Healthy Homes Initiative in West Park aims to boost city’s housing stock

Linda McKenzie received financial assistance towards a new roof for her West Park home from the Healthy Homes Initiative. (Photo by Lee Chilcote)

The city of Cleveland-funded Healthy Homes Initiative has given many West Park residents the resources they need to improve their homes, properties, and quality of life. The program’s success is due in part to outreach by city staff housed at local community development corporations, according to residents and program leaders. 

The program was introduced in 2017 to improve the city’s housing stock, create healthier home environments, and prevent childhood lead poisoning. Healthy Homes specialists placed in each ward help residents access city programs such as the exterior paint program to fix up their homes. Many of these programs are geared toward seniors in the community. 

Community engagement

An integral part of the Healthy Homes Initiative is the designation of a community engagement specialist whose role entails surveying their community, house by house, to identify areas of need. They help residents navigate home repair programs. Hannah Gall, who landed the inaugural role of community engagement specialist in Ward 17 and has since been promoted to neighborhood development manager, spoke with optimism when asked about the program’s effectiveness. 

“By having the Healthy Homes Initiative introduced and having this additional staff person to really be on the ground, talking to residents day in and day out and being the face of these programs, it really has allowed us to target those specific programs to the people who really need it the most,” she said. 

Community engagement specialists housed at CDCs market the program and help residents access resources, Gall said. Otherwise, the program would primarily rely on word of mouth or happenstance. 

“There’s a very good reason the city decided to create a program to house specialists at the CDC level rather than hiring more building inspectors, which they could have done,” Gall said. “By this approach, a staff person in the neighborhood can build relationships, build trust, and help people find the assistance they need to get this stuff done, rather than just slap them with a fine.”

Progress in West Park

Legislation was approved by the city in August of 2019 with the program rolling out in West Park Kamm’s in January 2020. Roughly 7,500 properties in West Park have been inspected through the program as of June 30, Gall said. She expects another 2,500 to be inspected in the coming year. In the past three years more than 500 West Park homeowners weatherized their homes, bought new furnaces, remediated lead paint, and completed other projects as a result of the program. 

Surveying properties is the first step in the program. “After the survey, if there’s a problem such as peeling paint or porch steps falling down, we get in touch with the homeowner to see if we can help them fix it,” said Gall. “When we see something that’s vacant, we track that and research it, and if it looks bad we go straight to building and housing.”

However, she stressed that code enforcement is not their goal, and only the most extreme cases land in housing court. “That referral is a tool in the toolbox, but it’s the very last one unless there’s a reason to speed it up,” she said. 

Noreen, a lifelong West Park resident who didn’t want her last name used, has made good use of several city-sponsored programs to maintain and improve her home. Specifically, through the Healthy Homes initiative, she utilized the Home Weatherization Assistance Program to have her furnace replaced, exhaust vents added, and insulation replaced throughout the home. Noreen indicated having staff on the ground to help manage the program made it more accessible. 

“I think they should really go and sit down and talk with Hannah or someone from that organization to see what’s available,” she said. “People really don’t know what’s out there.”

Linda McKenzie and her dog Biscuit at her W. 168th Street home in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood. (Photo by Lee Chilcote)

Financial and referral assistance

West Park resident Linda McKenzie agreed. McKenzie had a new metal roof put on her home with the help of West Park Kamm’s. Through the Healthy Homes initiative, the CDC was able to offer her a $500 grant, refer her to a qualified contractor, and visually inspect the work after it was done. Financing programs are also available to help homeowners cover the cost. 

“I did receive the check for $500 probably about a week or week and a half after the initial installation, and I thought it was very quick how it came to me,” said McKenzie. “I have referred the program to other neighbors because a lot of people don’t know about it, for whatever reason.” 

What started as a desire to simply be neighborly and spread the word of this helpful program evolved to McKenzie successfully running for precinct committee person for the Democratic Party in Ward 17. “I’m fully vested in my community and my home,” she said. “I’m an ambassador. I kind of like it and think it’s cool. I’m here, so if I can get information out to people, I like doing it.”

McKenzie continued, “This neighborhood has changed a lot since my husband and I moved here in 1990. It’s more friendly, it’s more diverse, and I like that.”

Many city programs look good on paper but can struggle with execution whether it’s due to long lead times, lengthy application processes, and the all-too-common bureaucratic red tape. The community engagement specialist is in place to “help shepherd residents, to help them navigate the system, and determine what it is they actually need,” Gall said. 

“A lot of this role is relationship building. We’re not code enforcement,” she said. “We’re not here to displace people or just tell them what’s wrong with their house and you need to fix it and that’s the end of the conversation. If we’re going to build relationships, educate people, try to get to the bottom of the issues they might be facing, and help them navigate to the best program for them … that needs trust; that needs a relationship.”

Gall said the program has helped a lot of seniors in West Park Kamm’s. Once the exterior inspection is completed and specialists make contact with a resident, they may find out about other issues inside the house. “We’re helping them find ways to live safer, healthier lives in their home, to make sure they’re not dealing with any problems or hazards,” said Gall. “Especially the senior population, and we have a large one. A lot of people want to stay in their homes, and we help them access programs that help them do that by updating and improving their homes.”

Noreen credits Gall with guiding her through the process. “She was there every step of the way, quick to answer any questions I had,” Noreen said. 

The community engagement specialists are housed in each of Cleveland’s community development corporations, which for West Park is West Park Kamm’s Neighborhood Development. For more information, visit https://westparkkamms.org/live/maintain-a-home/

Editor’s note: The Land requested an update from the city of Cleveland regarding the citywide progress of the Healthy Homes Initiative, but city officials did not respond before deadline for this story.

Shondra Kaperak was a participant in The Land’s community journalism program.

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