2008 housing process.”
But Hardy and Segedy both acknowledge how much work is left to be done.
A second report, Planning to Grow Akron 2.0, was released May 12. It builds upon the first report, but also addresses gaps and poses more complex problems and solutions. For example, Segedy says the city also needs to focus on rehabilitating old homes as well as building new ones.
“This report focuses on how we can strengthen the housing market to get more investment in capital in homes that are already here in developed neighborhoods that already exist,” he says. “We need to be strategic in how we realign our neighborhoods in a 21st century reality.”
A main task will be to modernize the city’s zoning code. Akron is heavily zoned for single family housing, but Segedy says they want to aim to make neighborhoods more walkable and friendly to duplexes and multifamily houses as well.
Making growth equitable
At the time of the 2017 report, approximately a quarter of the city’s housing was in “great” shape while another quarter was “extremely distressed.” The remaining half was at a tipping point: Older homes in middle-class neighborhoods that needed a boost.
Planning to Grow Akron 2.0 looks at strengthening the market in “middle neighborhoods,” which make up half the city’s housing and are at a “tipping point.” Segedy says by targeting these middle neighborhoods, which are often adjacent to disinvested neighborhoods, conditions will also improve in those surrounding areas.
But each neighborhood faces unique challenges and has individual needs, people working for economic development at the neighborhood level say.
“Even if [the people making policy] live in the same city, each neighborhood has its unique set of challenges,” says Tina Boyes, Executive Director of Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance. “The more we can do that’s engaging residents and improving visual spaces for residents gives folks hope. Those are visual and relational cues that things are looking better.”
Boyes says her neighborhood, categorized as a middle neighborhood in the report, is at a crucial point. Kenmore, which lost 12.7% of its residents in the past two decades according to data from the city, is susceptible to losing families to adjacent suburbs of Barberton and Coventry Township.
The Neighborhood Alliance has worked to revamp Kenmore Boulevard in recent years, branding the neighborhood as an arts and music district with recording studios, music shops and concert venues. Eight new businesses opened on the boulevard in the past year.
Even still, Tina says neighborhoods like hers need substantial city support to be on track for the population growth they want.
Meanwhile in North Hill, unlike many other areas in the city, the neighborhood’s population is growing because of its high refugee resettlement rate. Still, the neighborhood has a higher percentage of renters than average and experiences its own unique set of challenges.
Katie Beck, Executive Director of North Akron Community Development Corporation, says she is concerned about the city’s allocation of resources across the neighborhoods.
“A big problem in this neighborhood, and really all over the city, is the issue of absent landlords,” Beck says. “That needs to be addressed in some way, for sure, because many refugees are being taken advantage of.
“But we also need to find ways to develop new housing for local families to own and build within the city,” she continues. “There’s a lot of immigrant families that want to build new homes in the city but face barriers. There needs to be a more equitable process.”
Both Boyes and Beck agree that trust is crucial in neighborhoods that have faced disinvestment as the city focuses on huge investments in areas like Downtown.
In addition, they call for more inclusive housing policies that won’t leave some people, such as renters, behind.
The tax abatement quality may be attractive to developers, but unless a landlord in a new building reduces rent as a result, renters are seeing few if any benefits from programs like the tax abatement.
Meanwhile, data from the U.S. Census Bureau found between 2000 and 2018, median rent in Akron jumped 48% while incomes rose just 29%. The city plans to address wealth distribution and equitable homeownership with the newest housing strategy report.
“Everything we’re doing under Planning to Grow Akron 2.0 boils down to: Are we creating wealth for existing residents who historically have not been able to access it?” Hardy says. “There has been a systemic exclusion of many residents — particularly residents of color — in property ownership. That is still the fastest and most effective way to build generational wealth.
“We are trying to correct a century of systemically racist housing policy,” he says. “There’s going to be only so much the city can do on the equity issue without the state and federal government coming in and transforming the way they deal with housing.”
Despite the challenges, everyone who spoke to The Devil Strip seemed optimistic about the goal — given caution, thoughtfulness and inclusion in how to achieve that growth.
“It’s going to be hard work,” Boyes says of the 2050 goal. “The investments we’re making right now over the next 3–5 years are going to define what Akron looks like in 10, 20, 30 years. We need to invest in points of opportunity throughout the entire city.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at email@example.com.
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