Checking the ownership records, he noted that it had been sold seven times since 2004. Since its foreclosure in 2008, it was sold in April 2009 for $3,000, in August 2009 for $2,700, and in October 2009 for $4,000. “It’s been traded like frigging bubble-gum cards,” he said. “You try to chase down responsible parties and it just keeps getting transferred and transferred and transferred and they’re all corporate XYZ corporations.” In fact, the many sellers included one called “XBY, llc.” In this case, the paper trail stretched 4,560 miles from gritty Cleveland to balmy Hawaii. There, amid palm trees, the current owners live, desperately trying to get rid of a house they bought in hopes of an easy flip.
“We never even saw the property. We did it online,” confessed Lisa Balicki, an amiable yet somewhat embarrassed 46-year-old woman who works nights for a cable company in Honolulu. “We were just online looking for something that would bring rental income. I don’t know why Cleveland.” When told of the earlier prices paid for the house, she said, “Oh my God,” adding matter-of-factly, “It was not one of our better deals, I’ll say that.” Insisting that she and her husband are trying to either sell it or give it away, she described the house to National Journal as “one pain in the butt after another after another after another after another.”
In another stretch of East 72nd, another owner took drastic steps to avoid those headaches. Mike Malak, a retired city water department worker, sat quietly in a neighbor’s yard as he watched a demolition crew tear down the house that had been his home for most of his 60 years. When his mother died two years ago, Malak tried to sell the 92-year-old house, hoping to get $10,000. But he quickly learned its value was almost non-existent. In desperation, he contacted “webuyhouses.com.” But there was no deal and he ended up taking $2,000 from the Slavic Village Development Corp., fully aware they would demolish it. When that day arrived, he got to the house before the crew and went upstairs to what had been his bedroom. There, he sat for half an hour, silently taking in the view and memories of his boyhood.
But the street had been much different in those days. There were 30 houses, a factory, an ice cream store, and a corner grocery. Today, only 10 of the 30 houses remain and two are boarded up. Everything else had been demolished.
He knew that destroying his mom’s house was “the good Christian thing to do.” But it was still hard. The first strike by the large backhoe smashed through the back window where his mother used to sit in her living room. “When he pulled that wall down, I just wanted to yell out, ‘No. Stop. Stop. I’ll fix the house’,” he said. “It was very emotional.” So emotional that the next day he drove to Holy Cross Cemetery where his parents are buried to explain what he had done. But to his surprise, he was calm. He joked that his trips to the cemetery normally feature him “apologizing” to his parents for various things. But this time, he said, “It was different. It’s the first time I went out there and I wasn’t apologizing to Mom. I knew this was the right thing to do.”
Councilman Brancatelli, who has seen so many demolitions that he knew the crew well enough to chat, also knew it was the right thing. But for neither Brancatelli nor Rokakis was it an easy path to the realization that demolition was the answer for a besieged neighborhood. “Trying to convince my colleagues that demolition was the right way to go was against everything we had been taught,” said Brancatelli, who spent his time at the Slavic Village Development Corp. focused on building, not destroying. “We built 500 new homes and rehabbed about a thousand and the market was good,” he said of his early years. But then he saw the market change. And he saw the speculators swoop in and devastate the neighborhood he loved. “There was the mentality of this wild, wild west of real estate that defies any logic that I grew up on,” he said.
He also saw the devastating impact on his neighbors. He still gets emotional about his dealings with one elderly woman who had lived in the same small house for 80 years with her family operating a butcher shop in the front of the house. But now she was the last member of the family in the house and needed to move out. “That,” said Brancatelli, “was probably the hardest thing I had to do was tell this poor woman that all we were going to do is tear it down.... She just cried.”
Brancatelli knew he needed allies badly “to figure out how do we keep the neighborhood together” and quickly found that he could count on Rokakis, who was so dedicated to the cause that he moved from the treasurer’s office to a full-time focus on the foreclosure crisis. He now heads the Thriving Communities Institute, which was instrumental in creation of a county land bank, and travels the state helping other communities set up land banks. The land banks have all but stopped the worst of the flipping in Ohio.