Heights Community Congress

Building an Integrated Cleveland Heights

The Heights Community Congress was a fair housing organization which formed in Cleveland Heights in 1972 in response to racial discrimination practices in the Cleveland real estate and lending markets. After East Cleveland endured a dramatic upheaval in the second half of the 1960s, with its population transforming from predominantly white to predominantly black in a remarkably short period of time, the members of the Heights Community Congress wanted to ensure that Cleveland Heights would not be "another East Cleveland." Their mission was to encourage integration without re-segregation. After a 1972 survey, now known as St. Ann's Audit, members of a social group called Action for a Change found extreme racial steering in Cleveland and Shaker Heights; the group decided to organize and intervene in the unfair housing practices.

A common myth held that the influx of blacks into a community inevitably led to a decrease in property values; this myth caused many white families to pick up and move at the first sight of an African American family on the block. This phenomenon of panic, known as white flight, was just one of the problems facing the integration of Cleveland suburbs. The Heights Community Congress sought to end the discrimination in suburban integration by attacking the problem from every angle. The myth of decreased property values was perpetuated by lending agencies, who would not give money to suburbs with even a few black families for home improvement purposes. The resulting state of disrepair in integrated and black communities led to the establishment of a subcommittee within the Heights Community Congress which helped black families get funding, as well as created workshops to educate first-time home owners about home improvement and loan options.

The HCC used "checkers" to audit real estate companies. Checkers were both black and white couples who would each try to inquire, separately, about properties for rent or sale. If the couples were given different information and race was suspected to be the motivator, the HCC would intervene and equip slighted families with the tools necessary to sue. The methods used by the Heights Community Congress were aimed at creating and maintaining integrated neighborhoods, with a focus not only on the racial make up of communities, but on all aspects of community life, like education, code enforcement, and public safety. The HCC was to be a "parallel institution" to the real estate companies to ensure that someone was enforcing fair housing law, according to Heights Congress member, Lana Cowell. The Heights Community Congress's auditing role transferred to the Heights Housing Service in 1977 when it was brought into City Hall.

The Heights Community Congress was determined to draw public attention to the successes of integration by showcasing thriving neighborhoods with a wealth of recreational community activities. The HCC also conducted (and continues to lead) Heritage Home Tours, in order to allow the public to view beautiful, well maintained historic homes in the Cleveland Heights area. The tours would not only bring a sense of pride to the community, but showcase the maintained property value levels, despite integration. The HCC would distribute awards to homeowners who took an active role in maintaining the integrity of their home, harboring a sense of pride in the integrated neighborhood. As HCC director Kermit Lind described, the community activities like block parties, planned by the HCC, would not have been nearly as important in the Cleveland Heights community if it were not for the need to showcase black and white families having fun and doing things together. The Heritage Home Tours and other programs led by the Congress were a method of assurance that integration was continuing, and was a positive and valuable aspect of the community.

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Audio

What is Your Race?
Donald Ramos recalls his personal experience with racial steering when seeking housing in Cleveland Heights.
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The St. Ann's Social Action Committee
The St. Ann's Audit was instrumental to the formation of the Heights Community Congress. Former HCC leader Lana Cowell discusses the motivation behind the audit and the action taken as a result.
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A Model Proposal
Lana Cowell discusses the HCC's role in drafting a nine-point comprehensive housing plan adopted to help the City of Cleveland Heights enforce fair housing.
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Smith v. City of Cleveland Heights
Kermit Lind, former HCC director, explains the resistance from black families in regards to integration, which led to a case decided in the Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1985.
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The Heights Housing Service
Kermit Lind explains the progression of the Heights Community Congress to a city-funded program.
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