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Falling Revenue Led To Cleveland Tenants Organization Shutdown, Board President Says

Board president Cheri Smith in the basement of the office Cleveland Tenants Organization shares with Neighborhood Housing Services in Slavic Village. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Board president Cheri Smith in the basement of the office Cleveland Tenants Organization shares with Neighborhood Housing Services in Slavic Village.

The nonprofit Cleveland Tenants Organization formed more than 40 years ago to help renters in the city resolve disputes with landlords.

This week, the group announced that it will shut down. Money isn’t coming in like it used to, and the board of directors no longer saw a way forward.

Board president Cheri Smith said the CTO leaves its offices March 5. The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland is taking over the group’s rental information hotline.

Smith said one major funding source, which she declined to name, changed the way it gave out money. CTO was no longer on the priority list, she said, and less money was coming in from local government contracts.

The CTO reported receiving $444,207 in grants, gifts and contributions in 2011, according to public tax filings. Smith said the budget last year was $180,000. 

Smith talked with ideastream this week at the CTO’s headquarters in Slavic Village.

On Cleveland Tenants Organization’s dwindling revenue

“It’s been significant, and we’re not the only nonprofit that’s feeling that pinch. It’s been going that way for a while. Just, we lost some significant funding contracts, we lost some significant funding grants over the last several years. So we were looking for other ways to, you know, kind of fill that gap, and we weren’t able to come up with those ways.”

On whether funders wanted to support specific programs rather than general operations

“Absolutely our experience. We received funding for specific programs, rental eviction, rental information, lead programming, but those are all programs. Nowhere did we have overhead expenses covered. We don’t have individual contracts that say, ‘Go ahead and run your day-to-day, but also do the programs.’ And that took a big toll on what we did get in.”

On the difficulty of fundraising

“There are plenty of good organizations that need your dollars, and we are one of those organizations…When we were in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, people were talking about housing, and housing instability, and safe housing for folks. They’re not talking like that anymore. Now we’re focused on lead. Which is great, and we need to be focused on lead. But that’s a very labor-intensive program to administer…it’s a bit difficult to spread those dollars around.”

On the sorts of calls the CTO received from tenants

“We have renters calling us because landlords won’t make repairs, or they’ve withheld their security deposit. Kind of everyday things. And we’re talking about low- and moderate-income folks who don’t have the ability to withstand a landlord holding back their security deposit, or not repairing their washer and dryer, or even having running water in some instances. They often feel like they have no other resource, or no opportunity to be heard, and how do they get the landlord to respond to them? CTO was that lifeline for them.”

On whether there’s enough affordable housing in Cleveland that’s safe from environmental hazards like lead or mold

“My personal opinion? No, there’s not. There are plenty of homes out there, vacant, abandoned, run down, dilapidated, pick your adjective, they’re out there. But there is a shortage of affordable, sustainable, healthy housing for individuals in the low- and moderate-income brackets. It’s absolutely a, dare I say, crisis for the city.”

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.