Will "Opportunity Corridor" Property Owners Get Screwed?

Among the most oft-repeated assurances about the Opportunity Corridor, is the refrain that the some 80 property owners who will be forced out of their homes and businesses will be “fairly compensated.”

Tecora Grey's house will be seized by the state of Ohio for the "Opportunity Corridor" project. Will she get a fair deal?

This is sort of a half truth at best though. What the displaced families and businesses are actually guaranteed though eminent domain, in fact, is “fair market value.” That does have the word fair in it.

But is it really fair, as most of us would understand it? And I think as most of us would understand fairness — when the government is seizing your house — is that you would be made whole, i.e. you would be compensated enough that you could purchase a new home of similar condition and move into it without major financial setback. (It would be great if people were also compensated for the stress and inconvenience of the whole ordeal as well, in my opinion, but for the moment let’s leave that thought aside.)

So, that above idea of “fairness” is a very different thing than fair market value. And here’s why: Cleveland’s housing market has collapsed, and this is particularly true in very poor black neighborhoods on the east side — as are all of the ones impacted by this project.

The “fair market value” of homes in the “Opportunity Corridor” area, we all sort of intuitively understand, is approximately peanuts. Just for funzies, I looked up the value of a random property in one of the neighborhoods where the most seizures will take place — Slavic Village by East 55th. So the Auditor’s office wouldn’t give me a certified value for 2916 East 57th Street — but it would tell me that the house last sold in 2009 for $6,000.

Let’s say you have lived in one of these neighborhoods for 30 years. You own your home outright. No mortgage. The neighborhood been going downhill, hey maybe your house has been too — afterall, why would you spend money repairing your house when it’s under threat of demolition. If the state of Ohio takes your house and cuts you a check for $6,000, you are made much worse off than you were before — you have not been made whole. If you’re an old lady, moving your stuff could take a good 15 percent of the price. You cannot find and purchase a house that is move in ready and in decent condition and move your stuff into it, transfer all your utilities, etc., reasonably for less $6,000.

We all know that though. So, my big question is: why didn’t the leaders of this project choose to negotiate with the property owners in good faith, rather than choose to take their homes with eminent domain? As fraught as this whole project is — taking 64 black, low-income families’ homes in 2013 — you’d think the least project sponsors would want to do is remove any doubt they’re screwing little old ladies on their home seizure deal and potentially leaving them homeless.

And, let’s be perfectly clear, they could have avoided any suggestion thereof by FAIRLY NEGOTIATING WITH THE PROPERTY OWNERS. So why didn’t they? I don’t know exactly, but here are a few theories. Both I really think hinge on some level of racism.

First of all, does anyone really think that the state of Ohio would take on a project that involved seizing 64 white, affluent families’ homes in 2013? I have done some informal research. I have not been able to find a single instance where such a large number of white families’ homes were taken for a road project anywhere in the country. The most similar project I could find was in St. Louis, in some relatively low-income white suburbs. And local politicians said they would not stand for any more than five homes being seized.

I asked an Ohio Department of Transportation engineer when the last time the state of Ohio seized this many properties from any populations, black or white. And he told me “geez, probably not since the interstate era,” which by that he means they haven’t done anything like this since the 1960s. (And by the way, everyone who is thoughtful about it is terribly embarrassed that we did do things like that in the 1960s.)

So we could argue, would they even be seizing these people’s houses if they were white? Which I would assert the answer is: you’re joking, right? Now here’s where a Clevelander is going to chime in and say something to the effect of: “those neighborhoods suck anyway, we’re doing people a favor by forcing them to move out of their homes.” Even top people involved in this project make statements like that. Which, first of all, we all acknowledge the impacted neighborhoods have experienced some disinvestment. But it’s REALLY patronizing and insensitive to assume you know better about where someone should live than that person themselves. Furthermore, a lot of the negative perceptions about these neighborhoods are grounded in and perpetuated by racism.

But even if you don’t agree with that, let me continue. Again, I really think at the very least, if the state of Ohio were attempting to seize 80 properties from white people of some means, they would at least offered to fairly negotiate with the owners. One reason is simply tactical: people with means who are presented with eminent domain papers are likely to make a stink — sue — and that could delay the project. In Norwood, Ohio — an inner-ring Cincinnati suburb — homeowners fought an eminent domain case for 10 years.

In that sense, I think this eminent domain decision was strategic: they sort of understood that the people being impacted by this project are probably of too little means to put up much of a legal battle against eminent domain. And so they used people’s vulnerability against them — which is textbook horrible, opposite of the way public institutions are supposed to behave.

The other, more transparent, argument for eminent domain, is that if the state did have to negotiate fairly with the property owners, the state would be at a disadvantage in negotiations because a handful of hold outs could demand outrageous sums of money. So eminent domain is a money-saving tactic. Again, this argument, while more reasonable on its face, is also totally abhorrent, though, I think.

The truth is, it wouldn’t be that expensive to negotiate with the property owners: treat them like respectable citizens. This is a wildly expensive project — $331 million for just three miles. And so far, the state has really spared no expense, especially when it came to a question of whether suburban commuters would be subjected to any delays. More than $35 million will be spent just on planning this project. The “flyover” feature added in Slavic Village — a feature I have a hard time understanding, frankly — alone probably added $100 million to the cost of this project and ODOT didn’t blink and eye. Because adding $100 million to the project cost was preferable to removing a lane or so at East 55th and having traffic “bottleneck.” Where suburban residents, their convenience, is concerned, project engineers have spared no expense.

So why are they suddenly so cheap when it comes to fairly compensating these 64 families and roughly a dozen businesses that are most negatively impacted by this project and who are also super vulnerable? I really don’t get it. Do they love bad PR? Where project designers trying to make these plans as distasteful as possible? Who made this call? Mr. Burns?

I did some math. Even if they had to pay every homeowner $200,000 — let’s call that a guess on an average price — it would wind up costing the state about $12.8 million. That’s roughly 3.8 percent of the project price. This project’s price will rise more than 3.8 percent in the next six months for a reason none of us will care enough about to even investigate. A rounding error, is what that is.

I mean really, guys. Greater Cleveland Partnership? Joe Roman? Mayor Frank Jackson? Hero economy savers of all stripes, I ask you this: Of all the consulting firms and engineering firms and asphalt contractors that are going to get rich off this project, did we really have to nickle and dime 64 low-income families in the process?

Only. In. Cleveland.

–Angie Schmitt 😉 xoxo

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