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    City of Cleveland Strikes Back —Challenges ‘Distressed Communities’ Study

    A recent article in the New York Times referenced a report by the Economic Innovation Group that named the City of Cleveland as the most “distressed” large city in America. We the people of Cleveland respectfully disagree. Data can be manipulated any such way, but to understand our city, one must not just sit behind a computer with cold, blind facts. To help provide context to some of the EIG’s data sets, here is the City of Cleveland’s analysis on what is happening on the ground, the real comeback story of Cleveland.

    This article relied heavily on a Distressed Communities Index (DCI) created by the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) that examined economic distress throughout the country and provided insight into different economic factors facing cities throughout the nation. This data led readers to believe that Cleveland was the most distressed city in the nation – a title that we, the people of Cleveland, find untrue. 


    The City of Cleveland realizes that in our city neighborhoods of extreme poverty exist.  This is an issue that is addressed daily by the city’s Community and Economic Development teams.   However, we do not agree with the study’s conclusion that “only a handful of cities that suffered from the housing crash… seem able to attribute much of their high distress scores back to the shock of the Great Recession.”  It is unclear why Cleveland is not on that list.  It has been well documented by HUD and the US Treasury Department that Cleveland was one of the hardest hit areas from the recession and the housing crisis.  Cleveland residents who faced foreclosure did do as the study suggested by “voting with their feet”, moving to other areas both in the city and outside, leaving a higher percentage of poverty in many census tracts.  

    When addressing the issue of poverty, the study only accounts for those who have responded to the latest census, which leaves out the many undocumented residents in some border states. It is common knowledge that these same undocumented residents provide labor that leads to lower costs of construction and lower costs of services.  The rankings might change if that information was captured.  In addition, state policies for the last 25 years have affected the City of Cleveland’s ability to provide necessary services to the highest-at-risk populations by cutting taxes for the wealthiest, raising taxes on the poor, and cutting local government funding for cities. 

    Area Comparisons (square miles)

    The EIG study does not account for geographic size. In an age of regionalism, no city exists alone.  The City of Cleveland relies on commuters and residents alike to serve as the workforce for the business community and these businesses and supply chain companies are spread across the region. For example, cities like Jacksonville and Oklahoma City have annexed nearly their entire county and their borders include both urban and suburban areas.  Even the city of Columbus, Ohio is three (3) times larger in square mileage than Cleveland, so to compare Cleveland to such “City-Counties” is inaccurate and misleading.  If one would compare the rating of Cuyahoga County to the city of Houston or Jacksonville’s rating, they would find these cities more distressed than Cleveland and our neighbors.    

    Adults not Working

    The EIG study also seems to select criteria that can be easily misinterpreted.  Indeed, the infographic on the EIG website shows that the “worst indicator for all 50 states” and both Florida and Arizona are listed as having distress due to “Adults not Working”.  These individuals are commonly known as retirees and the City of Cleveland has many of them as well.  The report even acknowledges that using “adults over 16 years of age not working” is skewed if the city has a large number of retirees.  The City of Cleveland’s demographics include many older adults than some younger faster growing cities and therefore are seemingly worse statistically than in actuality. Many Clevelanders have paid off their homes and choose to spend their days in Cleveland. These individuals are not “unemployed” they are “retired”. 

    Furthermore, the statistical category “Adults Not Working” is skewed in areas where there are educational institutions such as here in Cleveland.  Most students tell the census they are students and do not mention their part time jobs.  Students are not a distress factor- they are the workforce of the future and businesses rely on them to fill many diverse jobs.

    Housing Vacancy

    As for housing vacancy, the EIG study uses housing units rather than structures, which fails to illuminate the situation adequately.  For example, Cleveland has 12,000 vacant housing structures while the city of Detroit, which is ranked in a more favorable position, has 58,000 vacant housing structures. The City of Cleveland has a plan for these areas and in many cases is working to repurpose areas for new housing and new jobs.

    Educational Attainment

    Educational attainment is also an issue for the City of Cleveland and Mayor Frank G. Jackson. That’s why the Mayor and a local non-profit, the Cleveland Foundation, have worked together since 2011 to improve the education of our residents. Since 2011, our high school graduation rate is up 14% and the city’s students continue to turn the corner. 

    Job Growth

    Another factor impacting Cleveland’s rating is the change in the number of businesses for a manufacturing area—a number which includes mergers and acquisitions taking place as larger manufacturers buy smaller manufacturers. The number of businesses may decrease, but the jobs are retained.

    In fact, a recent economic report by Team NEO  (November 2015- Occupations by the Numbers) shows that the region is expected to add over 123,000 jobs in the next decade.  Moreover, a recent report produced by Cleveland State University states that the region added 23,300 jobs during 2015—an increase of 2.2%, higher than cities including Boston, Denver, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh. Over 87% of the job gains were in four sectors: education and health services; the leisure and hospitality industries; construction; and financial services.

    As for investment, Downtown Cleveland has seen over $5 billion in new investment and Cleveland’s Health Line Transit Project saw nearly $6 billion in investment since opening in 2008 and is the most successful transit-oriented development project in North America (Source:  ITDP). Take a tour of all the new development in Cleveland's Health-Tech Corridor by paging through our Health Line Tour Guide.

    As our economy diversifies, (TeamNeo 2015 Report: Northeast Ohio Economy Diversifies) the City of Cleveland has helped non-profits to teach women and minorities software coding and entrepreneurial programs, implemented policies to require developers and contractors to hire low income residents, and worked with community colleges to offer training for developing industries.

    The NYT article states, “once a downward spiral begins, it is very difficult for residents or local political leaders to reverse the slide.”

    It is difficult and it takes time. While Cleveland still has issues, we have diversified our economy.  We have seen a new urban trend of both new residents and new businesses coming into the city, and with them, a cadre of developers investing in our communities.  You might not know that if you are in New York City or Washington D.C. and you have not been here in the last 20 years, so we welcome all to visit Cleveland and witness our city’s growth. Cleveland is a place where people from all walks of life are working together to create a better community, with economic inclusion for all. 

    If you have a comment or want to provide some feedback, send us an email at Thank you.