Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority Embraces View Beyond Just Buildings

Published by Nick DeCicco on Wednesday, January 5, 2022
Journal Cover Thumb January 2022

As the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) looks toward its 90th anniversary next year, its leaders are prioritizing perspective.

As it looks ahead to 2045, the public housing authority (PHA) that owns and maintains more than 300 low-income housing sites in Cuyahoga County is trying to look in multiple dimensions at once by bringing in new partners to widen its scope while understanding quality of life from a multitude of perspectives.

CMHA’s chief executive officer, Jeffery K. Patterson, said it’s imperative for PHAs to consider more than just the physical properties. “When you look at the bricks and mortar, that should be the focus, but these other areas are just as important,” Patterson said.

CMHA manages a diverse housing portfolio–in an area of Northeast Ohio that includes the city of Cleveland–with more than 10,500 affordable housing units and another 15,500 homes subsidized through Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs), serving more than 55,000 residents combined. This includes 60 standalone high-rise and mid-rise developments along with hundreds of scattered sites around the city and county. Most of the housing is in Cleveland, Patterson said, though he said the HCVs are split more evenly between the city and county.

In order to serve those tens of thousands, CMHA has adopted a multifaceted approach to digital inclusion, sustainability, family self-sufficiency and building good partnerships.

Its history spans back to 1933, when it was founded by Ernest J. Bohn, an Ohio politician and a giant in affordable housing who spent decades dedicated to the cause. Patterson said Bohn was instrumental in creating CMHA, which he called the first chartered PHA in the country.

“Others will attempt to tell you that they are [the oldest], but they are all fooling themselves,” Patterson said with a laugh.

City of Light, City of Magic

Though CMHA’s efforts toward digital inclusion were a priority before the outbreak of COVID-19, the pandemic exacerbated and accelerated those needs.

In keeping with looking at issues comprehensively, CMHA’s efforts have taken many forms.

Beginning in 2015, as part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) 26 PHA Pilot ConnectHome initiative, CMHA distributed new or refurbished hardware devices such as laptops, desktops, tablets and smartphones to more than 1,600 individuals. CMHA also worked to connect 2,800 households to the internet, an important endeavor in a county where approximately one-quarter of households do not have access, according to a 2020 article from Cleveland.com. Beginning in summer 2020, CMHA partnered with telecommunications firm Spectrum and Cleveland-area nonprofit DigitalC to provide low-cost or no-cost internet to almost 2,000 low-income households. CMHA has also provided CMHA email accounts to almost 3,600 tenants, something that Patterson said helps the residents and the housing provider communicate in an easier manner.

“Our aim is to better connect with residents through their email address for rent statements, to share information about building news, ongoing construction and renovation efforts, or programming offered by CMHA and our partners,” Patterson said.

For its efforts, HUD awarded CMHA Platinum and Gold Digital Badge Awards in October 2021 for reaching high standards and metrics related to connecting residents, the number of devices it distributed as well as its digital literacy training.

“This digital inclusion effort has been very core to what we’re doing,” Patterson said. “It’s not necessarily something you look at a housing authority and think they should be doing, but it’s important to remember digital inclusion is not just a tool for people who are special or elite. The Internet is a necessity for everyone. Everyone should have access.”

The devices and access can improve quality of life, providing medical appointments, helping children participate in learning activities or allowing people to apply for jobs, Patterson said.

American Splendor

Another area in which CMHA seeks to be impactful in the lives of residents is in its family self-sufficiency program. This program focuses on assisting residents in securing the skills and resources needed to move them toward self-sufficiency. This may include obtaining their general educational development test, completing specialized job training courses, successfully receiving an advanced degree in second education programing, access child care services and receiving financial literacy training. In many cases, these efforts can lead to better employment opportunities, homeownership, and the ability to be totally self-sufficient.

“We do more than just build housing and provide people places to live,” Patterson said. “We attempt to try to create communities where people not only have a place to live, but a place to grow, a place to be a part of something. That’s what’s exciting about the work we’re doing.”

Improving neighborhoods, too, is a part of this. This includes CMHA’s Buckeye-Woodhill Transformation initiative, which is powered by a $35 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant from HUD. The initiative is a six-phase process including demolition and construction to reimagine the Buckeye-Woodhill community with a mixture of public housing, as well as other low-income and market-rate apartments and townhomes.

“We are really, really excited about the opportunity,” Patterson said. “We want to give people the opportunity to not only get new housing units, but to see all aspects of their lives improve through the work of CMHA and our partners.”

The Forest City

Sustainability is another CMHA initiative. The PHA installed 4,300 solar panels adjacent to its buildings to provide electricity and power for its main office building and service building as part of a $33 million energy performance contract. Patterson said the effort is the beginning of what he hopes will be a broader CMHA push toward sustainability and green endeavors.

“It shows an awareness that, a lot of times, a housing authority is not given credit for having,” Patterson said. “It’s not always the cheapest route to go, but it’s an important route for us to go in this direction. Hopefully, there will be more incentives in the future. I do think that that is very important for housing authorities to consider more initiatives like this as we move forward.”

Patterson said CMHA strives to meet Enterprise Green Building Standards and has started installing solar panels in some of its developments.

Pandemic Shakes the Land

Much like the reasons for CMHA’s digital inclusion efforts were better illuminated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Patterson said it’s shined a light on other issues as well.

One example of meeting the needs of its residents during the pandemic is CMHA’s learning pods, spaces in community centers where youths can access digital equipment to connect and attend school. CMHA worked with a local foundation to provide the spaces.

“I think that was very, very effective,” Patterson said. “The kids didn’t have to go far and they were in a safe place. That worked out well, as well as anything could be expected.”

Cleveland Rocks

Building good partnerships is essential internally and externally, Patterson said. Among its partners is Novogradac, which does audit work for CMHA’s affordable housing, its HUD and Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) properties in addition to the consolidated audit of Western Reserve Revitalization and Management Company, CMHA’s development arm.

“CMHA is a great client,” said Renee Beaver, a partner in Novogradac’s Cleveland office. “It’s a joy to be able to collaborate with them to provide the best services possible for the people of Cuyahoga County, especially given their history and long-standing commitment to affordable public housing.”

Novogradac also provided audit and tax credit work as part of CMHA’s 2045 strategy to use RAD to upgrade properties in its portfolio that need support. Patterson said converting and recapitalizing that housing stock is one of CMHA’s biggest challenges.

Patterson said that appreciation for partners is essential not just outside of CMHA, but within it as well. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Patterson praised his staff and those at other housing authorities. He said those commitments were felt on multiple fronts, helping the lives and families of those who live in CMHA properties, but also the lives and families of those who work for or with CMHA. In fact, rather than recognizing one employee as employee of the year for 2020, Patterson awarded all of the CMHA employees with a community impact award for their strength, service and sacrifice they exhibited during the pandemic. 

From Novogradac to Spectrum, DigitalC and more, Patterson said forging good partnerships is vital to boosting its housing stock and providing a better quality of life.

“We have to make sure that, as housing authorities, we have good partners and we rely on those good partners,” Patterson said. “I look at some place like Novogradac as a great partner. They provide different mechanisms to do audits, assist in tax credits bills, and provide training. You have to look at partners and resources like that, especially now with potential funding opportunities. You look to experienced folks to help get things done. We’ve been successful and blessed to find a way to partner with different entities to make our work successful.”