Razing Columbus eyesores key to land bank’s plan

March 26, 2015. The Columbus Dispatch.

Nearly every Monday evening for the past seven years, Nate Wilkins has implored Columbus City Council members to save boarded-up homes that scar his Linden neighborhood.

For Wilkins, the 100-year-old houses are the only lasting artifacts of the good times he enjoyed a generation ago.

After all those years of trips to City Hall, the bus fare and countless conversations with council members and their aides, the 40-year-old gave up his fight this week.

“I realize now demolition is the answer,” he said.

From Linden to the South Side, the Near East Side to Franklinton, residents are beginning to see the impact of the city’s plan, with the help of Franklin County, to erase blight and remake neighborhoods.

In the three years since the county launched a land bank, Columbus has taken control of nearly 1,000 properties. The land bank allows the city and county to quickly seize a property that is abandoned, didn’t sell at sheriff’s auction and has a delinquent tax burden that surpasses its value. There are an estimated 6,000 such properties in Columbus.

“A banner year” is the way Councilwoman Michelle M. Mills, who leads the council’s development committee, described the city’s efforts to turn neighborhoods around last year. The numbers back her up.

A Dispatch analysis found that of the roughly 1,000 properties seized since 2012, most contained homes and condominiums. About two-thirds of those structures have been demolished. Nearly half of the properties have been sold, with most of them closing in 2013 and 2014.

Columbus land reset: Browse an interactive map of land bank properties

Mills agreed that the process is hitting the “reset switch” on parts of neighborhoods across the city. That also likely goes for property values.

The 431 properties the land bank has sold since 2012 have gone for a total of $2.2 million, or an average of about $5,100 each.

Those same properties have a total taxable value of nearly $17.5 million, according to Franklin County Auditor Clarence Mingo’s office. Taken literally, if the tax value of those properties were reset to their purchase price, it would represent a loss in value of more than $15 million. That averages out to a $34,800 loss per property sold from the land bank.

That’s not to say the land bank is harming neighborhood land values. More likely, officials say, this represents a rock-bottom reset of the values of properties that had been left to rot by owners who weren’t paying their taxes anyway. Values should begin to rise again as the properties are transferred to owners who pledge to improve and maintain them.

The city requires all land-bank buyers to walk through a property with an asset manager to determine what needs to be done to renovate the home or structure, said John Turner, who oversees the city’s land bank. The buyer then must sign an agreement to make the renovations in six months, but buyers often are given extensions, Turner said.

Columbus can reclaim a sold land-bank property if the buyer falls through on his commitment, but the city must pay off any mortgage or loans on the property.

Turner said the city doesn’t intend to sell properties at rock-bottom prices, but that nearly all of the properties are the worst in each neighborhood.

“Most of these properties were offered at a sheriff’s sale for the value of the tax delinquency as a minimum bid, and it didn’t sell,” he said. “That’s how we factor in our price. If it went to sheriff’s sale for $10,000 and didn’t sell, then realistically it’s not worth $10,000.”

The goal of the land bank, he said, is not to be a real-estate company or to hold property.

Five years ago, Turner said, the city was mostly using nonprofit organizations to rehab blighted properties. Now, developers, neighboring residents and individual buyers are approaching him to buy properties.

Mills said those buying land-bank properties are investing in the community.

“Planting their feet more firmly in a neighborhood, that’s a gain,” she said.

One property that plummeted in value is a now-vacant lot at 931-937 W. Town St. that used to be an 11-unit apartment building on less than a third of an acre. The building was in disrepair, and the land bank had it demolished.

The Franklinton Development Association bought the property in July 2013 for $1. The auditor’s value was $192,000.

Jim Sweeney, the executive director of the development association, said no decision has been made about the site’s future. He said it could be apartments or a community center.

The development group plans to build 40 lease-to-own homes on scattered sites in that neighborhood, most of them land-bank properties and most of them north of W. Broad Street and west of Rt. 315, Sweeney said. The group has applied for low-income housing tax credits from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency to help finance the proposed $9.5 million project.

Although buildings on many land-bank properties have been demolished in Franklinton, few residents have objected, Sweeney said. “Franklinton has had vacant and abandoned properties for a long time.

“We replace houses as quickly as we can.”

The nonprofit home developer Homeport has been acquiring land-bank properties since 2012, picking up 13, including seven in the Linden neighborhood under the Duxberry Landing Homes LLC name.

The group is planning to build 35 lease-to-own homes in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood north of Downtown, many on land-bank lots, if it obtains low-income housing tax credits to help finance it; it, too, has applied this year.

The land-bank properties are catalysts for such projects, said George Tabit, Homeport’s vice president for real-estate development.

“We can look at a community and see if there are enough properties there,” Tabit said. “You wouldn’t think buying up 35 vacant and abandoned properties is hard. It’s a ton of work.”

George Walker Jr., who leads the South Linden Area Commission, praised Jeff Ihlenfield, who has bought 17 land-bank properties since 2012 and two more with former NFL cornerback and Dublin Coffman High School graduate Chinedum Ndukwe, many of them in the Linden area.

“He’s putting good people in those properties,” Walker said, and he tells neighbors what he’s doing with a property.

Ihlenfield, a Delaware County resident, and Ndukwe could not be reached for comment.

Donna Hicho, the executive director of the Greater Linden Development Corp., said no residents have complained about demolitions in her area. Too many vacant and abandoned homes became crime havens.

At the beginning, some people thought there was a city conspiracy to tear down houses and “take over,” Hicho said. “People were very fearful.” But they discovered that wasn’t the case.

