Cleveland City Council held its first special meeting on Monday to kick off its planning for spending the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) relief funds awarded by the federal government ($511 million, the most of any Ohio city). The meeting came after several council members rebelled against what they believed to be their lack of input into the Jackson administration’s plan and how council president Kevin Kelley rushed through legislation for citywide broadband (check out our story here). Here’s what we learned sitting in.
Planning takes time
Special guests Tania Menesse, president and CEO of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress; Mark McDermott, vice president and Ohio market leader for Enterprise Community Partners; and Marcia Mockabee, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Cleveland kicked off the two-hour hearing.
Menesse started by reminding the city council members about the ARPA guidelines, which state that the dollars are intended to be used to help replace revenue lost by local governments during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as residents and businesses disproportionately impacted by COVID. The city of Cleveland, she said, had until 2024 to appropriate the money and 2026 to spend it.
In other words: Despite the council’s desire to get the money out the door and helping people quickly, it needs to balance that urgency against the need for a community planning process, one that ensures the money gets spent properly.
Additionally, Menesse and her colleagues outlined the priorities that are stipulated under the ARPA guidelines, including lead safe housing, small business support, clean water infrastructure, green infrastructure, and broadband, among others.
Of special note is the plea Menesse made for upgrading the city’s technology, such as its website and online forms, to improve user experience. She’s not alone in that viewpoint. Documenters’ Lawrence Caswell noted in the Cleveland mayoral candidate debate hosted in part by The City Club of Cleveland Monday that the city’s technology is woefully sub-par.
Overall, Menesse said, the focus of ARPA dollars should be on furthering social equity in a city that has long been ranked one of the poorest in the nation. “COVID-19 set back communities that have traditionally been left behind, and it’s incredibly important that it does not continue,” she urged.
Health and healthcare
Mockabee also stressed the need to address health priorities, ensure maternal and infant health, reduce food insecurity and youth violence, increase and re-imagine public safety, and invest in the work of the Racism as a Public Health Crisis task force.
“We need to move in our city from a position of racial inequity to one of equity,” she said, citing the launch of First Year Cleveland, which seeks to reduce infant mortality in Cleveland, especially among Black babies, as one example.
McDermott said that housing insecurity has soared during the pandemic. He cited the fact that 50 percent of renters are now considered housing insecure, meaning they spend more than half their income on rent, compared to one-third before the pandemic.
Recommendations included investing in rent, mortgage, and utility assistance programs to help stabilize homeowners and renters; expanding the city’s Right to Counsel program that prevents evictions and provides legal representation for people facing eviction; and expanding home repair programs.
“We all think that landlords have a lot of money, and there are penty that are not doing what they could, and that’s where enforcement is needed,” said McDermott. “But many small mom and pop landlords could use financial assistance, and there are no banks that offer loans for landlords.”
He also stated that because ARPA dollars are more flexible than Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs), the infusion of federal cash represented a one-time opportunity to spend money where it’s needed most and leverage public dollars to inspire later private investment.
“It really is a gamechanger,” said Menesse. “We’ve seen that the way to get the private market into our neighborhoods is to have the public sector come in first. We tend to be the loss leader, but that’s the job of the government and the nonprofit sector. [Using ARPA dollars] we’re able to set the bar in ways that we couldn’t with the funds we have.”
McDermott and Menesse also cited a need to invest in affordable housing programs such as loan loss reserve funds (an approach that provides partial risk coverage to lenders, meaning that the reserve will cover a prespecified amount of loan losses), down payment assistance, and long-term supportive housing. McDermott also advocated for a pilot program to help people returning from prison find stable, high-quality housing, and also to invest in Lead Safe Cleveland’s grant program to help low-income landlords make their properties lead safe.
Menesse and Mockabee finished the group presentation with a pitch to support hard-hit small businesses. “The money is supposed to be spent reinvigorating our communities and setting us up for the future, not just surviving,” Menesse said.
She made a pitch for using funds to help “white box” (or partially finish) retail spaces that businesses could easily move into, and for investing in older shopping centers throughout Cleveland.
“We need to help them compete,” Menesse explained. “It’s not a massive expense, but the private owners can’t do it. We need to let the private market know, ‘We can do this work, and then you can step in.’”
In addition to investing in retail spaces, there was a push for allocating money for loans, grants, and wrap-around services to help small businesses survive and grow after the pandemic. Michael Obi, head of UBIZ Venture Capital with the Urban League, has spent the last 18 months providing micro-loans to small and minority-owned businesses in Cleveland.
“How do we make businesses stronger so they can create more jobs?” he asked. “Access to capital is still a barrier, as well as technical services. How do we marry the two together? We believe that’s a path to success, where they can scale up and learn to manage their business by the numbers.”
Obi pointed to a $5 million access fund created by the Urban League deployed as loans averaging $100,000 to some 30 small businesses.
“A lot of businesses of color are not in the growth sector,” he said. “We need patient capital to help them grow.”
The meeting ended with council members asking for price-tags to accompany each proposal, inquiring about funding ideas that would have an immediate impact on their neighborhoods, and exploring the possibility of a tool to report and track the impact of how ARPA dollars are spent.
This was the first of several ARPA-related meetings the council will hold before Nov. 1. Check back here for reports on subsequent meetings.
View the complete presentation here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1dZx2-fdf90WojLmIXYHydV-JitdxFNfz/view?usp=sharing
Check out the Cleveland Documenters’ Twitter thread about this meeting: https://twitter.com/jennaceetee/status/1447563124584992768
Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.