By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.
– Matthew Desmond
Cherry Street in Downtown Toledo reveals a troubling boundary between glistening prosperity and pathetic poverty.
On the “sunny” side of the street we see the golden possibilities of sustained economic investment and support: elite visitors from around the globe enjoying the lap of luxury in its chic hotels; pristine corporate headquarters where thousands work, a myriad of swanky restaurants, and fine dining options; a dazzling riverfront with a brand-spanking-new Metropark, a vibrant and peppy Warehouse District, a world-class minor league baseball park, and much more!
However, on the “cloudy” side of the street, in contrast, lies Greenbelt Place, a/k/a The Cherrywoods, an island of poor and mostly black low-income families who have been ignored and cut off from its mainstream neighbors. A victim of benign neglect and disinvestment, the dysfunctional housing project is where landlords profit, but tenants trapped in poverty navigate their fragile lives by attempting to get by on low-wage jobs or public assistance. Most live on $2 or less per day after rent.
Landlords know that renters’ precarious financial condition prevents them from consistently paying the full payment of rents on time. So, the Cherrywoods are decrepit and in chronic disrepair, with broken plumbing, inoperable furnaces and broken doors and windows. The unhealthy apartments overrun with mice, mold, roaches, and ants play a vital role in the nihilism that has led to 8,000 annual police calls, overdose deaths, gangs, domestic violence, child abuse and high incarceration rates in the neighborhood.
Unlike mainstream populations, a disproportionately large proportion of the adults here are unemployed (full time), lack a high school diploma or G.E.D., or don’t have a driver’s license.
For certain, a key component of social and economic inequality is housing policy. And, the lack of investment in housing and neighborhoods creates desperate and dysfunctional lives, the disturbing consequences of housing instability and housing quality.
Yet, federal, state, and local governments have seldom intervened. As a result, there has been minimal, if any, proactive enforcement of building code violations or support for affordable housing projects for the homeless.
Grassroots action by a group of six to seven courageous residents who stared down threats to talk with Tina Butts of the Movement. Butts contacted Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken. Gerken approached Councilwoman Vanice Williams, U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and Roz Clemens from the City of Toledo. As a result, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge, fast-tracked an inspection that failed the project. The Apartments, somehow, had received passing grades under the previous Presidential administration.
How to address the generation of disinvestment is a question that the politicians are currently struggling with.
It is unlikely that the Cherrywood’s owner, living in San Antonio, Texas, would find value in spending the $6 million required to reinvest in the existing property. Indeed, it has been profitable to capitalize on people in poverty who cannot pay by refusing to provide upkeep and maintenance.
Neither is tearing down the project a reasonable option. Demolition would scatter residents across the city, where they would lose the necessary supports and kinship networks they have been using to survive. Further, there would be no place for the residents to move to. “Besides,” says Gerken, “if it were possible to get 376 vouchers for the number of people there, or 176 for families, there’s no housing stock to put them in. I don’t have 176 landlords out there.”
Nevertheless, The Movement and the YWCA have organized a blitz fair at the Greenbelt on October 30 to initiate a presence for social services. The groups will provide vaccinations. They will also give away flat-screen T.V.’s, laptop computers, cell phones, gift cards, and other complimentary items to establish a relationship with residents.
That is an admirable start. However, much more must be done.
Politicians must first understand that they cannot address social and economic inequality without expanding revitalization efforts from downtown to distressed neighborhoods.
Therefore, leaders must develop a legislative framework, drastically increase resources, and provide the infrastructure to solve critical housing needs of people of low to moderate-income.
Service providers must also authentically engage with low-income residents and provide the necessary services to improve the quality of their lives. These services must include intensive case management designed to counter the complex dynamics that shape families’ lives and move them toward self-sufficiency.
Finally, most community leaders rightfully believe that residents don’t have the education, finances, and family support to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Yet, we often ask too little of those we serve to help them develop the assurance, determination, and skills needed to become self-sufficient. Yet, charity will not remedy social inequality. Instead, social equity requires setting high standards, such as holding non-disabled tenants responsible for finding work or community service opportunities.
Will that help us turn the corner on social inequality, at last?
“I don’t know,” says Gerken. “But it’s time to recognize the cost of disinvestment. The whole north end is neglected, and I’m guilty of it too. We’re all responsible. Yeah, we can say we probably should’ve woke up earlier, but you wake up when you wake up sometimes. It’s better than not waking up at all. We built up downtown, but we’ve not had a serious investment in the most profound poverty segments.
At the center of this disinvestment happens to be for the last decade, the Cherrywood. It’s everybody’s sin,” Gerken laments.
Commissioner Gerken is correct. And, like all sin, it’s not only those who live in islands of deteriorated and unstable housing who are affected. All of us suffer when society fails to revitalize distressed neighborhoods situated in the shadow of so much success and prosperity.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at firstname.lastname@example.org