Fake facades aren’t enough to cover Ohio’s abandoned home problems (WKSU)

Though many experts say the nation’s foreclosure crisis is waning, at least 100,000 abandoned homes remain in Ohio. Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler reports that communities are struggling to get a grip on the problem, though there are some new ideas and new money coming in to help.

There are so many vacant, abandoned and boarded-up houses in the United States that dealing with them is now almost an industry in itself.

Scott Smith sells a Michigan-made product called Home Illusions, which he says he’s marketing to landlords and municipalities.
“We manufacture a vinyl graphic in the form of a window or a door – goes right over top of the plywood.”

Habitat moves to rehab
The problem of abandoned housing has become so big in Cuyahoga County that Habitat for Humanity International, the charitable organization that builds new homes for lower-income families, has changed its approach a bit. John Habat is with Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity.

“In Cleveland we’ve moved totally to rehabbing vacant houses. So this year and next year and perhaps the next few years, we will not build any new houses because of the abundance of vacant properties already available.”

But while those ideas might help overwhelmed communities handle the visible damage of the foreclosure crisis, they don’t solve the problem. For the official who was one of the first to speak out about it, the solution in most cases is not in renovation, but demolition. Jim Rokakis was the Cuyahoga County treasurer during many of the worst years of the foreclosure crisis, and now heads theThriving Communities Institute.  He says none of Ohio’s biggest cities have avoided the devastation.

Small towns and big cities
“In fact, if you visit some of the small towns in Ohio, you will learn that nobody has escaped this. Look at Mansfield, Ohio, Lima, Ohio. There’s no shortage – I hate to say this – of depressed and depressing small towns in Ohio.”

Rokakis says $60 million in demolition assistance is coming from the federal government’s Hardest Hit Fund, which has provided billions to 18 states that suffered the highest numbers of foreclosures. And $75 million has come from the nationwide settlement with five banks over the use of robo-signings, when thousands of documents were signed with no verification or review.  Attorney General Mike DeWine says every state got a chunk of that settlement.

“No state is using as much money as we are to assist local communities to deal with this blight.”

More needed
Rokakis says there’s about $180 million now available for demolition of abandoned and vacant homes. It’s a lot of money, but he says it’s not enough.

“That gets us about a fifth of the way there. So it’s a problem. The people who live in these neighborhoods don’t have any political clout. We have to devote some resources to helping to clean up really what are the inner cities of Ohio.”

Rokakis headed up the state’s first county land bank, a corporation that acquires abandoned properties to clean up and sell. He now helps to set up land banks. There are 16 in Ohio, and eight more are on the way, thanks to a state law that allows any county with more than 60,000 residents to create one. But Rokakis says that will still leave a lot of area uncovered; those 24 land banks will cover only about 60 percent of the 42 counties that can legally set them up.

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