Getting a vacant home demolished in Cleveland can be complicated.
Signal Cleveland talked with housing department officials to better understand what happens when a house or apartment building is run down beyond repair and what barriers make the board-up and demolition process take so long.
Here’s what happens when someone reports a rundown property. (In an ideal world with few to no setbacks.)
Alexander Abramowitz, manager of the demolition bureau within the Cleveland Department of Building and Housing, said most people who call to report a home are asking to have it boarded up or demolished.
Here’s how to report a rundown property
To report a deteriorating home that has long been vacant, call 311. Operators get some basic information on the property. They can see whether there have been other complaints on the same property or whether it has already been condemned.
The board-up process
The 311 operator enters the board-up complaint into a tracking system for the Building and Housing Department. That complaint is assigned to an inspector who inspects the home for board up, checking whether the property is vacant and open to casual entry on the ground floor. This could mean a door or window is missing.
The department then hires a contractor to board up the home.
The board-up unit, with three inspectors, has three days to inspect a home after a complaint. Once the inspector confirms there’s casual entry, the contractor has five days to board up the home.
In 2022, there were 3,117 complaints of open, vacant and vandalized homes. The housing department issued 1,146 board-up permits, the department said.
Residents on the lookout
Sally Martin O’Toole, director of Building and Housing, said the office relies on residents to tell them if boards have been removed and people have gone back inside a structure.
The department often has to request reboarding, O’Toole said.
Reboarding a house doesn’t mean someone won’t take the boards down again, Abramowitz said.
“There are a lot of repeat customers,” he said.
The demolition process
Most of the homes and properties people complain about are privately owned. That means the city needs to go through a strict legal process before it can raze the property, Abramowitz said.
There are several steps on the path to demolition. The first step is an inspection. The vacant property unit documents the conditions inside and out.
But that can only happen with consent from the owner or a search warrant from the Cleveland Housing Court. Inspectors told Signal Cleveland they would ask for a search warrant when they know the house is uninhabitable (when, for example, utilities are shut off or somebody can be seriously injured by going inside).
A property can be condemned if a person can’t safely live in it at that moment.
“That is a rather broad classification that can include a property that doesn’t have functioning utilities, or it can include a property where there’s a gaping hole in the floor,” Abramowitz said.
If the inspectors find the property is condemnable, they issue a condemnation notice that includes a list of code violations and supporting photos.
Law Department approval needed
The department then has to try to notify anyone with an interest in the property, including the owner, the owner’s spouse or any next of kin. Officials look for mortgage holders and do title work to try to identify everyone who could claim it.
Once inspectors send notices, usually by certified mail, they post a condemnation placard on the building. It must stay on the building for 30 days.
Then, inspectors gather all their information and hand it over to the Law Department. One of four code enforcement attorneys reviews the file.
The attorney checks the Building and Housing Department’s work to verify that all legal requirements have been met before approving condemnation and setting the property for demolition.
That file goes to Abramowitz’s office – the demolition bureau. But that doesn’t mean the building is coming down.
Condemnation doesn’t mean demolition
Because condemned can mean a wide range of things, not all structures approved for demolition are demolished.
The demolition bureau reviews every file before deciding whether demolition is the reasonable next step. If it is, the bureau has to make sure it can legally move forward.
That means making sure that the property hasn’t been sold since this process started and that the owner has not come forward to appeal the condemnation or applied for permits showing plans to correct violations.
Applying for permits, commonly called “pulling permits,” can really delay things — more about that later.
If nothing has changed, the bureau hires contractors to check for and remove asbestos.
The end – maybe?
This is the final step before a demolition contractor is hired to tear down the property, which can take around three months, Abramowitz said. Once a home is demolished, the owner is billed the cost of that demolition. If that debt isn’t paid, it can go to collections.
With so many steps in the process, department officials hesitated to say how long it generally takes to go from a resident’s complaint to a demolished home. They said each property is unique.
The Building and Housing Department tried to answer the question by providing Signal Cleveland with demolition data from the past six years. This data includes all demolition cases, not just residential properties, and does not include cases where demolition is still pending.
Looking at the 3,159 completed demolitions from 2014 to today, the department estimates 25% of properties — about 790 buildings— were torn down within 76 days of being scheduled for demolition. Half, or 1,580, were razed within 231 days, and 75% of properties — 2,369 — were demolished within 569 days. That’s more than a year and a half.
Here’s why it takes so long for a building to come down.
The legal requirements already make the demolition process lengthy. There can be other setbacks too – like occupants in a condemned home or owners pulling permits with no intention of fixing a property. Here’s a breakdown of common delays.
The vacate order process
When a condemned property is occupied, the city can issue a vacate order, saying the property is condemned and unsafe and it’s illegal for it to be occupied, Abramowitz said.
The owner can appeal that order within 30 days. If no one appeals, police can help enforce the vacate order. While complaints from neighbors are mostly reports of squatters in abandoned homes, homes can also be condemned while people are legally living in them. The vacate process is used in both scenarios.
Housing officials work with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and try their best to provide services to people being displaced from a home, Abramowitz said.
The permit process
An ideal outcome is that a condemned property is rehabbed and occupied.
“However, historically, people figured out that you could just pull these permits, and we would never really get around to looking into whether you were working or not,” Abramowitz said. “So you essentially were able to kick the can down the road for years without actually doing any work.”
Taking out a permit puts on hold the city’s ability to demolish the house.
“I like to call it a Hail Mary permit because they really don’t want to do the work,” said O’Toole, the housing director. “They’re just trying to stall us to see if maybe they can sell the property and make a few dollars on it.”
The city is working to loosen that hold. Building and Housing can close a permit after six months if they don’t see any progress. And in February, department employees were given a new list of requirements property owners must meet before a permit is approved.
The new policy requires the owner to provide drawings and more detail of plans to rehab the property in order to pull that permit, O’Toole said.
Over the next year, Signal Cleveland will be reporting on how vacant homes impact community safety.
We also want to hear from Cleveland residents and property owners about their experiences with vacant and condemned homes. To share your stories, tips or concerns, contact Signal Cleveland community safety reporter Stephanie Casanova at firstname.lastname@example.org