She said the land bank needs to continue to sell properties to people who have the wherewithal to redevelop them.

On the Near East Side, the land bank has held off on demolishing properties when the area commission has requested it, said Kathleen Bailey, who leads the area commission.

“We’re taking this very, very seriously,” Bailey said. “We want to see properties out of the land bank and fixed up.”

So do many other people who live near land-bank properties.

Margaret Jordan said she’d like to buy the empty land-bank lot next to her house on S. Wheatland Avenue to use as a side yard. On the other side of the lot is a small house at 233 S. Wheatland Avenue that the land bank recently acquired; the house and garage are tagged with gang graffiti.

Jordan said people have dumped trash in the side lot and in the yard of the house. She wants to plant trees and flowers in the side lot and put a fence around it.

A burnt-out house used to sit on the lot. Jordan had no problem with the city’s demolishing it. “ Vacant lots,” she said, “are better than vacant houses.”

City, county demolished record 1,294 vacant, blighted properties last year

January 15, 2015. The Columbus Dispatch.

ADAM CAIRNS | DISPATCH PHOTO Loewendick Demolition Contractors work to tear down the chimney from 1239 Summit Street in Weinland Park before bulldozing the entire house.

Yesterday, men and machine brought down a three-story brick house in Brandyn McElroy’s neighborhood, work reflective of an aggressive push by the city and county to demolish vacant, blighted houses.

“It’s definitely making a difference,” said McElroy, the president of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association.

“The house they’re tearing down today is next door to where I live. It caught fire a couple of weeks ago. The structure is beyond repair.”

An unprecedented number of similar houses came down across the county last year.

The Columbus and Franklin County land banks demolished 1,294 blighted housing units in 2014, more than double the number of teardowns performed in 2013. The cost of the demolitions in 2014 was $10.2 million.

The work was helped in part by $8.6 million in grants from the Ohio attorney general’s office to demolish vacant and blighted units in 2013 and 2014. Franklin County and the city of Columbus provided matching funds.

In 2013, the land banks tore down 527 housing units, most of which were in Columbus’ central-city neighborhoods.

More demolitions are on the way. Early last year, the Ohio Housing Finance Agency gave the two land banks a $5.9 million grant to tear down a total of 300 additional units through 2016.

And more demolitions will be funded by Columbus and the Central Ohio Community Improvement Corporation, which serves as the county’s land bank.

Curtiss Williams, vice president of the community improvement corporation, said the housing finance agency grant must be used in areas that are considered to be at the tipping point. In this case, that will be parts of Franklinton, Linden, the South Side and the Near East Side, plus Whitehall and parts of Mifflin and Franklin townships.

Williams said these are residential neighborhoods that generally have many owner-occupied houses, with less than 20 percent of all houses considered to be blighted. But these neighborhoods are seeing rising numbers of vacant houses and falling values.

Most of the houses demolished so far have been in older sections of the city and county. Some have attracted squatters and crime while depressing property values and tax revenue.

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman wants to continue to concentrate efforts in neighborhoods that struggle with large numbers of vacant houses.

In 2012, Coleman pledged $11.5 million over four years to demolish 900 vacant houses in the city.

John Turner, who directs the city’s land redevelopment office, expects the last $2.5 million in this year’s capital budget will complete the project.

Although thousands of properties have been demolished, 81 houses in the city land bank were sold last year, and about 85 percent of them were single-family houses.

Curtis Davis, vice president of the Columbus South Side Area Commission, said the demolitions are opening sites in his community for new housing. “I think it’s definitely making an impact,” he said.

Williams said neighborhood leaders and residents are starting to understand the gravity of the issue and what the land banks can do.

“It’s important to remove a blighted property,” he said. “The market can come in and take care of that property.”

BREAD targets Worst of the Worst, encourages County Land Reutilization Corporations

Columbus, OH – In 2009,  BREAD called for immediate action by city council on 85 of the “Worst of the Worst” properties. The City and County took enforcement action on all properties, half of which were resolved within three months. Franklin County Treasurer Ed Leonard, City Development Director Boyce Safford, and Deputy County Administrator Erik Janas agreed to develop a plan for the creation of a Franklin County Land Reutilization Corporation (CLRC). With strong support from BREAD, the Ohio General Assembly passed permissive legislation which allowed about half of Ohio counties to develop a CLRC in order to spearhead the redevelopment of vacant buildings and tax delinquent properties. In 2010, the County Treasurer called a summit with stakeholders in the community, resulting in the hire of a financial consultant to develop a financial model for the Franklin County CLRC.  To date 73% of the “worst” list has been demolished, helping to stem the decline in home values and prevent future foreclosures of existing homeowners in communities negatively affected by abandoned and vacant properties.

Dayton fights blight

Dayton, OH – Efforts begun by the LEAD organization in 2005 led the city to increase the number of dilapidated buildings taken down annually from 75 to 200. From 2006 to 2009 the city tore down an average of 600 abandoned and dilapidated properties in blighted neighborhoods each year. In 2010, 800 more buildings were torn down.

TUSA creates Vacant Property Action Council

Toledo, OH – In 2008, TUSA pushed for and won a City Ordinance which created a vacant property registry. This registry empowers the City to hold landlords accountable for proper upkeep of their properties and acts as an important tool to better identify problem areas so that the City can be proactive in stabilizing older neighborhoods. Lucas County Commissioner Wozniak also agreed to work with TUSA to reduce foreclosures through a foreclosure mediation program. Due to TUSA’s efforts, a Vacant Property Action Council was created in September 2008. This Council engages professionals from local City and County governments as well as the public and private sectors to pool resources to address vacant properties in the community.