Plan could help cities pay for blighted homes (Columbus Dispatch)

As part of an ongoing effort to wrestle with vacant and abandoned properties in Columbus, city officials will keep an eye on a new money-recouping strategy being tried in Cleveland.

Last week, the Cleveland City Council passed an ordinance allowing the city to collect money from property owners for the costs of dealing with eyesores, from the time a property is condemned to demolition. That would include attorney fees, court costs and the expenses of cutting grass and boarding up buildings.

Because condemned properties are often flipped, or sold, repeatedly, the city has been able to go after the owners only at the time of demolition, said Councilman Anthony Brancatelli, who sponsored the legislation.

“The last person (was) stuck holding the bag,” he said. His council ward includes the Slavic Village neighborhood, widely considered a hot spot of the U.S. foreclosure epidemic.

The new legislation gives the city the ability to pursue earlier owners, especially out-of-state companies that buy numerous properties then turn them around quickly, Brancatelli said.

“These out-of-town wholesalers had no accountability,” he said. Now, “we’re going to go after the deep pockets.”

The Cleveland council also passed an ordinance requiring property owners to register businesses with the state of Ohio. The state requires registration but doesn’t have the staff to enforce it properly, Cleveland Housing Judge Ray Pianka said.

“We have corporations with multiple properties that are unregistered,” he said.

In September, a Cuyahoga County judge fined a Reno, Nev., company $10,000 for failing to register. According to court records, the company was involved in 500 transactions since 2000.

Cleveland has spent $25million since 2008 to demolish more than 4,300houses, City Council spokesman Jim Kopniske said.

“Taxpayers are eating the cost,” he said. Now, “we’re making it absolutely clear that we’re taking the housing crisis very seriously. We’re trying to do anything and everything we can to hold people responsible.”

In Columbus, City Council members will review the new Cleveland rules, spokesman John Ivanic said.

“We’re willing to look at anything anywhere to implement best practices in Columbus,” he said.

Since 2010, through its code-enforcement office, the city has demolished 46 buildings at a cost of $255,151. Some were garages; many had been damaged by fire.

The costs of demolition came from the general fund, then were attached to the owners’ property taxes.

Another $2.18 million in federal neighborhood-stabilization money has been spent to demolish 132 properties in the city’s land bank, said John Turner, land-development office administrator.

Columbus has more than 6,000 vacant and abandoned properties.

City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. is interested in what Cleveland is doing but wonders whether the Cleveland laws will be enforceable.

“If the owner responsible is not doing anything, can you find the owner? Get the owner to be responsible? How do you get their assets?” Pfeiffer asked.

Often, “these ordinances are an expression of frustration, frustration that the problems seem to be overwhelming,” he said.

Brancatelli, the Cleveland councilman, agrees that the ordinance is only one tool.

“We know this is not a silver bullet to collect bad debt. But if you’re dumping distressed property, we would hold you accountable.”

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