At a recent meeting, the mayor of Shaker Heights, Ohio, announced that the city would participate in a new county financing program that would pay the city a higher rate for its bonds than it could get in the private market. With the money, the city finally would have some leverage to fight back against the scourge of foreclosures and neglected houses that plague Shaker Heights and much of Cuyahoga County, and would double its ability to force absentee landlords to bring their properties up to code.

So when Mayor Judy Rawson explained the new financing arrangement behind the initiative, the attending group of bankers and community leaders was impressed. “That's an astonishing innovation,” she recalls one banker saying. “Who came up with that?” Rawson was ready with the answer: Cuyahoga County Treasurer James Rokakis. “He's been key,” Rawson says. “He's a crucial partner for solving a critical problem in our communities.”

From every level of the campaign to preserve quality housing in the face of indifferent landlords and struggling homeowners, Jim Rokakis is lauded for his leadership and innovation, which has extended from Cuyahoga County across the state of Ohio. For his extraordinary effort in 2006 to battle the blight of neighborhood decline, American City & County has chosen Rokakis as its County Leader of the Year.

Rokakis has been involved in a number of issues in his career, but he has been most deeply involved in efforts to save neighborhoods. His focus on the issue dates from his initial entry into politics as a member of the Cleveland City Council while still a senior at Oberlin College in 1977 through his 20-year tenure on the council and, most recently, as county treasurer since 1997.

Pressuring the landlords

His interest in housing actually began at Oberlin, where he wrote his senior thesis on the nation's housing courts, where judges could fine negligent absentee landlords and force them to fix their properties. He proposed such a court for Cleveland, and after becoming a city councilman, he pushed successfully to make the court a reality. “It's become an emergency room for housing conditions,” says housing court Judge Raymond Pianka.

Rokakis, 52, was attracted to housing issues because of the long decline in population and quality housing stock in Cleveland. He watched as Cleveland, which at one time had more than 900,000 residents, became the home of barely more than 400,000, and the problems of the inner city seeped into neighboring communities. And, he watched as his childhood home was among those that fell to foreclosure. “He takes these things personally,” says Richard Cordray, state treasurer and former Franklin County, Ohio, treasurer.

Cuyahoga County has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. Initially the problems were created by absentee landlords who refused to keep their properties up to code. In addition, fire-damaged buildings remained vacant, creating eyesores that affected the property values. In the past year, the situation has been exacerbated by subprime mortgage lending. Cuyahoga County had 13,500 foreclosures in 2006 and estimates another 17,000 in 2007. “It's completely destabilizing,” Rokakis says.

Last year, Rokakis tackled the problem with a blizzard of initiatives, including launching the “Don't Borrow Trouble” Foreclosure Prevention Program, which offers educational information and individualized counseling about managing loans and credit. To date, there have been more than 4,000 calls to the program's newly established information hotline, and more than 600 homes have been saved from foreclosure through one-on-one counseling.

He also called for expanding the Housing Enhancement Loan Program (HELP). Through the initiative, which has been operating on a small scale since 1999, the county treasurer, local communities and area banks join to reduce the interest rate on home improvement loans. HELP is a linked deposit program where lenders make home improvement loans directly to homeowners at 3 percent below the available rate. The treasurer's office then devotes approximately 10 percent of its core investment portfolio to purchasing a matching amount of certificates of deposit, accepting a return 3 percent less than the market rate. Since the program began, it has assisted more than 6,000 residents and has been responsible for more than $75 million in home improvement loans.

Last year, the Cuyahoga County Board of Revision held hearings for the first time as part of the Expedited Vacant and Neglected Property Foreclosure Program, created through authority granted from Rokakis-initiated legislation. The hearings expedite the transfer of vacant and neglected properties off the docket of overburdened county courts and puts them in the hands of the county's Board of Revision. Cases that previously took up to 30 months to be adjudicated now can be heard in 2 ½ months.

More recently, Rokakis has tackled the problems of foreclosure of the homes of poor elderly residents who cannot keep up on their property taxes and maintenance. In December 2006, the state adopted a Rokakis proposal to provide tax relief to senior citizens who are often under stress to pay their taxes. The new law permits counties to help tax-delinquent seniors avoid foreclosure through “tax-only” low-interest loan programs. The discounted loans can leverage home equity to cover loan payments and interest, similar to reverse mortgages. Before applying, seniors will receive counseling and can only borrow what they need to cover their tax bills.

The treasurer's office plans to make the program available to Cuyahoga County senior homeowners in mid-2007, and other cities and counties in Ohio plan to adopt it, Cordray says. “Jim has a knack of driving to success [and overcoming] obstacles, bureaucratic and otherwise,” he says

Meanwhile, Rokakis chaired a review of the Ohio Housing Finance Agency and is a member of Ohio's Foreclosure Prevention Task Force, which was appointed by Gov. Ted Strickland to find solutions for victims of predatory lenders who are unable to make their mortgage payments and are likely to lose their homes. A frequent speaker against predatory lending practices, Rokakis also has met with federal and state authorities to press them to criminally indict people who have used fraud and deception to play the housing market, increasing foreclosures for their financial gain.

Rawson, the mayor of Shaker Heights, calls Rokakis “a leader, innovator, coalition builder, a man of action and a public servant.” She admires how Rokakis attacks the most challenging problems, rather than settling for other issues that are easily solved. “He is absolutely front and center on some of the toughest housing and financial issues confronting communities in Ohio and Cuyahoga County,” she says.

Driven by experience

Rokakis looks to his own upbringing as the wellspring for his passion to use the tools of government to help people in distress. “I grew up very poor,” he says. “At a young age, I developed an affinity for people who had less.” After 30 years in public office, he remains optimistic despite what he sometimes feels are overwhelming problems. “I believe that government can make a difference, if you are patient and persistent.”

His persistence has not always endeared him to all community leaders. He has tangled with school officials about their investment practices, which he says cost taxpayers valuable returns on their tax payments, and with smokers who thought his no-smoking initiatives as a councilman were infringing on their rights. “There have to be voices who speak out on the issues,” he says.

A number of those who know him say Rokakis has transformed an elected position, the primary responsibility of which is to collect the county's property taxes and invest the receipts, into a bully pulpit for underdogs in the county's and state's housing crisis. Rokakis acknowledges that he has adopted what some might call an expansive view of his office, but he says government has an essential role in improving people's lives. “I could go by the job description or try to expand it to get the job done,” he says. “There has to be someone speaking out on the issues. And if I'm not doing it, who would it be?”

Robert Barkin is a Bethesda, Md.-based freelance writer.