Cities seek help to bulldoze homes (Columbus Dispatch)

Ohio has more than 70,000 vacant and abandoned houses, and its cities don’t have the money to raze even the worst ones that pull down property values and attract criminals and squatters.

So some leaders are going to the Statehouse and to Washington, D.C., to talk about finding new ways to pay for tearing down blighted houses in cities from Toledo to Portsmouth.

One idea is for federal lawmakers to create tax credits to pay for demolitions. City leaders also want government money to fund bonds to help pay for tear-downs, and they might ask for relaxed environmental regulations, to reduce barriers to demolitions.

They’re pushing to make this a statewide issue rather than one handled city by city, town by town.

“This is not an urban problem. This is an everyone problem,” said Joel Ratner, the president and chief executive of Neighborhood Progress Inc., a Cleveland nonprofit group working to redevelop that city’s neighborhoods.

“I think we have an opportunity to show the rest of the country how to deal with this,” said Lavea Brachman, the executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The Greater Ohio group plans to press Gov. John Kasich to make this a top priority.

Jim Rokakis, a former Cuyahoga County treasurer and Cleveland city councilman, is helping to lead the effort as director of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Institute.

Rokakis estimated that there are “a minimum” of 70,000 vacant and abandoned houses in Ohio.

He said Cleveland has nearly 14,000 vacant houses, 7,700 of which have been condemned. Dayton, which has less than a quarter of Columbus’ population, has 7,000 to 10,000 vacant and abandoned houses and commercial structures.

“It’s a gigantic problem,” said Kevin Powell, Dayton’s acting division manager of housing inspection. “How do you get rid of all this extra supply?”

Columbus has more than 6,000 vacant and abandoned houses, which make some areas in Franklinton, Linden, the Near East Side and other neighborhoods forbidding and hazardous.

In such areas, swaths of vacant and abandoned homes leave occupied homes nearby essentially worthless, Rokakis said. “If we don’t do this, we have to assume the number of vacant properties will double in the next several years.”

His group has retained local consulting firm Vorys Advisors, led by former U.S. Rep. David Hobson, a Republican from Springfield, to lobby to help secure money for demolitions.

Hobson said it has to be a public-private effort. Matching dollars from foundations and organizations could leverage public money, he said.

Columbus has budgeted more than $3 million of its $50 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program money for demolitions. Regulations say only as much as 10 percent of that money can be used to tear down houses.

“NSP funding was a good start, but it’s terribly insufficient to deal with the scale of the problem that we face in Ohio,” said Ratner, also a Greater Ohio board member. “We need to find additional revenue over the next few years to have enough money to deal with this problem for the scale that we’re facing.”

Columbus officials are looking at including $2 million in the city’s capital budget this year for demolitions.

But Columbus City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. has been pushing for solutions that don’t require taxpayer money. He said he wants to work with area commissions and community groups to identify residents who would be interested in buying vacant properties in their neighborhoods to do something with them.

He said the city could acquire homes through tax foreclosures and deed the properties to those people for the costs of the foreclosure process.

“Let’s start having a strategy to get private investments to take over the vacant properties and create value with them,” Pfeiffer said.

Although that’s a good idea, Hobson said, “rehabbing them is not enough. You’ve got to have somebody to move into them and stay in them.”

The market is not going to fix this, Rokakis said. “You can’t feel very good about your community in a sea of vacant houses.”

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman met with city Development Department officials last week to talk about how best to deal with vacant houses, and how demolition fits in, said his spokesman, Dan Williamson.

“There are so many different layers of this,” Williamson said. “When you demolish a house, what do you do with the property?”

Rokakis has been traveling the state as communities ask for help in setting up land banks to acquire properties for rehabilitation and demolition.

Franklin County Treasurer Ed Leonard has said he wants to set up a nonprofit corporation that would divert tax-penalty payments from school districts and other agencies to acquire and fix up or demolish vacant homes.

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