Task force to fight urban blight

Akron Beacon Journal - November 16, 2008

Job losses, foreclosures leave vacant homes throughout cities like Akron, damaging spirit and value of neighborhoods

By Rick Armon

The Akron Beacon Journal

Ron Perry feels surrounded. 

Across the street from his home, there are two vacant houses — both with overgrown lawns. Behind him, there’s another one. And just around the corner sits yet another abandoned home, this one with plywood covering the porch.

For Perry, who has lived in Akron’s Goodyear Heights neighborhood for nearly 50 years, it’s a depressing and unsettling sight.

He and his neighbors still take pride in their properties. And they bemoan the increasing number of vacant eyesores that not only have become targets for drug dealers and other criminals, but also have damaged the psyche of the community itself.

”This is ridiculous, really,” the 77-year-old retired truck driver said, gesturing to the homes. ”This neighborhood has gone to pot.”

Recognizing the adverse impact on neighborhoods and the financial drain on communities, Summit County leaders are creating the Abandoned and Vacant Property Task Force. The group will try to figure out how many vacant properties there are in the county and identify policies that could help reduce the number.

Job losses and foreclosures have escalated the vacancy problem nationwide, especially in urban communities like Akron and Barberton. For every 1,000 people in Ohio, more than six properties were put up for sheriff’s sale last year, according to a study by the Policy Matters Ohio in Columbus.

Those properties not only are an annoyance from an aesthetic point of view, but they also are a magnet for criminals, dumping and vandalism.

”Even in some of your nicer areas, if you get one or two vacant houses, it can be detrimental to the health of a neighborhood,” Barberton Mayor Bob Genet said. ”It can tear down a neighborhood real quick.”

Financial impact

A study released this year estimated that more than 25,000 vacant and abandoned properties in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Ironton, Lima, Springfield, Toledo and Zanesville cost those communities at least $63 million in services and tax revenue in 2006.

The study was commissioned by ReBuild Ohio, a coalition of local government, nonprofit and civic organizations.

One of the biggest hurdles is just identifying the number of vacant properties to understand the scope of the problem, said Gene Krebs, co-director of Greater Ohio, a coalition member and smart growth group in Columbus.

Akron officials have estimated, based on water shut-offs, that there could be up to 7,000 vacant properties in the city. Meanwhile, the estimate in Barberton ranges from 200 to 600.

Krebs said the good news for Akron is that it has not been hit as hard as other regions of the state.

”You’re actually punching above your weight and you’re doing things better than other communities,” said Krebs, a former state lawmaker.

Don’t tell that to people living next door to a vacant home, though.

Barberton resident Tom Bednarik isn’t a big fan of the cottage-style house next door to him.

The vacant, bank-owned property on Robinson Avenue in Barberton was foreclosed upon this year. And, as Bednarik notes, it just sits there as an eyesore inviting trouble.

He’s already had to chase away kids smoking and drinking under the porch. And don’t get him started about the lawn.

He hopes someone buys it and moves in soon.

”I figure it’s going to take the value of this property down if they don’t do something,” the 59-year-old Bednarik said. ”Something like that in the neighborhood seems to be catching after awhile. Other neighbors seem to let their property go as time goes by.”

Perry, who goes by the nickname ”the Mayor of Brandon Street,” agreed.

He said he keeps tabs on the vacant homes in his neighborhood, alerting police to potential problems.

But it’s annoying to look outside his front window and see the overgrown grass at the two vacant houses across the street.

Asked what should be done, Perry shrugged and pushed up his baseball cap.

”I don’t know,” he said.

Maybe the government needs to buy the properties, tearing down the unsalvageable ones, and repairing and reselling the others, he said.

Local program

The county is on the verge of doing just that.

Last week, county leaders unveiled a program designed to stabilize neighborhoods by buying foreclosed and abandoned houses.

Summit County will use $3.7 million in federal grants from the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 to fund the effort.

The county will rehab and resell the properties, or raze them and save the land for future development.

Akron, which is slated to receive $8.5 million, is not included in the county program.

County leaders identified 25 neighborhoods with the most need. Fifteen are in Barberton. Six are in Springfield Township. The others are in Copley Township, Lakemore, Twinsburg Township and Norton.

The program will move forward at the same time the county task force is studying the problem.

Best practices

County Councilman Cazzell Smith, who proposed the task force, said the group will look at successful programs elsewhere to see whether they can be replicated here.

”We are looking for solutions,” Smith said. ”The abandoned and vacant properties are just skyrocketing.”

The task force, which will include a mix of at least 15 public and private-sector officials, is expected to study the issue for six months and then release a report with recommendations.

Jennifer Leonard, director of the National Vacant Properties Campaign in Washington, D.C., praised the county effort.

”We’d like more people to be thinking about it at the county level,” Leonard said. ”It’s not just what happens in Akron. It’s creeping out into the suburbs as well.”

The campaign was launched five years ago to identify positive programs throughout the country and share them with other communities. The Rust Belt has been dealing with the vacancy problem for years, but it is now moving into stronger markets thanks to the increase in foreclosures, Leonard said.

One of the most popular initiatives involves land banking and tax foreclosure reform in Genesee County, Mich., she said. There, the local government does exactly what Perry suggests.

The Genesee County Land Bank Authority is able to buy foreclosed properties and determine the best use for the land — whether it’s razing the structure, rehabbing it and reselling it, or holding onto it for development.

Leonard also cited programs involving strict code enforcement.

”Stopping properties from becoming vacant in the first place is becoming critically important,” she said.


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