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.”