CLEVELAND -- Three-year-old Anish Rai can’t figure out how to work the screen door at his new home. He tugs once, but it doesn’t open. He tugs again, staring at the closed door until his mother shows him how to press down on the square lever. He has never seen a handle like this. A refugee from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, he spent much of his early life in a bamboo hut in a camp in the lush forests of southern Nepal.
But now the Rais, who arrived here two years ago as part of a United Nations refugee resettlement program, are preparing to move into a three-bedroom house with yellow siding and grey shutters on a quiet suburban street. They are renting it thanks to a new collaboration between a pair of Cleveland nonprofits that aims to address two vexing problems: the flood of vacant homes languishing in the wake of the foreclosure crisis -- an inventory estimated at about ten million properties nationwide -- and the need for decent, affordable housing for refugees arriving in America.
The Cleveland program is part of an emerging national effort that is seeking to find a silver lining in the foreclosure wave that has pockmarked communities with abandoned properties. Across the country, nonprofit organizations are purchasing, repairing and redeploying vacant homes in a bid to provide needy families with housing, while revitalizing struggling communities.
In New Orleans, the group Youth Rebuilding New Orleans employs local high school students to repair distressed properties. The homes are sold to teachers at 80 percent of the market value in exchange for a three-year commitment to continue teaching in New Orleans schools. Though the organization began in response to Hurricane Katrina, it has expanded because of the glut of foreclosed homes stemming from the national housing crisis, said executive director William Stoudt.
In North Carolina, the nonprofit Purple Heart Homes is converting foreclosed properties into affordable housing for disabled veterans and their caregivers. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the Twin Cities Community Land Bank is transforming vacant properties into environmentally sustainable homes for low-income families. And in Baltimore, St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, a nonprofit that has long purchased and rehabbed homes before selling them to low-income families, has in recent years expanded those efforts, acquiring properties abandoned by speculators.
“These initiatives stabilize the market by reducing the supply of homes and supporting the values of the surrounding homes that are still occupied,” said P.J. McCarthy, who directs the sale of homes to nonprofits for Fannie Mae, the giant, government-controlled mortgage lender, whose books are now choked with distressed real estate. "They get vacant homes back into use, reducing blight in the neighborhood."
Here in Cleveland, the International Services Center, a nonprofit that has resettled close to 13,000 refugees over the last half century, stumbled on the idea of making use of foreclosed homes last summer, as it grappled with a stark shortage of available housing. Caseworkers were having difficulty finding acceptable homes for newly arrived families because landlords were reluctant to rent to refugees.
“The challenge is to find a landlord and then explain that their future tenant is arriving in the United States and has no employment, no immediate future employment, and no credit history, but to please give them a place to live,” said Karin Wishner, ISC’s executive director. “That leaves few landlords to work with, and then the question is if they have openings when we need them."
The organization soon settled on a novel idea: It would become the landlord. But it had little budget to start buying homes, necessitating a fortuitous conversation with the Cuyahoga Land Bank, a nonprofit established by county officials to manage the flood of empty homes. The organization takes ownership of more than ninety vacant properties each month and then decides what to do with them.
“We knew the Land Bank had hundreds of homes in their inventory, vacant homes, abandoned homes, foreclosed homes,” said Wishner. The two organizations soon decided to designate a handful of properties as refugee housing, in order to match ISC’s need for housing with the Land Bank’s mission to improve the state of vacant homes.
“Here are these people struggling to find this housing and behold, we have it,” said Gus Frangos, the executive director of the Land Bank. “It’s logical. I’ve got to do something with these properties. I can’t hold them forever.”
Wishner culled the Land Bank’s database of available homes and identified several promising prospects. She visited each one to assess its viability. She had very specific criteria -- something near a bus line since most refugees don’t have cars, with a bedroom on the first floor in case the occupants were elderly or ill and couldn’t handle stairs, a yard for children or gardening and proximity to other refugees for support and community.
She found all of these attributes in the little yellow house on Hopkins Avenue.
The house had previously belonged to Theresa Palmer-Ross, a mother of four who bought it 10 years ago for $81,000. It was the first home she had ever owned. She chose it for its proximity to quality schools, she said.
But five years after she bought it, Palmer-Ross lost her $12-an-hour job at a local manufacturing plant when the company shifted its operations to Mexico.
Shortly thereafter, she fell off a ladder while cleaning the gutter and developed a blood clot. Her condition required her to go to a doctor three times a day for monitoring and treatment. The constant medical visits made it difficult for her to find work.
Then the roof caved in on her garage. When the city required her to replace it, she realized she could no longer afford the home.
In 2010 she filed for bankruptcy. Later that year her lender, First Federal Lakewood, foreclosed on the property, which was by then worth less than $27,000.
The following June, First Federal Lakewood sold the home to the Land Bank for $1 through a partnership in which the community bank essentially donates select properties to the International Services Center.
