Cleveland , United States

Dream Neighbourhoods: City Innovation in Refugee Housing

City of Cleveland

June 7, 2016

Community leaders, nonprofit groups and public officials weave refugee housing into plans for revitalizing derelict neighbourhoods.

reimagining clevelandThis is the year where refugee housing contributes to the economic revitalization of a Cleveland community. Three City Councillors have come together to create a “Dream Neighborhood” that spans their city wards. It’s an area hard hit by the housing crisis and has had a difficult time recovering.

For the past year, the Councillors have worked on a plan to provide affordable housing, social supports and community inclusion and economic opportunities for refugees settling in Cleveland. They’re not looking for simple neighborhood improvement, but transformation If they succeed, they won’t only improve existing conditions but also help refugees with the kind of fresh start few receive.

According to one of the project originators, Councillor Joe Cimperman (now President of Global Cleveland): “The goal is to make Cleveland the No. 1 welcoming city for newcomers and refugees within the next five years. They will bring new life to neighborhoods. And the neighborhoods will bring new life to them.”

Housing as the foundation

The approach is fairly simple. Rehabilitate housing in a neighbourhood, bring people the community and economy need, work to ensure they have the supports necessary to thrive and contribute. A simple idea, a massive undertaking. But not a new one for Cleveland.

For years, Cleveland has been rehabilitating empty houses for new use by home owners, tenants or investors.

Derelict, foreclosed, vacant houses are handed over to a local land bank, or community nonprofit. They’re renovated, rehabilitated (“rehabbed”) and sold as new housing. Since 2010, 100 homes have been rehabbed in the proposed Dream Neighborhood. Hundreds more have been rehabbed across Cleveland. There are over 140 more houses ready to be rehabbed in the Dream Neighbourhood area. 140 refugee families welcomed with new homes as they start over.

Initial goals are modest, to rehabilitate 20 homes by the end of 2016.

“Rehabbers” are not necessarily developers. They can be individuals or organizations (including refugee-resettlement agencies) that purchase and rehabilitate vacant, foreclosed and abandoned homes. It’s an important distinction that illustrates the community-based approach core to the creation of the Dream Neighborhood.

In the Dream Neighborhood, necessary community and social supports are in place. There will a concerted effort to ensure that new refugee families access the rehabbed houses. Much work has been done to prepare and help the local community become agents of welcome.

Location, location, location

Locating the Dream Neighborhood in an increasingly diverse community with existing supports is key.

The Dream Neighborhood is located around a central focal point, the Thomas Jefferson Newcomers Academy, where over 500 students from 19 nationalities speak over 25 languages. Opened in 2011, the school serves all English language learning students entering the Cleveland school system. Immigrant students spend their first year in a supported cultural and English immersion experience catering to their specific needs.

An already diverse community around the school that calls itself International Village, the Dream Neighborhood will intentionally create a thriving refugee-centric community. Refugee families will settle, they will be supported with housing and other programs. Their children will start at Thomas Jefferson Newcomers Academy and continue in schools in the area. The families themselves will grow roots and become active members of the neighborhood.

As refugees always have, they will contribute to the community. Brian Upton of Refugee Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland says: “They are not takers. They are not a drain on our community. They are very entrepreneurial.”

Welcoming communities

Jefferson Newcomers principalHousing is the initial starting point, but other services, jobs, and a welcoming community are key (PDF). “Empty homes, once a source of blight, will be filled with families walking their children to school. Families who want to garden with their neighbors in the 11 existing community gardens. Welcome Wagons to help bridge the gap of unfamiliarity for newly arrived individuals to Cleveland. We are focusing on more than just filling empty homes but also the vacant commercial real estate in the neighborhood. Opening doors with development to help families have increased employment opportunities. To fill this once densely and even more diversely populated neighborhood with an abundance of possibilities for growth.”

Many local services and service providers are essential to make this happen. Lead proponent Cleveland City Councilman Brian Cummins provides a comprehensive overview of the planning, supports and vision for the Dream Neighborhood. Key, he says, is the “unprecedented collaboration between government, non-profit, for-profit and faith-based organizations.” They are leveraging existing community resources to make the change. Revitalizing the neighborhood means providing infrastructure refugees will need to be successful. By default, the entire community will gain.

Looking Ahead

Cimperman “envisions a repopulated neighborhood where longtime residents live next door to refugees who help maintain shared gardens, find jobs in the area and start businesses on Clark and Storer avenues, two depleted commercial corridors.”

The City of Cleveland has pledged $150,000 towards low interest loans for new and existing businesses owned by immigrants and refugees in the Dream Neighborhood. They’re also connecting with local businesses and training organizations to help the refugees get jobs. The Dream Neighborhood fits nicely into the Cleveland 2020 Plan, focused on creating a more livable, thriving and competitive city.

There is much work to do this year, but so much has already happened to make this Dream Neighborhood a reality.