CLEVELAND — Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown testified today during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on COVID-19 recovery efforts.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, led the hearing that featured Mayor Brown and other witnesses who discussed their priorities for COVID-19 recovery, including the need for immediate, equitable relief.
Mayor Brown said his administration has had to overcome many obstacles with inadequate education resources and a lack of livable-wage jobs. Further hindrances in recovery efforts include the decline of housing stock and transportation for those who need access to work, the mayor said.
“The current global pandemic has hit our community harder than most,” Mayor Brown said.
The mayor said the pandemic has revealed the health, social, economic and racial disparities of the community. Small- to medium-size businesses are feeling the impact of the pandemic, especially minority-owned businesses, he said.
Mayor Brown said Youngstown has been struggling for about 50 years due to the close of steel mills and a history of corporate and political corruption that resulted in governmental mistrust in the community.
“When a city is barely rebounding from 50 years of economic decline because of outside forces beyond our control, those rebounds have been further eviscerated by COVID-19,” Mayor Brown said.
He said federal assistance must provide a long-term coordinated strategy to get the resources needed to address the public health impact of COVID-19, and include housing, transportation and small-business efforts.
Ohio cities have been hit hard by the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic because they rely on a municipal income tax as part of their primary source of revenue, Mayor Brown said.
“Youngstown has seen this impact firsthand,” he said.
Mayor Brown said Mahoning County ranks 75th out of 88 Ohio counties with the highest unemployment rate, and when unemployment is up, tax revenue is down and has a rippling effect all across the regional economy in housing, public transit and economic activity.
“In order to truly recover from the pandemic, relief has to help our neighbors and our community to not only survive but also thrive so our city does not flounder for another 50 years,” Mayor Brown said.
The mayor said the federal rescue plan must include assistance to help build back legacy cities like Youngstown. He said it should also include, as President Joe Biden proposed, assistance for the production and distribution of coronavirus vaccines; rental assistance for families; transit assistance to keep buses running so essential workers can get to work; and support for small businesses.
“Small cities need assistance,” Mayor Brown said. “Small cities need assistance quickly. Small cities need assistance desperately.”
Sen. Brown asked the mayor how the pandemic revealed disparities in minority-owned businesses in Youngstown. He said the pandemic has exposed underlying health issues, especially in the minority community, and has showed the lack of proper health care available to people in the city.
“The health issue has been a major issue to deal with in our community,” Mayor Brown said.
U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., asked what forms of exploitation and abuse the constituents they serve are facing during this crisis.
Mayor Brown said housing in Youngstown is affected by predatory lenders from foreign investors. These lenders raise the rent rate to be higher than what the average person would pay.
He said people also enter into land contracts because they want to own properties, but the contracts are not binding or have stipulations.
“[The people in Youngstown] want to be homeowners,” Mayor Brown said. “When that contract is dangled in front of them and it’s actually a false pretense, it causes some predatory lending practices.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., asked about the issues of evictions, rental contracts and lack of finances due to the coronavirus pandemic and how they relate to Youngstown.
Mayor Brown said the eviction issues go hand-in-hand with the coronavirus pandemic.
He said he sees the connection when people who are evicted go to live with family or a friend and can carry the coronavirus from one home to another.
“It becomes a great spreader,” Mayor Brown said.
Mayor Brown said the pandemic is not going to go on forever, so individuals need to be prepared for when it’s over. He said this includes housing counseling, renters' understanding rights and having a good workforce development program to retrain people.
He said eviction is just one of the many problems in Youngstown. While landlords need to be paid, renters also need to understand their rights.
“We have to make sure this is a long-term, sustaining plan,” Mayor Brown said.