Cleveland City Council holds off on approving Mayor Frank Jackson's COVID relief spending plan

map of ARPA funded areas
The highlighted areas in this map would be eligible for ARPA funding under Mayor Frank Jackson's plan, the areas without any color would not be eligible. [Cleveland City Council]

During a long Tuesday meeting, members of Cleveland City Council brought up several concerns with Mayor Frank Jackson’s proposal to spend $80 million of new federal COVID relief money on economic development projects.

Those concerns led the Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee to hold off a vote on the overall $122 million legislation introduced to council in October. The second half of the city's American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation is expected to arrive next year.

Economic development officials presented details of their plan for the first time to council Tuesday. It includes grant programs to help homeowners with repairs and prospective homeowners with down payments and mortgage loan guarantees.

There is money for small business development and storefront repairs, and money for private developers to build affordable housing and turn unused public school buildings into apartments.

“What needs to be stressed is the idea that we have one-time money. We want to build off of the assets and the investments we have been making,” said Community Development Director Michiel Wackers. “With this amount of money, we can’t effectively serve the whole city. We can stand up programs and partnerships that will then focus and start here and then expand outward.”

The investments will focus on areas that were included in programs launched by the Jackson administration over the years, like the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and the Middle Neighborhoods Initiative.

Other already developed areas like University Circle, Downtown Cleveland and West 25th Street will also be a target of funding.

But at least two councilmembers opposed the plan because it targets certain areas for development, while leaving others out.

“This doesn’t scream equity to me,” said Ward 3 Councilmember Kerry McCormack. “The entire southeast side of the city is left out. How does that happen?”

Ward 17 Councilman Charles Slife joined McCormack in criticizing the mayor’s plan.

“I’m not asking for much,” Slife said. “I want residents of Ward 17 to be able to participate in a home repair program. And I’m being told looking at this map that’s not possible, and it’s frustrating to me.”

During a meeting of council’s special working group on ARPA spending Monday, council heard presentations with alternatives to the mayor’s plan.

Advocates who submitted proposals to council, including the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, asked for different amounts than what the administration proposed.

Lead Safe Cleveland, which was created with public funding after council passed lead paint restrictions in 2019, asked for $17.5 million to continue its lead remediation work. The administration’s proposal earmarked $5 million.

Cleveland Neighborhood Progress is calling for increased funding for several line items covered by Jackson’s proposal. For example, CNP proposes $6.6 million for rental assistance for 3,000 households or 2,000 security deposits, compared to the $4.5 million proposed by the administration to cover 750 households.

In total, CNP is calling for $18.2 million in ARPA funding to address housing needs, compared to the $12.7 million asked for by the administration.

It’s not clear whether those alternate proposals would focus on certain neighborhoods or go citywide.

Ward 8 Councilman Mike Polensek criticized the amount of money going to private developers. The administration is proposing support for developers who want to turn the Warner & Swasey factory in Midtown into apartments, and several projects at closed Cleveland Metropolitan School District buildings.

“We cannot at this point keep giving funds, grant funds, to private developers who are making money off these deals,” Polensek said. “At the same time we have countless families in all of our neighborhoods who would like to buy homes who can’t get mortgage assistance.”

There was no vote on Jackson’s proposal at Tuesday’s meeting. Several councilmembers expressed an interested in proposing amendments. Those will be introduced at Monday’s special working group on ARPA spending and could be voted on as early as that afternoon’s Finance Committee meeting.

Incoming Council President Blaine Griffin said council is going to have to pass something soon, whether it’s Jackson’s proposal or an amended version. He proposed focusing on projects that could be done citywide.

“I don’t want to throw up an alarm to anybody, but if we’re going to keep beating this thing like this then we might need to take individual projects off the table altogether,” Griffin said. “If we’re going to keep having these conversations about who’s getting what, we could keep doing this for the next year.”

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