By Hunter Morrison
Special to the Vindicator
Let me tell you a story about the future of Northeast Ohio.
This story is called “Business As Usual,” and it describes Northeast Ohio’s future if we maintain our current approach to land-use and resource allocation:
During the next 27 years, population and job growth will remain generally flat, as Northeast Ohio adds around 3,100 people and 3,600 jobs each year. Some cities throughout the region, however, will appear to be doing well. Their populations will keep growing and they will continue to add jobs and housing stock. This “growth” will actually just be people moving from one part of the region to another. The migration out of our region’s traditional core cities will continue.
As we move within our region, Northeast Ohioans will leave behind abandoned homes at a staggering rate — the equivalent of abandoning 18 homes a day for nearly 10,000 days. By 2040, 10.5 percent of the region’s housing stock — 174,900 homes — will have been abandoned.
Over time, Northeast Ohio’s abandoned homes will grow from a concern, to a problem, to a full-blown crisis. Governments and taxpayers will be saddled with a huge bill to demolish the worst of these homes. Razing just one-third of these homes will cost Northeast Ohio’s taxpayers more than half a billion dollars.
The communities that contain these abandoned homes will permanently lose residents and their tax bases will shrink, limiting their ability to maintain their quality of life. Abandoned homes that remain standing will become a threat to the neighborhoods that surround them, posing safety and health hazards for residents remaining nearby.
This internal population movement will impose additional costs on Northeast Ohioans. While 10.5 percent of our housing stock will be abandoned, 89.5 percent of our housing stock will remain and Northeast Ohioans will have to pay to maintain it. At the same time, to accommodate development Northeast Ohio will need to build new roads and install new infrastructure. By 2040, Northeast Ohio’s new roads will stretch an estimated 3,700 miles — the same length as the Great Wall of China — and they will aggravate existing problems, such as air pollution from vehicle traffic and environmental degradation from surface water runoff.
The net impact of these factors will throw local governments throughout the region into deep fiscal crisis. Currently, in some part of the region, local government budgets are strained; in other parts they are not. As Northeast Ohio proceeds toward 2040, however, financial challenges and fiscal emergencies will affect every part of the region and today’s budget problems will pale in comparison to what Northeast Ohio governments will face in the future. By 2040, the average budget shortfall for the region’s 12 counties will be 20 percent and some counties will face expenses that are more than 40 percent greater than their anticipated annual revenue. The Northeast Ohio county in the strongest fiscal position in 2040 will be weaker than the county with the weakest fiscal position today.
Ultimately, if we maintain our current approach to land use and resource allocation, Northeast Ohio taxpayers will be backed into a no-win position. We will have to choose to pay significantly more to meet our local government needs or we will have to settle for significantly less.
This “Business As Usual” story was developed as part of VibrantNEO 2040, an effort by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC) to bring together local governments, organizations, businesses and residents to create a more vibrant, resilient, and sustainable Northeast Ohio.
NEOSCC is using scenarios like “Business As Usual” to examine the likely impact of our choices. On the surface, developing scenarios is simple: You forecast the conditions you will face, list your possible decisions, and then determine what is likely to result from your choices. Using scenarios to guide our decisions about the future is so common that most of us do it every day, at least twice before breakfast: when we check the weather and when we check the traffic report. The situation NEOSCC is analyzing and the scenarios it is creating may be more complicated, but the same basic principle applies: NEOSCC’s scenarios about Northeast Ohio’s future are meant to help guide our decisions.
NEOSCC unveiled “Business As Usual,” at workshops throughout Northeast Ohio in April and May and the future it describes for Northeast Ohio is pretty grim. But “Business As Usual” is only one possible scenario that Northeast Ohio might face.
At a series of open houses in July and August, NEOSCC will hold conversations about possible alternatives to “Business As Usual.” What if future conditions are different, either better or worse? What if our population and economy grow more robustly than they have? What if we adopt different approaches to land use and resource allocation? How much different from “Business As Usual” would the future look under these alternative scenarios? And, do any of these scenarios represent futures that Northeast Ohioans would want to pursue?
We hope you will join us at one of NEOSCC’s upcoming open houses, including one at the Raymond John Wean Foundation in Warren and Oh Wow? Children’s Center in Youngstown on Aug. 6. You can find out more about them by visiting VibrantNEO.org/OpenHouses. Please join us and help write the stories of Northeast Ohio’s future together.
Hunter Morrison is executive director of the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium.