Bohn Tower rises 22 stories into the sky from downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Owned by the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), the affordable housing property is not only surrounded by condominiums, multifamily housing, and high-rise office buildings, but it sits near the waterfront and is close to the Q Arena, Progressive Field, hotels, and many restaurants. It was an ideal site to be preserved and renovated through RAD.
Our team met at Bohn Tower with several of the tenants, who all agreed that it is the best location in the city.
Taking on renovations for a 22-story building is no small task. Anyone who wanted to move out during the renovations was assisted. However, CMHA also allowed residents to remain in the building during the construction. Those who stayed were prepped for the noise, and some took part in the development.
"We encouraged contractors to give residents the opportunity to work with them and learn about something. It benefits the tenants and it also helps to have tenants who see both sides. When you get involved like that, you're also not just waiting for something to happen anymore; you're part of it happening," said Jeffery Patterson, Chief Executive Officer of CMHA.
Ms. Tracy Botsio-Boakye, a resident of three years, took an administrative job managing the punch list and keeping inventory, meeting notes, and timesheets. She checked with contractors on the plans and learned to use the Oracle software to track their daily schedules.
"I learned a lot and I enjoyed it tremendously," she shared with a smile.
Providing tenants with various jobs during the renovation not only kept them engaged, active, and imparted with a sense of ownership, but also achieved CMHA’s Section 3 goals to provide economic opportunity to low-income individuals.
"When you're living in a building you care so much about and you get to be part of the process, it makes you feel outstanding. Not only are you living there, but you are contributing, too," Mr. Charles Brown said.
Mr. Brown has resided at Bohn Tower for more than four years and serves as Vice President of CMHA's Executive Leadership Board. As a tenant, he also worked on a project during the renovation.
One of the biggest changes in the building was the addition of a third elevator. Cutting an elevator shaft into a building like Bohn Tower—and while it was still occupied—was unprecedented. But it was necessary. The two old elevators that serviced the entire building moved so slow that it was widely known you could push the button, take a shower, and come back dressed before it reached your floor.
Adding an elevator was a massive project, but not the only one taken on during the renovation that immediately improved the quality of housing for residents.
Individual units underwent removal of minimal asbestos and lead-based paint. They also received new kitchens, bathrooms, hallways, shelving, environmental controls, doors, and workspaces.
Common spaces were also refreshed; the building’s public restrooms and offices spaces were improved in addition to new community and recreation rooms that were constructed.
Project amenities included range, refrigerators, garbage disposal, improved air conditioning, carpeting, window blinds, secure intercom access, and a rooftop patio.
Residents reported that since the renovations, people from around the city are drawn into the building and inquire about availability.
"It's changing people's concept of housing authority. It's not a 'project.'" Mr. Taller Williams said, smiling. He has lived at Bohn Tower for six years and serves as President of the Tower's Advisory Council.
Moving Residents Into Their New Homes
CMHA first renovated the vacant units and then moved residents who stayed during renovations into those spaces. Most often, even if tenants were reluctant to leave an old unit, they were excited to stay in the new one once they saw it.
"There are a lot of things to consider. Uprooting someone who has lived in a unit for 22 years is different than moving someone who lived there for just 5 years. We wanted to move people from their old unit to a new one and that was not always an easy conversation to have with people. But you just talk to them and you keep in mind their perspective, and most times they go into the new unit and they are happy," Mr. Patterson said.
"I watched it being done. I helped with it along the way. But when it was all done; when I walked into the space with everything, I just thought: this is incredible; this is amazing; and this is my home." ~ Ms. Botsio-Boakye
Residents were also involved in picking out the colors. After a palette was created, it was shared with tenants, who then narrowed it down to four main colors for use throughout the tower.
"Tenants had a choice and that meant so much," Mr. Patterson added, speaking about the role tenants were offered in determining the color pallet for the accent walls, and everyone nodded in agreement.
There was clear consensus among the CMHA leadership, building manager, board and advisory council members, and residents that communication was the key component to the success of the project.
CMHA distributed flyers and organized meetings that formally provided an opportunity for tenants to learn, ask questions, and provide feedback. There were also plenty of opportunities for casual facetime so residents could provide feedback in more comfortable settings.
"It's helpful to make sure people understand what it means that we have become RAD housing, and a big part of being successful in Bohn Tower was that everyone came together and expressed their thoughts, and our managers and our directors were always accessible to any and all questions we had," Mr. Williams stated. "And once we walked into those new apartments and saw what had transpired, people were like, 'Wow, this is nice!'"
Top Recommendations For Success
We asked if the residents and board members would share the things they learned that would be helpful for others considering a RAD conversion and within minutes we had this list of musts:
- Make sure you understand all the work that is going to be done before it begins.
- Examine any possible unforeseen circumstances so that you can have a contingency plan and a way of walking tenants through it.
- Coordinate your relocation timeline with the construction contractor’s timeline. If you are moving people from old units into new ones as they become available, make sure tenants aren't being moved too quickly to transition, but also make sure they are moved with adequate time for work to begin on schedule.
- Be available and have lots of facetime with your tenants. It strengthens trust and keeps concerns from becoming problems.
- Communication is the most important thing. Walk tenants through the process from the physical changes to the property to their lives moving forward. They might not know how it will personally impact them.
- Listen to residents when developing the scope of work. Make sure you do the things that will have a significant impact on the building, like asbestos removal or new roofs, but also add in items that will improve quality of life for residents. The "big ticket" item at Bohn Tower was the third elevator, which everyone wanted.
Becoming A Successful Senior Community
The renovations to the common spaces of Bohn Tower have helped to develop a sense of community among the residents.
"We have a pool table now, and eventually we will have a new TV, some wifi... things that bring us together," Mr. Brown said. A community kitchen was also renovated and is now the center of group activity with a weekly fish fry and other events.
"Not only did they renovate the building, they made it so we could grow as a community," Mr. Brown observed.
"Management is supporting us, the administration is backing us, we're settling in, and not only that, but we're shaping up to be a successful senior community downtown," Mr. Brown said with pride in his voice.
The Impact of RAD
At the beginning of the RAD conversion, there was some anxiety among the tenants about what this would mean for them; whether it meant their rent would suddenly rise and why the paperwork and documents they were used to changed slightly.
"You have the risk of that feeling of 'it's not for us,' but it is. It's for everyone. It's for us," Mr. Williams said.
"It is really something for people to experience newness; freshness," Mr. Patterson said. "Sometimes people think that those who live in [public] housing are different than anyone else. Coming to a place like this is a feeling of accomplishment. One man who moved into the building after the renovation had never felt comfortable with having his kids visit before. He'd been ashamed. Now, he has them over and they've never seen anything like it. It's new; it has working appliances like dishwashers."
"No matter what 'class' of people you are, this is something you should be able to experience. You should be able to come home and say 'this is great.' People want the same things." ~Mr. Patterson
"I was like a kid with a brand-new toy," shared Ms. Emma Granger, who has lived for 21 years in the tower.
"These folks live in this place for the same reason that other people live downtown: it's accessible, you don't have to own a car; you can get anywhere quickly, you have all kinds of different stores, and you're in the hottest part of town. Why wouldn't you want to live here?" Mr. Patterson asked, and everyone nodded in agreement.
"Your economic level should make no difference. This building personifies all that the RAD program really represents," Mr. Patterson said.