New Woodhill Homes breaks ground in Cleveland, but residents can't move right in as planned
After nearly a year of delays, construction began this week on the new version of Woodhill Homes, the public housing neighborhood on Cleveland’s East Side that won a $35 million federal rebuilding grant in 2021.
The delays mean that most of the neighborhood's 900 residents will have to move more than once if they want to live in a newly constructed unit, according to the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and its partners. That's a change from the original plan to build new units first, not far from the existing units, so people would need to move only once.
CMHA blamed the delays on the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have been wrestling with what most of the construction and real estate industries have been wrestling with in terms of price escalation and trying to get our budgets to rebalance," said Jeff Beam of The Community Builders, Inc., the nonprofit real estate developer that CMHA contracted to manage the rebuild.
The new construction isn't happening at Woodhill Homes itself, but on the site of a former school building about a mile away, across from the Woodhill Rapid Transit Station. The new building will contain 120 apartments.
No demolition is scheduled to occur at the existing Woodhill Homes until 2023.
"Toward the latter half of this year, folks will begin to move off the site, some to permanent new homes that they want to go to, some to temporary homes while they're waiting for construction to finish on the first phases," Beam said.
A change in plans
That double move — first off-site, then back to a new Woodhill unit — is different from what CMHA outlined in its successful grant application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2020. The application said CMHA would employ a “build first” strategy, in which two new buildings would be finished before anyone would have to move out of their existing apartments.
The reason for that strategy was that many times in the past, when public housing has been rebuilt, the original residents who had to relocate during construction didn't move back and benefit from the changes. The disruption caused by multiple moves can also add stress to households already facing the strains of poverty.
For example, only a third of original residents moved back to Carver Park, another CMHA neighborhood, when it was rebuilt about 15 years ago. A study found that a big reason for the low retention rate was that the agency lost track of where people moved during construction.
Some residents are frustrated by the change in direction.
"I understand what they're doing — because of COVID, a lot of stuff has been on hold," said Torrie Goodman, a resident and past president of the Woodhill residents' council. "But right now, they're just trying to rush the situation and probably keep the money flowing."
Goodman said in theory, he doesn’t mind having to move multiple times. But in practice, the options he and other residents are being given for a first move aren’t good ones. They’re far away from home, he said, or in aging high rises with lots of maintenance problems.
"I'd willingly take a one-bedroom apartment anywhere else but a high rise," Goodman said. "And they don't have any available."
Another option for residents is to take a Housing Choice Voucher (formerly called a Section 8 voucher) to rent a private apartment. But Goodman doesn’t want to do that because he said there are few available units near Woodhill Homes.
Runako Stroud, another resident, said the delays make it difficult to plan her future. "After a while you just get burned out and I just would like to go," she said.
Social services continue
Financial constraints attached to the $35 million HUD grant are the primary reason the entire schedule can't be pushed back to preserve the "build first" strategy, according to Beam of The Community Builders. The entire grant must be spent by 2027, or CMHA risks having to give at least some of it back.
In the meantime, CMHA and the builders said what hasn't changed is that housing is only one part of the rebuild. Social services remain just as important.
The agency has been holding events like a recent community resource fair at the Woodhill Community Center, meant to help residents deal with financial, social and health challenges.
The fair, held on a weekday afternoon, was packed full of tables staffed by social service organizations promising to connect residents with everything from potential new jobs to diapers for their kids.
A counseling group has also been formed to help residents deal with mental health issues and trauma.
"We are connecting families to food as they prepare for relocation, [providing] rental assistance and utility assistance," said Candace Wallace, who manages community outreach for The Community Builders. "So health, education, economic stability."
Wallace said she and her team of seven case managers have so far made contact with nearly 90 percent of current residents.
Just over half of the residents they’ve reached want to stay at Woodhill Homes, she said, with the rest choosing other options, such as taking a voucher or moving to another CMHA property.
"But I believe as we progress with relocation and supporting residents, we could very well have more residents change their mind and opt in to stay," Wallace said.
As that happens, she said, the case managers will be transparent with residents that if they want to live at the new Woodhill, they’ll have to move somewhere else first.
CMHA's Jeff Wade said the agency remains committed to giving current residents first priority to move into the new units, and will track and maintain contact with households through intermediate moves.