Friday, March 12, 2010

Census News for Cleveland

Repost from
As the 2010 census begins, the Cleveland region needs every body it can count

By Robert L. Smith, The Plain Dealer

March 12, 2010, 3:58AM
downtown cleveland.jpgView full sizeCuyahoga County would like to avoid being labeled the fastest declining major county in America at decade's end.
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Census season begins Monday -- and with much of the pageantry and drama of an election season.
Soon after the 10-point questionnaires appear in mailboxes, Be Counted assistance centers will open, polling will commence and musicians will strike up the band at census rallies.
The marketing of census 2010, a nationwide effort to promote an accurate count, takes on an edge of urgency in Northeast Ohio, where flat and falling population is a matter of grim speculation.
After a decade of job losses, foreclosures and flight, the region hardly looks its best for the decennial inspection. Some knowledgeable observers fear that things are even worse than they appear. All agree that Greater Cleveland can ill afford to have anybody overlooked this time around.
The national census helps to decide how federal funds are distributed, where schools and child-care centers are built and how political representation is apportioned. On another plane, it identifies the rising and the fading cities of the land, bestowing prestige and humility.
For much of the state and especially for Northeast Ohio, the stakes may never have been higher.
Several suburbs -- including Lakewood, Mentor and Cleveland Heights -- are hustling to hold their ranks above the 50,000 mark, the population cut-off for funds from federal Community Development Block Grant programs.
Cuyahoga County would like to avoid being labeled the fastest declining major county in America at decade's end. It bore that distinction in 2008 after losing an estimated 110,000 people since 2000.
The eight-county region also began to slide this decade. The 2010 census is expected to reveal that a regional population gain in the 1990s has been reversed.
Ohio, its population flat in an age of immigration, stands to lose at least one and maybe two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. 
Meanwhile, in hard-hit Cleveland, debate rages over just how much flight and abandonment the census will uncover.
The U.S. Census Bureau fired a warning shot last year. It reported that Cleveland -- population 478,403 in 2000 -- was shrinking faster than any other big city not hit by a hurricane, having lost nearly 10 percent of its residents between 2000 and 2008.
That report preceded the worst of the mortgage meltdown. The census bureau still pegs the city's population at 433,748, its 2008 estimate, but that number draws scoffs.
"There's no doubt we're going under 400,000. No doubt about it," said Mike Polensek, the longest serving member of Cleveland City Council. "The only question is, how low do we go?"
Polensek bases his prediction on "driving around" and seeing the empty lots, vacant houses and unplowed drives in hollowed-out neighborhoods of the East Side.
People with a more academic approach share his pessimism -- or realism. Gregory Brown, the former executive director of the Center for Community Solutions and now researching for PolicyBridge, a local think tank, said he would not be surprised to learn the city's population is south of 400,000.
"I've heard as low as 330," Brown said.
Such a dim view draws sighs in the offices of Robert Brown, director of the Cleveland Planning Commission and a member of the Cleveland 2010 Complete Count Committee, which is leading census awareness efforts in the city.
Robert Brown said the official count is still 433,000 and that anything lower is speculation. He said Cleveland's population could even be higher than estimated because a study shows the city was undercounted in 2000 and because it remains, in hard times, the cheapest place to live.
While it's true many people lost their homes through job losses and foreclosures, Brown said, they likely did not move very far. His committee is urging neighborhood groups and census-takers to look for families "doubled up" in the households of nearby relatives and friends, or living quietly in a foreclosed house.
The region's ranking demographer agrees with his thinking.
"People are moving, definitely. Probably renting. Probably nearby," said Mark Salling, who directs the Northern Ohio Data and Information Service at Cleveland State University.
"If they left, where did they go?" Salling asks. "They're not just disappearing."
There has been little new home construction in growth counties like Medina, Salling said. And people are not moving to other states with jobs, for there is no such place in a national recession.
"I don't believe we're going to go below 400,000," Salling said. "I don't see why the census estimate is so bad."
Salling does acknowledge a weakness in the census methodology. The census bureau bases the city population estimate, in part, on the 2000 vacancy rate -- the rate of vacant housing units in the city at the 2000 census.
If vacancies have been caused to increase by, say, a foreclosure crisis and a brutal recession, then the census estimate could be high, concedes Barbara van der Vate, a statistician and demographer in the census bureau's estimates and projections section.
On the other hand, she said, maybe the person-per-household rate shot up as desperate families moved in together.
"Looks can be deceiving," van der Vate said. "It may seem like the vacancy rate is going up, therefore the population is going down. But if they are living with other people, for all we know, maybe the population went up."
Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis hopes she is right. He does not think she is even close.
Like Polensek, Rokakis is swayed by facts on the ground. But as a creator of a new countywide land bank, he takes a broader view. He suspects many people forced to leave city homes indeed moved out of the neighborhood, often to an inner-ring suburb where houses can now be had for crisis prices -- $35,000 to $55,000 -- in safer neighborhoods with better schools.
That's what the foreclosure crisis wrought, he said. It drained the city by crushing home values in better communities.
His census estimate for Cleveland: 325,000, maybe 330,000.
"Where'd they go? They went to the inner ring suburbs, and beyond," Rokakis said. "I hope I'm wrong. I don't think I am."
Computer assisted reporting expert Rich Exner contributed to this story.