128 ‘worst of the worst’ houses slated to be first to fall (Columbus Dispatch)

Columbus’ newly formed Vacant and Abandoned Properties team has identified the first batch of houses it wants to demolish by the end of the year.

As the team — made up of members of the city attorney’s office, code-enforcement and building and zoning services — plots its course, it is being watched carefully by Near East Side leaders who say they want the city to take its time in planning demolitions.The 128 houses the team identified are on Mayor Michael B. Coleman’s list of the 900 “worst of the worst” houses citywide.Some are fire-ravaged; others are beyond repair. And many houses are the detritus of the foreclosure crisis that scarred many Columbus neighborhoods.

The team has spent the past several months reviewing the mayor’s list, first whittling it down to 377, then finally 128, said Nichole Brandon, Columbus’ deputy development director.

Some of the properties are in the city’s land bank, others are privately owned. Crews went out with checklists over several weeks after Coleman’s announcement in February, visiting neighborhoods to see whether houses were tax delinquent, had structural damage and had been vacant for a long time.“They’re bad,” Brandon said.

After compiling the list, city officials looked at the properties that had deteriorated the most and violated city codes, she said.Those are the houses being referred to the city attorney’s office for court dates, she said.

City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. said his office still has to determine whether the city has the authority to demolish the properties. He also said that city officials will visit neighborhood area commissions to talk about the properties they want to tear down.

“We’re not tearing down blocks,” Pfeiffer said.

Near East Area Commission members say they will ask the city to try to save brick houses, to preserve houses on intact blocks, and to market to developers areas that are filled with vacant lots, such as E. Long Street and Garfield Avenue.

“We don’t want them knocking stuff down, leaving us with flatlands,” said Kathleen Bailey, who leads the commission.

Randy Black, the city’s historic-preservation officer, said he could help determine whether properties are eligible for historic designation.

Coleman announced the team’s formation in February as part of what he called a “comprehensive attack” on vacant and abandoned properties. There are more than 6,000 such properties citywide.While the Vacant and Abandoned Property team is working on its list, there also is movement in other offices to speed up the process of acquiring properties for demolition.Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien said he will spend $2 million to hire additional staff or outside counsel to quickly move more cases through court.

That’s part of a larger city-county package officials are putting together in an application to submit to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office for some of the $75 million the state has committed to demolishing vacant and abandoned houses.

Those funds come from Ohio’s $335 million share of a recent nationwide settlement with the country’s five largest lenders that were investigated for foreclosure and mortgage abuses.The state will begin awarding the grants on Aug. 1. The amount of money available to each county will be based on foreclosure filings from 2008 through 2011. Franklin County is eligible to receive $8.2 million. Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, is eligible to receive the most, at $11.8 million.

Columbus plans to spend $2.5 million over the next year on demolitions, part of a total of $11.5 million committed by Coleman. Most of the houses are in the city’s poorest neighborhoods in Linden, Franklinton, the Hilltop, the South Side and the Near East Side.

Residents aren’t shy in telling the city what they want to see demolished.

“We’re getting calls all the time,” Brandon said.

At the same time, city officials have discovered that some people are trying to fix up 35 to 40 houses on the mayor’s list; all have open permits to do the work, Brandon said.The city already has 115 properties in the pipeline to be demolished beyond the list the Vacant and Abandoned Properties team developed, Brandon said.

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