After the foreclosure crisis that crippled Cleveland’s economy from 2007 through 2012, the city gradually is making a comeback. There are a lot of people in both the public and private sectors who are tirelessly working to improve Cleveland. One of them is Ed Rybka ’73.
As director of the Department of Building and Housing for the City of Cleveland, Rybka’s responsibilities focus on initiatives and actions that will enhance the quality of life for the citizens and businesses in the city. Rybka believes the city’s policies and initiatives will leverage private investment.
“Through the Department of Building and Housing, the City of Cleveland spent $10 million in 2013 demolishing abandoned, blighted property resulting in the availability of vacant land to support private investment,” Rybka says. “Because the city was hit so hard with the foreclosure crisis, in the eight years I’ve held this position, the city has responded by inspecting, condemning and tearing down over 7,600 blighted structures at a cost that exceeds $59 million.”
Although his department also reviews and approves construction projects in the city, most of Rybka’s time is focused on the city’s response to the foreclosure crisis, which resulted in tens of thousands of vacant structures dotting the neighborhoods of Cleveland. “Foreclosure filings in Cleveland have dropped considerably in the last year or two,” Rybka says. “It’s dropped at a more positive rate than suburban areas.”
As sad as it may sound, Rybka says, “I believe, as does Mayor Jackson, that razing these boarded and dilapidated structures will stabilize the city’s neighborhoods. You feel you’re having an impact. You can actually see the impact of your work. We all wish we had more resources to do what we have to do, but I think in the last eight years, going through the toughest economy since the Great Depression, Cleveland’s positioning itself for a stronger future.”
Rybka points to major urban construction projects such as Horseshoe Casino, the Cleveland Convention Center and the Medical Mart as major investments that are boosting the local economy. The Cleveland Museum of Art expansion, development on the Flats East Bank and investments in Ohio City, Detroit-Shoreway and Tremont helped as well, he says.
Rybka’s department also issues all the construction permits in the city. In 2013, the department issued 16,000 permits. Together, those projects generated about $900 million worth of construction for Cleveland.
An influx of young people in the last couple years is creating optimism among residents about Cleveland’s future, too. They’re being drawn to Cleveland in part because of downtown residential development, a thriving dining scene and world-class arts.
Rybka has seen it even in his own family. Both of his children, Keith ’05 and Hallie ’08, went away for college and are back in Cleveland. “It’s one of the remarkable things about Gilmour,” he says. “There is that lasting link among friends.”
Keith, for instance, plays ice hockey every Sunday with his former classmates; Hallie’s social circle includes her former Gilmour classmates, too. “Hers was a close-knit group,” Rybka says. “That interaction continues. It’s part of the Gilmour nurturing. They’ll stay lifelong friends.”
Rybka’s time is largely consumed with his work responsibilities. His days are long, his position demanding. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has high standards and high expectations, “and we’re held accountable to be responsive to the city’s residents and business community,” Rybka says.
The two first met years ago, when both sat on the Cleveland City Council. Rybka served for nearly 20 years, Jackson for 16. Rybka’s days as a councilman are close to his heart.
“They say once you’re a councilman, you’re always a councilman,” he says. “It’s hard to forget those 20 years. That was the frying pan through which I jumped into the fire.”
And the fire’s still going. The longer it’s burned, the more Rybka’s matured. Reflecting on his career choice, Rybka says if he knew then what he knows now, he would have chosen the same path.
“When you’re first elected, you’re in your silo, you’re in your tunnel plugging away when you realize there’s an eclectic group of people who want to make a better place of the city,” he says.
“You almost don’t realize it initially,” he continues. “Then you start to mature, and you start to see that there are a lot of resources out there that can be used to make life better for the people of this region.”
For Rybka, that’s what it’s all about. Perhaps he picked it up through osmosis by observing the politician who inspired him in his youth: Carl Stokes, the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city.
“When I was in grade school, I remember being fascinated by his election,” he says. “Even in high school, my father would drive me down to City Hall and I would take in City Council meetings. I was fascinated by what Carl Stokes’ election meant for the city – and the nation. It caused me to get involved more in my own community.”
Rybka has spent nearly 30 years now in Cleveland politics, so it’s safe to say his desire to stay involved in his community lasted. But he can’t do it all by himself. There are, after all, 125 others in his department.
“I’ve got people who are working hard, who are working under difficult conditions,” he says. “If I came into this thinking Ed Rybka alone is going to have an impact, I would have been sorely mistaken.”
Would you want your kids to go into politics?
Yes, people dedicated to community and who wish to advance opportunity for all people are needed in politics. But beyond actually getting into politics, I would encourage my children and others in that generation to consider employment in the public sector.
Why the public sector?
The public sector and the political system are a rewarding means to assist people and to have a positive impact on the lives of many.
How long have you and your wife, Jan, been married?
29 years this June. Incidentally, she is the administrator for a government agency, the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District.
What trait has helped you most in life?
The ability to persist to reach an end, and a belief that, as a general rule, people are by nature good intentioned
Any given Sunday, you can find me . . .
Spending time with my wife and family