Land Bank sets 900 houses for demolitionWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | email@example.com
Jasmine Ponce moved with her family to Toledo from Mexico about eight years ago.
They bought a two-story house in South Toledo and planted pear and peach trees in the front yard, along with vibrant flowers that now spring from the lawn and wrap around the white trellis that shades the front sidewalk. Ponce’s house bears a bright purple shade, but it stands out on its side of the block for reasons other than just its color.
The house is a well-kept oasis amid a few vacant, crumbling properties. The houses at 551 and 559 Colburn St. were in fine shape when Ponce moved in. But now, grass and trash have claimed both houses, which are empty shells of siding and mortar with jagged holes where glass once covered window frames. At 551 Colburn St., a tiny window in the attic reveals a charred interior where a fire took hold just a few weeks ago.
Ponce has witnessed these homes sink into disrepair. She’s been kept awake at night by thieves who break into the house next door to rip out pipes and metal wiring. She’s smelled the smoke billowing out from a fire two houses down.
“I don’t remember anyone living there; people would go in to check on it sometimes, but after a while they just stopped coming,” Ponce said. “Now we get scared when we hear the noises of people stealing things next door.”
A new hope
But things are about to change for the Ponce family.
Both 551 and 559 Colburn are among the first on a list of 900 houses set for demolition across the city. Demolition crews will start in South Toledo, crushing more than 80 houses on the neighborhood’s most blighted blocks.
The Lucas County Land Bank announced Aug. 7 that the agency received a $3.4 million grant from the Ohio Attorney General’s office for the project. The county is matching the grant with fines collected from delinquent taxpayers. The state money comes from the lawsuit settlement in which the attorney general sued mortgage companies for contributing to the housing collapse.
This news comes at a time when the assessed value for Lucas County properties is 20 percent lower than it was six years ago. The number of people living in the city is consistently dropping; it peaked in the 1970s with 383,800 residents and had bottomed out to 287,208 as of the 2010 census. And AOL Real Estate has ranked Toledo the 10th emptiest city in the country, with an 11.5 percent rental vacancy rate and a 3.8 percent homeowner vacancy rate.
“The land bank isn’t about the 551 and 559 Colburns of the world — it is about the beautiful homes, that, through no fault of their own, have seen property values go down,” Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz said.
The land bank is offering cleared property to nearby owner/occupants for $100. The Ponce family secured 559 Colburn St. and will extend their garden.
Kapszukiewicz said the agency is offering this deal to homeowners who live on their property, with the idea that they will foster the vacant land into a productive space.
“These properties look like nobody loves them,” Kapszukiewicz said. “That will change.”
Landlords will have to pay $250 for the cleared lots because the agency is trying to promote owner/occupant activity. This upsets landlord Elvin Smith.
“I love the Old South End, but it’s a losing battle,” he said.
Smith said he thinks landlords should have been given the grant money so the government could have stayed out of the reclamation process. Some rules that the city enforces, he said, work to create more blight. For example, any time he has a property for sale or rent, he has to put out a sign — a law, he said, that brings unwanted guests.
If he didn’t have to post these signs, he said, fewer people would break into his properties to steal pipe and metal. He marks this as the root cause for many of the properties that fall into disrepair.
“Most of these could have been converted right after they became vacant,” he said.
The land bank compiled its list of demolition-ready houses through neighbors and organizations that submitted information about blighted properties. The Broadway Corridor Coalition, for example, sent volunteers out into the neighborhoods a few months ago to take stock of the condition of the houses and mark which ones were empty and damaged.
South End ‘neglected’
Pastor Dave Kaiser, leader of the South Toledo Community Center, helped to orchestrate the volunteer housing surveys a few months ago. Kaiser has been stationed at the church on the corner of Walbridge Avenue and Broadway Street for two years.
His kitchen staff serves more than 160 meals a day to some of the very people watching vacant houses crumble around them.
“The South End’s been neglected,” Kaiser said. “It’s really, really impossible to get people to move into a neighborhood that has a significant number of abandoned homes. From the appearance to the activity, it’s the easy things like the grass being knee high to terrible things like drugs and prostitution being conducted inside.”
He looks forward to fewer houses sandwiched beside each other in the South End, whether this facilitates community gardens or larger yards so kids can play and neighbors don’t feel so cramped, he said.
Some 1,000 homes in his neighborhood lie vacant.
Kaiser applauds the land bank’s actions, but said he wonders how the city and the county will maintain the grass left once houses are demolished. The city pays to maintain property left vacant, mostly by foreclosure, with a fund that shrunk by $325,700 this year.
Kaiser offered to have his regulars do the job in the South End. If someone comes in asking for money, he typically assigns them a job before they can receive cash. He said he’d ask people in this situation to mow vacant lawns.
Flint, Mich., home to one of the first land banks, has run into problems maintaining its land-bank-acquired properties. Formed in 2004, the Genesee County Land Bank has seen foreclosures in the city jump from 900 in 2007 to 2,900 last year and 2,700 this year. The land bank has about 10,000 properties and has completed 1,800 demolitions.
Land banks aim to sell properties to neighbors, but the agency in Flint has found that hundreds of the vacant lots sit next to other vacant lots and there is often no neighboring homeowner to offer a deal. Maintaining every property has become difficult with a budget of $450,000 to do a $1-million-a-year job, said Douglas Weiland, director of the Genesee County Land Bank.
Karen Poore, executive assistant to the Lucas County Treasurer, said the structures of the Genesee County Land Bank and the Lucas County Land Bank differ.
The Lucas County Land Bank is selective about the properties it acquires, only going after a property when the agency finds an opportunity to do something productive with the land. For example, this has sometimes been achieved by sending letters to homeowners with an application to buy a vacant property, such as the case of the Ponces.
“The properties that are in our pipeline that we’re acquiring are there because we’ve identified someone who wants that property at the end of the tax foreclosure process,” Poore said.
Until they finalize the deal, the land bank is responsible for maintaining the lot, she said.
All 900 of the houses set for demolition are not in the land bank “pipeline,” she said. The agency owns 166 properties, has sold 125 and is trying to acquire 245, according to Poore’s records.
The demolition list will be continually updated, as county employees inspect each property to verify that demolition is the best option. The project will utilize city equipment and crews. The city typically demolishes fewer than 300 houses a year.