5,300 vacant lots in Cleveland's close-lying suburbs could accommodate new homes | Crain's Cleveland Business

2022-06-15 22:25:45 By : Ms. Jade Cao

In Cleveland's close-lying suburbs, more than 5,300 vacant lots could accommodate new single-family homes.

That's a headline finding from a recent analysis by the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, which identified empty land and regulatory hurdles for homebuilders in 19 communities. The resulting report highlights a hodgepodge of zoning across the region, where land-use rules in many places clash with the nature of existing neighborhoods.

"In many cases, we could not build what we tore down," said Jennifer Kuzma, director of the Northeast Ohio First Suburbs Consortium.

The government-led advocacy group commissioned the study, with partial funding from the Cuyahoga Land Bank. The research sets the table for follow-up reports on everything from model zoning language to financial and policy incentives tied to new housing.

Using mapping programs, the partners identified 5,320 likely infill lots scattered across inner-ring communities. Many of those parcels are on the East Side, in communities hard-hit by the foreclosure crisis in the early 2000s and scarred by demolitions.

East Cleveland has the largest concentration of potential housing sites, with 1,192 lots in established residential areas. Euclid ranked second, with 661 parcels, followed by Garfield Heights and Maple Heights. Cleveland Heights had 406 such lots. Shaker Heights had 226.

Those properties are not necessarily available for development today. Some are publicly owned, while others are in private hands. But all of them sit in single-family districts, are easily accessible from the street and are similar in shape and size to surrounding residential parcels.

Yet many of the lots don't meet municipal zoning requirements for minimum lot size or width. That's a function of zoning codes created in the 1940s, '50s and '60s and modified over the years, long after most of the existing homes were built. And that mismatch adds time and costs to deals for builders, who have to obtain variances — exceptions to the rules.

Suburban officials have been talking about those challenges for a few years. But the hot housing market is adding more urgency to the conversations.

"As the housing market began to pick up, there were communities that were seeing proposals and requests for infill housing for the first time in a long time. And they came to realize that the homes that communities wanted to see could not be built under current regulations," said Patrick Hewitt, the county planning commission's manager for strategy and development.

Across the region, new-home construction still has not rebounded to the levels builders saw before the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009. Construction is particularly anemic in the inner-ring suburbs, where builders delivered only 14 new detached, single-family homes in 2020, based on the commission's research.

That year, crews razed 130 homes in those communities — 71 of them in East Cleveland.

From 2010 to 2020, workers knocked down more than two homes in Cleveland's nearby suburbs for every one they erected. Stripping out East Cleveland from the numbers, demolition still exceeded new construction.

Now tear-downs have plateaued, though, and cities are exploring ways to rebuild.

"The conversation about the inner-ring suburbs being the place to be was really coming out of the pandemic and people being at home more often," said Patrick Grogan-Myers, Euclid's new planning director and the former director of economic development for Maple Heights. "So then the question was, 'How do we, as inner-ring communities, position ourselves to welcome new residents?'"

Public officials hope to boost owner-occupancy at a time when prices are climbing, the supply of existing homes is at a record low and investors are crowding into the market. Modern zoning is one way that communities can appeal to builders, by creating a more streamlined and predictable approval process for projects, the report suggests.

"There's no one-size-fits-all solution," Grogan-Myers said. "It's really taking inventory of what you have. This analysis really helped us do this."

Maple Heights already tweaked its zoning code in response to the findings, to allow new construction on vacant residential parcels that don't meet the city's minimum lot sizes or width requirements. County planners found that 72% of lots in single-family districts in Maple Heights were too small, while 86% were too narrow.

Now builders can erect new homes on such properties without seeking variances, as long as they can meet requirements related to the spacing between a house and the lot lines.

The Cuyahoga Land Bank, formally called the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corp., finished two modular homes in Maple Heights last year. That project, on three lots where old homes were razed in 2011, 2015 and 2016, was the first single-family construction in the city in more than a decade, Grogan-Myers said.

One house sold for $217,000. The other fetched $187,700, said Dennis Roberts, the land bank's director of programs and property management. Now other builders are eying city-owned lots and privately owned properties in Maple Heights for single-family construction.

The land bank, a quasi-governmental organization, also is building or planning homes in Cleveland, South Euclid and Warrensville Heights. Roberts hopes the county planning commission's research, and a series of follow-up reports, will lead to developer-friendly codes that still protect communities' interests.

"It's important to recognize that cities have come together to fund and support this type of research, because it sort of implies a willingness to solve a challenging problem — which isn't a given," he said.

The First Suburbs Consortium has signed a contract with the planning commission to continue the work, going beyond data analysis to recommendations. The group expects to present its findings to a Cuyahoga County Council committee later this month.

"This is just such a great baby step for us and really allows us to tackle more things with a regional lens in a very implementable kind of way," Kuzma said.

Frank Amato, a builder working in the inner-ring suburbs, said that navigating the zoning process in many cities can be cumbersome. But public officials are helpful and willing to explain the system. He's encountered challenges with architectural review boards, though, where housing standards can add thousands of dollars to a project on a tight budget.

His company, Amato Homes of Walton Hills, is working in Euclid and Maple Heights. He's also planning up to 18 single-family homes in Cleveland Heights. Those houses generally are priced at less than $240,000 and built on city land-bank lots, in communities that offer property-tax abatement for buyers.

Amato, who grew up in Garfield Heights, is encouraged that public officials are looking at outdated zoning codes and exploring ways to encourage new residential construction. The city of Cleveland also has been working toward a replacement for its antiquated code.

"I think there's a huge need for it," Amato said. "What better way to revitalize those neighborhoods and communities, by bringing new housing in there? When I'm building in those towns, you've got to think, too, what that does for the local economy. Because the guys are buying lunch there, they're running to get gas, they're stopping at Home Depot."

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