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Communities are going into rehab
The idea is to make blighted neighborhoods livable again, and help cities stabilize their housing markets
by WKSU's TIM RUDELL


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Tim Rudell
 
Absentee owner of this house lives in Austria. Neighbors had to board up the broken windows and cut down the weeds
Courtesy of Rudell
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A dozen new county-wide land banks are up and running in Ohio.  They are to help deal with a problem growing to crisis proportions in the state's urban areas. Tim Rudell has more on the expanding effort to do something positive with an inventory of dilapidated houses that communities don't have the resources to handle alone.

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Bill Apell lives in the Warren neighborhood where houses are increasingly being abandoned.  His home has been in his family since 1896
Mick Murray with best friend Molly.  Murray says high crime areas right next door to the neighborhood make selling even nice houses difficult
This Warren neighborhood includes the "millionaires" row of a hundred years ago
Old church remains where much of its former neighborhood has been torn down
Jim Rokakis helped create the first County Land Bank.  He was Cuyahoga County Treasurer until that position was eliminated in the restructuring of the county's government into an executive form

Canton has enough housing for one hundred and twenty thousand people—its population in the 1950s and ‘60s. There are currently only 78-thousand people living in the city. That means a third of Canton is empty. All of Ohio’s main cities—Youngtown, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo and Dayton—are much the same.

Bill Abell, a resident of Warren, points to the plywood on the windows of a large grey frame house on the corner of Mahoning and Washington. He and his neighbors nailed it up because the property’s latest owner is a speculator in Austria, and the house is derelict. Abell says that if it weren’t for his neighborhood group the grass would be overgrown, windows wide open, and copper plumbing gone.

Homes like his are mixed with fading apartment conversions aimed at transients, which is one factor directing the fate of the neighborhoods throughout the region. Many of the absentee owners are “flippers” – quick score investors buying old homes for pennies on the dollar and trying to sell them fast, often to overseas buyers via the internet.

Beyond demolition

Most Ohio cities have attempted over the last decade to step in and acquire such properties. The process is slow, and they have few choices for derelict properties beyond demolition. Thus county banks were born. They operate on a broader scale and have legal standing to cut red tape—like quickly obtaining clear titles. They also can raise money for rehabbing houses and revitalizing neighborhoods.

Former Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis helped found the first of these new acquisition entities in Ohio. He says after bill 113, more counties have authority to do this, and now there are land banks in several counties in northeast Ohio. The idea is to rehab houses in blighted areas, sell those at affordable prices to families and local businesses, and seed recovery of communities at the neighborhood level.

Alex Zumbar leads the new land bank starting in Stark County. He is the county treasurer, and typically that is who heads these organizations. Joining him are other participants from government, the banking and real estate groups, and citizens groups. Zumbar says they target parcels that can be rehabbed and produce taxes to support local public services.

Less optimistic

Like his neighbor Bill Abell, Mick Murray is a life-long Warren resident and lives across the street from the big grey house on Washington Street. He works in construction and has had some experience with property rehabs.

He is less optimistic in what seems to be a long-standing problem for old city neighborhoods that may stifle any effort to attract families. Murray says unless things fundamentally change with poverty and crime, a physical clean-up of neighborhoods alone won’t accomplish much.

Enthusiasm and momentum

The county land bank continues to move ahead with the backing of local communities and state lawmakers.

Jim Rokakis now lobbies in Washington and Columbus for more support for the projects. He says successes in the early programs like those started in Cleveland and those in Dayton and Toledo—where a combined nineteen hundred properties have been acquired—are creating momentum for the banks.

Bill Abell in Warren says he is seeing support, even enthusiasm, increasing among his neighbors and local leaders to give the county land banks a good try.

 
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