In Shadow of Trump Convention, Cleveland Still Struggles to Recover

Outside the RNC, one of America’s poorest cities is still coping with the effects of the recession. Documents showing how Trump promised to help people make money from those who lost their homes aren’t helping.

People protest Trump near an abandoned house in Cleveland during Republican National Convention. July 2016.
Jim Urquhart, Reuters

In January 2014, when Cleveland was chosen to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, Donald Trump was not yet a presidential candidate. Cleveland rejoiced over the economic opportunities the convention would bring, and over the past year the entire city got ready to welcome the 50,000 people who were expected to attend. Roads were fixed, the airport was spruced up and the world’s largest outdoor chandelier was hung in the theater district.

But the disclosure of documents from Trump University that reveal how students were taught how to make money from home foreclosures has lent a sad aspect to the proceedings. It is ironic that Cleveland, which once had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, is where Trump was crowned the Republican candidate for president.

Last month, a New York court ruled that the records of Trump University, a private company that operated from 2005 to 2010 and offered real-estate courses, had to be made public. The documents showed that Trump promised the students that he would teach them to make money from the recession. “Thousands of properties are available for pennies on the dollar,” read one email pitch to potential students, according to a report from NPR. “In today’s down market I’m telling people to buy, buy, buy. Banks are selling foreclosed properties at pennies on the dollar,” read a mailer signed by Trump himself.

The university also explained how to find homeowners who were in trouble. “Real Estate Goldmine: How to get Rich Investing in Pre-Foreclosures,” an audio course published by Trump University in 2006, teaches how to do short sales, in which the buyer convinces the struggling homeowner to sell and the mortgage lender to reduce the seller’s debt. It lists the ideal target for such a deal: “The borrower is out of work, the borrower has $50,000 in unpaid medical claims, the borrow is completely disabled, the borrower has an extraordinarily messy divorce where everything has been squandered.”

Trump University is being sued for presenting itself as an accredited academic institution. Meanwhile, if the delegates would venture just a short distance from the highly secured convention center, they could see the true face of the rash of foreclosures that struck here during the recession, the “goldmine” in Trump University parlance.

“I saw the wrecking balls smashing the houses,” long-time Cleveland resident Laureen Deveney says ruefully. “All of East Cleveland just looks so sad now, and it used to be so nice there. In the neighborhood next to me, all the neighbors used to work, but that’s no longer the case. A lot of windows are boarded up and it’s kind of scary. I drove from neighborhood to neighborhood looking for work, first to a suburb near Cleveland and I thought that they were poor, until I saw the next neighborhood over.”

“I have nothing to expect from their convention. They’ve already decided who will be their fearless leader,” says Robert Serebica, who is walking his dog down the main street in Tremont. Until recently Tremont, or the South Side as it was called then, was considered a dangerous, crime-ridden area. But unlike the eastern part of the city, which is still considered to be the poorest and most violent, Tremont has begun to undergo a renaissance (or gentrification, depending whom you ask). Celebrity chefs have opened restaurants and bars in the neighborhood, that drew young people to the area, and then more affluent residents also began moving in.

"It's a city that is coming back in certain regards, if you are moneyed it's become a fun place to live"' says Serebica. "But if you are on the other side of the economic spectrum it has stayed the same, or maybe gotten worse. The education system has yet to improve, and there are just as much people incarcerated. And for many people there are no jobs on the horizon.”

Other locals are cautiously optimistic, citing Tremont’s revival. “Unfortunately, we had a lot of foreclosures during the recession. We were hit really hard” says Bradley Richardson, a 35-year-old Tremont resident, who is hopeful that the upturn in Tremont will spread to other Cleveland neighborhoods. “In East Cleveland there are some devastated neighborhoods. I hope we’ll be able to help them. I’m watching the Republican Convention from home, and I hope the Democrats will win. Actually, what Cleveland needs is immigrants — an influx of new minds and new ideas.”