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Cleveland developer teams with non-profits to flip vacant homes on a dime

Addison Avenue rehab
Addison Avenue rehab - Bob Perkoski
When developer and landlord Chuck Scaravelli first heard about the deteriorated house on Schaefer Avenue, he wasn’t sure he could do anything with it. Sure, it had a cool slate roof, but the interior was fire-damaged and the house needed a lot of work.

Then the East Cleveland pizza delivery guy who told him about it named his price: $500. Scaravelli thought, What do I have to lose? A year later, after investing just $10,000 to renovate the property into a loft home, it rents for $500 a month.

Scaravelli’s renovation is part Rust Belt chic, part urban hodgepodge, and 100-percent Cleveland. He’s removed walls to create an open loft-like feel, textured over damaged ones to create a “Tuscan” look, put up inexpensive light fixtures from Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, and built a kitchen island out of old wood wrapped in aluminum sheets.

With his loft home, Scaravelli has pulled off what some people thought was impossible: He’s renovated a crumbling Cleveland foreclosure into a unique and desirable home. Call it "reverse scrapping" -- rather than cart materials off, he puts them in. And he’s doing it for a fraction of what it typically costs to renovate a foreclosed home.

The home might not be right for everybody, but it does offer a taste of downtown, done on a dime.

Now, through a partnership with St. Clair Superior Development Corporation and the Cuyahoga Land Bank, Scaravelli is expanding his efforts to additional homes in the neighborhood. He’s hoping to rescue solid homes from the wrecking ball.

“We’re making homes built around the turn of the century more acceptable to how people live today,” says Scaravelli, standing beneath the exposed beams of a double on Addison Avenue that he's converting into a two-bedroom with 20-foot ceilings. “We are compelling people to move back into the city.”

Beyond demolition

The City of Cleveland estimates that it has as many as 15,000 vacant homes. While many are in such poor condition that demolition is the only option, many others retain their structural integrity long after they’ve been looted of plumbing and scrap metal. They’re for sale, but there are no buyers. They stand like ghosts of a bygone era, magnets for crime and trash, dragging down the property values of an entire neighborhood.

Public officials beat the drum for more demo dollars for hard-hit cities like Cleveland -- and rightly so, in many cases -- but there’s one thing you won’t hear very often. Many of those empty, abandoned and foreclosed properties could easily be saved if there was even the slightest amount of housing pressure to entice developers. But there’s no market for them right now, so they’re being torn down.

Dennis Roberts, Director of Programs and Acquisitions for the Cuyahoga Land Bank, says that demolition is an important first step in the renewal of urban neighborhoods.

“Northeast Ohio’s housing stock was developed to serve a much larger population than we have now, so we have an oversupply of housing,” he explains. “You don’t contribute to the decline of an area by removing a house," he adds. "You stabilize it.”

Perhaps, but Andrea Bruno, Housing Coordinator with St. Clair Superior, says that aggressive tear-downs also can have the opposite effect. They can be the nail in the coffin that stops a community from returning to prosperity in the foreseeable future.

“The houses we’re working on were all scheduled for demolition based on viability of the market, not their condition,” says Bruno. “If you demolish all of the houses on a street, it won’t come back. It becomes a forest, much like sections of Detroit have now become.”

Reverse scrapping it all the way to cool

To understand how a vacant, vandalized home can be renovated for $10,000, you have to think creatively. Scaravelli’s homes are not typical rehabs. There are no custom kitchen cabinets or shiny granite countertops, just repurposed materials cobbled together on the fly. For the Addison home, for example, Scaravelli purchased a patio door from Habitat for a mere $15.

Scaravelli also saves money by selecting houses with century-old balloon framing, which are strong enough to withstand the removal of interior walls and ceilings. The net effect is that Scaravelli can fix up his houses more cheaply. “I don’t have to fix that wall because it’s not there,” he quips, gesturing at the open space.

He also pinches pennies by hiring cheap labor through a man he calls the Preacher. This neighborhood contractor runs a nonprofit organization that hires local residents, some of them ex-cons, and provides them with workforce training.

Though Scaravelli might label his methods unorthodox, he will not call them shoddy. “It’s not cheap, it doesn’t look cheap, but it’s very inexpensive to do,” he says. Apparently, it’s working; he already has three homes rented and currently is renovating three others.

The eccentric developer is fond of calling his real estate dealings “poetic” -- and there's some truth to that. After all, he didn’t choose the $10,000 number arbitrarily. That figure reflects the cost of tearing down a home.

“He set himself a challenge by saying, ‘If it costs $10,000 to demo a home, what can I do for that?’” offers Michael Fleming, Executive Director of St. Clair Superior. “We are saving homes we’d otherwise have to demolish. I don’t anticipate new construction in this neighborhood for years. This is a really cool space that’s attracting young people.”

The value and cool factor are what attracted Arleen Crider, a nurse and interior designer who recently moved into her new loft home on E. 47th Street. “I never would have moved back, but it was a great value,” she says.

“I feel like I’m living in an art gallery.”

Photos Bob Perkoski
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