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CMHA Applies A Second Time For Grant To Rebuild Cleveland's Woodhill Homes

An architectural rendering shows a new building planned near Buckeye Road and Woodland Avenue. [City Architecture / CMHA]
An architectural rendering shows an early phase of Woodhill Homes' redevelopment.

For the second year in a row, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) and the City of Cleveland have applied for a $35 million federal grant to rebuild the Woodhill Homes public housing neighborhood on the city's East Side.

The application, submitted Dec. 16, refines and expands the vision that CMHA submitted in 2019, said Michael Shea, CMHA's director of modernization and development.

The 2019 application was named one of five finalists nationally but was not selected for funding by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

"If you look back [to 2019], we were coming off of a two-year planning process and trying to put that into a grant application," Shea said. "The refinement of our plans from concept to reality is absolutely the biggest thing that's changed from last year to this year."

Specifically, Shea pointed to two building projects close to, but not within, the existing Woodhill Homes neighborhood. CMHA received tax credit financing that should allow a 2021 groundbreaking on those sites, he said.

HUD awards Choice Neighborhood grants according to a scoring system. Proposals get points if they show an ability to finance and develop parts of an overall plan independent of HUD grant funding.

Click to expand: A site plan shows a concept for the intersection of Woodland Avenue and Buckeye Road. [City Architecture / CMHA]

HUD's scoring system also rewards redevelopments that mix a significant number of market-rate units with affordable ones, on the grounds that a high concentration of poverty in one area isolates residents from economic opportunity.

Shea said that element of the plan, too, has been revised in 2020.

"We have a more robust [income] mix than we had in the first round," he said. The mix will include public housing units; units that rent on a sliding scale for lower- and middle-income households; and market-rate units, Shea said.

CMHA has long vowed it will replace all 487 existing public housing units at Woodhill on a one-for-one basis. Any market-rate or non-public housing units would be in addition to the 487 subsidized units.

Plans to connect Woodhill's streets to those in the surrounding neighborhood remain in tact, Shea said. At present, Woodhill has a different street grid from the surrounding neighborhood and is separated from it by a fence around the property. New parks and green space are also part of the plan.

Existing streets and sidewalks at Woodhill Homes are disconnected from the surrounding neighborhood. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

CMHA also has committed to connecting residents with new social services and amenities, ranging from adult mental health counseling to a new preschool. Most of the services would be provided not by CMHA, but by outside organizations and agencies.

Reflecting Residents' Needs

Edward Goetz, a professor of urban planning at the University of Minnesota, has studied public housing reform for several decades.

He said while he wasn't familiar with the specifics of CMHA's plan, its success in helping improve people's lives will depend on how well the agency has incorporated existing residents' needs.

"We've been doing these kinds of public housing redevelopments for many years now," he said. "And too often we've been doing this without putting the residents first — without listening to them and putting their needs above a quick makeover of the neighborhood."

He said his research has shown that existing residents sometimes are not able to move into the new units — "oftentimes because there are new residency requirements or tenant screening criteria that they don't meet." For example, some agencies screen out residents based on past criminal records or poor credit histories.

CMHA said it will begin surveying residents in 2021 to determine who is interested in a new unit at Woodhill Homes. The agency said it has not yet determined how or when it will assign the units, or what will happen if demand outstrips supply during the first few phases.

Short-Term Improvements

Current Woodhill resident Marilyn Burns said she'd like to hear more about what can be done to improve Woodhill Homes as it exists now.

"We talk, talk, talk," Burns said. "When are some of these talks going to be put into actionable things?"

She said she understood the need to look forward, but it will be months or years before most people at Woodhill are likely to move into new units. In the meantime, many residents have complained of outdated plumbing, outdoor staircases that are challenging for the elderly or those in wheelchairs to navigate, and too few events to bring neighbors together.

"What can we do within the next 30 days? The next 60 days, the next 90 days?" Burns asked.

Woodhill resident Marilyn Burns welcomes plans for the future, but would also like to see changes in the short term. [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]

Jeffery Patterson, head of CMHA, said the agency was aware of the short-term needs and has begun to address some of them. He pointed to the planned opening next year of an on-site laundry facility. The nonprofit Digital C also recently started providing affordable home Internet plans for residents of Woodhill and nearby neighborhoods, which have experienced decades of digital redlining.

"It's incumbent upon us as a housing authority to continue to work with residents, continue to have that dialogue about how we can make their situation the best situation that we can for the time that they're in it," Patterson said.

A Future Advocate?

A potential good omen for the plan's prospects is the nomination last week of Cleveland Rep. Marcia Fudge to be the next HUD secretary.

The Woodhill team has not met with her since her nomination, Shea said, "but we're all excited and proud of her for her appointment."

Shea said if CMHA does not get the grant this year, it will apply a third time in 2021.

"Absolutely, that's an easy one," he said. "We feel like every year, every iteration — if more are needed — we're going to be farther along and we're going to be able to show to HUD and their team how committed our community is to this project."

Patterson said even if the grant never comes through, the agency will continue to search for other sources of financing.

"Whether we receive the grant or we don't receive the grant, we're going to push ahead with this," Patterson said.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.