By the time the Land Bank and ISC selected the Hopkins Avenue home as the pilot project for the refugee housing program, the property had been vacant for more than a year. It needed approximately $40,000 worth of repairs. The two organizations agreed to split the rehabilitation costs, with the Land Bank covering them initially and ISC repaying its portion to the Land Bank via a $20,000 mortgage.
This was the origin of the program that has created a new opportunity for the Rai family. They plan to move into the Hopkins Avenue home later this month.
For Ruk Rai, the move will complete a wrenching journey that began more than two decades ago, when he was in his late teens. His family fled Bhutan due to political persecution, he said. Leaving behind their cattle, sheep, and two-story stone house in their village, the Rai family crossed through India in a cramped truck, arriving at the Sanischare refugee camp in Nepal in the early 1990s.
Life in Sanischare was difficult, according to Rai, who spent nearly twenty years in the encampment.
“Not good environment,” Rai, 40, explained in the broken English he began learning after arriving in America two years ago. “A lot of people. We live in small hut with plastic roof. Not good water. Dirty water, not like here. Many people die from water and other things."
In the refugee camp, Rai and his six siblings -- none of whom had previously received a formal education -- attended the camp’s free school, where Rai eventually earned a tenth grade education. There he met Leela, now 30, whose family had also fled political persecution in Bhutan and was living in a neighboring camp. They fell in love and were married in 2006 in a series of small ceremonies held in the camps. About two years later, Anish was born.
They longed to leave Sansichare. “The future is not good, we think, in refugee camp,” said Rai. “If you live inside the camp, no good education, no freedom to leave, everything is limited."
In November 2007, the United Nations began resettling refugees out of Sansichare and the six surrounding camps. The Rais applied for resettlement. After a three-year wait, they were approved to move to Cleveland.
One evening in May 2010 an ISC caseworker, accompanied by a translator, met the Rais at the airport. She drove them to a one-bedroom basement apartment the agency had secured for the family. So began the Rai family’s life in America.
In the subsequent months, the Rais attended ISC classes on subjects ranging from English to employer expectations.
“We try to orient the families to the American workplace,” said Wishner. “We go over the importance of being on time, to be careful when you take your breaks but also to take breaks, that you shouldn’t show your paycheck to everybody, the acceptable and unacceptable excuses for being late to work, what is considered sexual harassment."
Through the ISC classes, the Rais also learned how to write a check, how to use a bank account, how to create a budget, how to differentiate between junk and important mail, how to interpret American traffic lights, how to use public transportation, how to pay rent and bills and how to operate a stove. They learned how to interview for jobs and volunteered in ISC’s market garden, where Ruk Rai grew vegetables.
Eventually, Leela and Ruk found jobs. She works the night shift, fifty hours a week, at a factory that manufactures airplane parts, earning $9.75 an hour. Ruk works second shift, forty hours a week, at another plant, earning $9.50 an hour. Ruk’s aunt, who was resettled to Cleveland after the Rais, babysits Anish. Leela and Ruk both take the bus to and from work, and have saved nearly $6,000 to purchase a used car in the coming months. They have squirreled away another $2,000 in savings. They occasionally send money back to family members, who are still in the refugee camps, though a handful of Leela’s relatives are slated to resettle to Cleveland this year.
Last month Wishner took the Rais on a tour of the home. She showed Ruk the small strip of grass out back where he could plant celery, tomatoes, hot peppers and flowers for traditional Bhutanese ceremonies. She explained that Anish could have his own bedroom instead of sharing with his parents. She told them about the other Bhutanese family that lived down the block.
In an upstairs bedroom, Leela pointed to a sunny corner where she could fashion a traditional Buddhist shrine.
The Rais will rent the home from ISC for about $550 per month, plus utilities, while the organization assesses how to proceed with the new program.
“It’s an iterative process,” said Wishner. “We want something that the family can afford but doesn’t cripple our budget, so we’ll see how this goes, see what works and what doesn’t, and build from there."
She is confident enough in the idea behind the program that she has already begun conversations with the Land Bank about selecting the next home.
Staff at the Land Bank portray the project as an injection of faith in Cleveland’s future.
“We’re talking about people who have been oppressed or are escaping a war or some sort of cataclysm, and they want to come here, to Cleveland,” said Frangos, the Land Bank’s executive director. “They view a home and a job as paradise, something they’ve never had access to. So these are the folks that become integral, contributing, sustaining members of our community.”
Frangos said the refugee program is one of many he is looking to build in Cleveland to leverage the city’s stock of vacant homes. “I want to take this to the next level. I want to do fifty of these with refugees. And then I want to do fifty of these with veterans. And fifty of these with people with disabilities.”
In the meantime, the Rais have plans of their own.
“Study more for Anish,” said Ruk when asked how he thinks the new home will change his life. “Not like us. He work a good job like doctor, engineer.”
Leela nodded her head in agreement, then added, “I want Anish becomes a big, great person.”