New leader of Enterprise in Ohio fights for safe, affordable homes

 


Ayonna Blue Donald leads Enterprise Community Partners in Ohio. Photo by Grant Segall

 

Ayonna Blue Donald remembers growing up in Detroit with her mother and grandparents until seventh grade. Then the grandparents helped the mother buy a house for herself and her only child. Blue Donald recalls how proud and secure the two of them felt there. 

Now Blue Donald is a new vice president in charge of most Ohio programs of Enterprise Community Partners, a nationwide nonprofit helping to make homes affordable and equitable. 

Blue Donald is also a mechanical engineer who said recently, “I’ve always had an affinity for building things.” 

What’s more, she’s a lawyer passionate about justice. “You think of your home as your castle,” she said. “There’s so much peace and serenity there. But imagine if you’re homeless. Or imagine if more than half your income is going to where you live, and you can’t afford food, healthcare and other basic needs.”

Blue Donald is overseeing Enterprise programs that help to rehab homes, seal their lead paint, house former prison inmates and former foster children, and much more. 

Since its rise in 1982, Enterprise has invested $44 billion and helped build or rehabilitate 781,000 homes. In Ohio, it has leveraged more than $6.8 billion and helped with 125,000 homes. Its Ohio funds come from the federal and Cuyahoga County governments. Fifth Third Bank, local foundations and others.

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You think of your home as your castle. There’s so much peace and serenity there. But imagine if you’re homeless. Or imagine if more than half your income is going to where you live, and you can’t afford food, healthcare and other basic needs.
— Ayonna Blue Donald

But you won’t see Enterprise’s name on pediments or awnings. Blue Donald said, “Enterprise is mostly a convenor and intermediary.” It supplies money, guidance, and volunteers to other groups. 

In 2019, for instance, Enterprise helped start the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition, which wrote a law and steered it through City Council to require remediation in rental homes. Open to all, the coalition now has more than 400 individual members and some 120 organizations, including nonprofits and governments.

Enterprise is also helping to raise an apartment building on St. Clair Avenue near downtown for 50 young adults who’ve aged out of foster care. It’s planning local housing for formerly incarcerated people. It leads the Cuyahoga Earned Income Tax Credit Coalition, with more than 400 volunteers preparing residents’ returns. 

And Enterprise helps to develop policies. Blue Donald hopes to strengthen the new Right to Counsel program in Cleveland Housing Court. She also hopes to help create requirements at the county and city level for landlords to accept tenants whose payments depend on disability income or rental vouchers.


Ayonna Blue Donald of Enterprise Community Partners checks out Cleveland’s homes. Contributed photo.

Boomeranging back to Cleveland

It figures that a leader of these diverse efforts would have a diverse background. Blue Donald, now 43, first came to Cleveland for Case Western. She became her family’s first college graduate, majoring in engineering and practicing it in California. The 2008 recession prompted her to earn a law degree at the University of San Francisco. She practiced that field in Texas, then returned to Cleveland with her two children.

Blue Donald rose through the city’s building and housing department and led it from 2017 to 2021. She said, “We issued billions of dollars of construction values in permits every year and did over 1,000 demolitions every year.” She also added about 20 employees and created a specialized detail for rental inspections.

Still, most interior inspections were voluntary, and she said enforcement was hard. Many property owners failed to show up in court or comply afterwards.

This year, Blue Donald briefly worked at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport as chief of Commercial Services and Governmental Affairs for the Department of Port Control. She joined Enterprise in November.

In a press release announcing Blue Donald’s current job, Mayor Frank Jackson said, “She is a smart, effective, accomplished public servant.”

Jacqueline Waggoner, who leads Enterprise’s national solutions division, said, “Ayonna brings both professional experience and a deep personal commitment to equitable, affordable homes.”

Associate Professor Robert Fischer, who researches lead poisoning at Case Western, said that Blue Donald’s success at City Hall bodes well for Enterprise. “She was always pressing on the importance of improving city practices to better serve the community.”

Mount Pleasant landlord April Williams had never heard of Enterprise or Blue Donald until a recent interview. But she’d gotten money and guidance from the Lead Safe Coalition to remediate lead in her rental unit. “They were very helpful and flexible,” she said. “They answered all the questions.”

Making Cleveland lead safe

One part of Blue Donald’s transition was easy: She’d already represented the city in Lead Safe. The law by the coalition requires private inspections and remediations of rental homes to be phased in across the city by early 2023. The law applies to homes built before 1978, when lead was banned from residential paint. Nearly all Cleveland homes are older.

Lead particles are odorless and typically invisible. But ingesting small amounts can harm a child’s brain, speech, hearing, development, behavior, and more irreversibly, sometimes fatally. According to Fischer, 26 percent of Cleveland children starting kindergarten have tested in early childhood with elevated levels of lead: at least 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

The coalition has helped nearly 90 homes with remediation and started working with 78 more. It has also raised $46.1 million toward a $99 million goal, mostly for loans and grants to landlords for remediation. That usually means smoothing and sealing lead paint under safer paint. 

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She was always pressing on the importance of improving city practices to better serve the community.
— Robert Fischer, associate professor researching lead poisoning at Case Western Reserve University

The federal government is giving Cleveland other funds for local remediation, including $5 million announced in December by federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge of Warrensville Heights. And new Mayor Justin Bibb plans to hire an official to specialize in remediation efforts.

Besides funding, Lead Safe offers a resource center and remediation training for property owners and contractors. It’s also developing educational guidelines for the schools in working with pupils poisoned by lead.

Blue Donald gives much of the blame for lead poisoning and other housing injustices to banks for denying home loans in poor and minority neighborhoods. “Redlining was a system. It’s still in effect today de facto” through credit rules, mortgage minimums and other restrictions.

She’s proud but wary about the recent construction boom in some Cleveland neighborhoods. “It’s a dichotomy in this city between the haves and have nots.” Far too often, she said, “the conditions that people live in are shameful.” She hopes to ensure affordable housing in those neighborhoods for current residents who want to stay there.

She has no big plans yet for changes at Enterprise. She mainly hopes to use her experience and connections to make its services and its local partners more accessible. “I’m hoping to break down some barriers.”

Enterprise can be reached at http://www.enterprisecommunity.org/about/where-we-work/ohio or 216.631.0280. The Lead Safe Coalition can be reached at leadsafecle.org or 833-601-LEAD(5323). 

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Grant Segall is an award-winning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. He has also published freelance articles, fiction, and “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford University Press).

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