'Donald Trump was part of the problem': Cleveland's subprime lesson for Republicans

Down the road from the Republican national convention, the decaying evidence of the carnage wreaked by property speculators and subprime loans abounds

The House of Wills Funeral Home is slowly being reclaimed by undergrowth. Weeds climb up the walls, fanning out like veins, unkempt hedges soar skywards and tufts of grass sprout through cracks in the tarmac parking lot.

“No one from the [Republican national committee] bothered coming here before they chose Cleveland, I’ll bet,” says Xavier Allen, 44, pointing to three bullet holes in the front window and a collapsed ceiling in the porch, where two red armchairs sit covered in rubble. “Donald Trump doesn’t care. He was part of the problem.”

The building, in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood on the city’s east side, was abandoned in 2014 after the owners fled without announcement or explanation, amid allegations of fraud. They left behind urns of cremated remains, empty coffins and hundreds of personal client documents. The building was looted shortly afterward and has remained a hotspot of criminal activity.

But the House of Wills is just one of hundreds of blighted and abandoned properties in this neighbourhood, one of the hardest hit throughout the city’s foreclosure crisis that intensified during the 2008 housing market crash and savaged Cleveland’s poorest neighbourhoods as the city lost 17% of its population within a decade.

In Mount Pleasant, where more than 15% of the neighbourhood’s housing stock is currently vacant or abandoned, average property sale prices plunged from an average of $84,000 in 2005 to just $14,837 in 2015. Evictions soared. Slum landlords continue to prosper. Much of the occupied property is now in effect worthless.

But at the height of Mount Pleasant’s suffering, Trump sought to capitalise.

In 2008, the billionaire Republican advised “pupils” at his now defunct business education company, Trump University, that they could make a million dollars within a year by targeting vulnerable communities with individuals desperate to offload their properties. “Investors Nationwide are Making Millions in Foreclosures … AND SO CAN YOU!” he claimed in targeted newspaper advertisements that carried photos of Trump staring sternly at camera with a slight smirk.

Residents of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio bike down a street littered with abandoned homes.
Residents of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, bike down a street littered with abandoned homes. Between 2000 and 2010, 17% of the people in Cleveland left and the city is slowly recovering. Photograph: Mae Ryan/The Guardian

At the time, the real estate mogul had only recently shuttered a brokerage company, Trump Mortgages, which had, according to insider accounts, offered subprime mortgages to customers through cold calls.

Trump is set to accept his party’s nomination for the US presidency three miles down the road from Mount Pleasant on Thursday. Some in Cleveland, America’s second-poorest major city, are flabbergasted.

“Trump is a speculator. He’s a scavenger. They tell you how you can get rich, and often that means getting rich [by] taking advantage of other people’s foibles or miscues or faults,” said Jim Rokakis, vice-president of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, a land conservation thinktank operating in northern Ohio.

“I find it ironic that Donald Trump is accepting the nomination for president about three and half miles from one of the most devastated neighbourhoods in the country. A neighbourhood that was wracked repeatedly by predatory lenders and the practices that caused these problems.”

“That’s not what Mount Pleasant looked like back in 2000, when these loans took off.”

‘It’s like they can’t see this’

Anita Gardner, who has lived in Mount Pleasant for more than four decades, formed the Concerned Citizens Community Council in 2008, in an attempt to organise residents to fight blight and combat rogue landlords.

Abandoned home in the Cleveland neighborhood of Mount Pleasant
In the Cleveland neighborhood of Mount Pleasant more than 15% of the homes are abandoned or vacant. Photograph: Mae Ryan/The Guardian

“It’s like our community has gone sight-blind. It’s like they can’t see this,” she said, driving along Aetna Road where, in some parts, almost every home seems abandoned. “There are so many of these properties that people don’t see them any more. It doesn’t bother anybody anymore.”

Gardner reels off a seemingly endless list of cases her organisation has helped bring before the housing courts: a woman evicted during a foreclosure process that was not completed, who, years later, was served with an arrest warrant and told she was told she was responsible for the property’s debt; tenants she claimed had dog faeces shoved in their letterbox as punishment meted out by a landlord trying to unlawfully evict them; a man forced to live in a house with roof made almost entirely of tarpaulin.

Despite this, both Gardner and Allen, who serves as a director for Concerned Citizens, remain hopeful that the blight can be remedied. Demolishing irreparable properties and then returning the plots to a county land bank, created in 2010, for fair redistribution, is key to this.

In 2010, about 20,000 properties in the city were awaiting demolition. According to a recent survey conducted by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, the citywide number is now only 6,000. Rokakis, who served as county treasurer between 1997 and 2010, estimated the city could get to most of these final 6,000 properties by 2020.

But there is unease in Cleveland about what a Trump presidency would mean for cities still trying to recover.

“I’m very concerned if somebody who made money as a real estate speculator takes the Oval Office,” Rokakis said. “I don’t think cities will fare too well and I think our efforts will be stymied.”

As Gardner stood by an abandoned property on Mount Auburn Road, a stench wafting from the garbage dumped behind it, she issued a plea to Republican national convention delegates descending on Cleveland this weekend, and likely hoping that Ohio, which twice voted for Barack Obama, may swing red in November: “Why don’t you try to look at the state of the people in Ohio? Not just the upper class, the people in the glass towers – come down and really see the people.

“If you’re for the blue collar worker or the people that have been pushed aside, this is what the people who have been pushed aside have to deal with,” she said pointing to collapsing doorframe.

“So if you want to ‘Make America Great Again’, come down here and see what America really has to deal with.”

• Watch the video


Oliver Laughland and Mae Ryan in Cleveland, Ohio

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