Vacant Houses a Spreading Blight

Hamilton Journal-News - December 12, 2005

Hamilton Journal-News

By Lisa A. Bernard

BUTLER COUNTY- Neighborhood charm dies here one home at a time.

Vacant houses. Overgrown yards. Unkempt properties.

The problems are glaring, said longtime Hamilton resident Robert Prather.

“It started about five years ago”, said Prather of the empty houses scattered across his Ludlow Avenue neighborhood.

“Some of them sit there forever and fall apart. People throw trash all around them. They get boarded up, but people just break into them. It’s depreciating my property value terribly.”

Weighing in at three times the national average, Ohio leads the nation in home foreclosures.

It’s a problem compounded by predatory lending and illegal property flipping schemes that many argue have triggered the decline of countless neighborhoods across the state.

“As I look at what’s happened, it impacts the very fabric of these neighborhoods,” said Rep. Steve Driehaus, D-Price Hill, of a property flipping scandal that hit Greater Cincinnati.

More than 30 people have been indicted in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati in the last two years for crimes related to mortgage fraud and illegal flipping involving hundreds of area properties.

Driehaus is among those pushing for restitution to be set aside to help rebuild neighborhoods hit by the scam.

“We’re trying to restore some of the equity in some, if not all, of the neighborhoods impacted,” he said.

Of Ohio’s most populated counties, Butler County ranks fifth in home loan defaults, according to a report by Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland-based research group.

Locally, the county’s urban communities have been hit the hardest, a JournalNews study revealed. Home loan defaults were greatest in Hamilton and Middletown with 492 and 422 filings in 2004.

Houses left empty after foreclosures have far-reaching impact, said Elizabeth Blume, associate director of the Community Building Institute at Xavier University, who has provided expert testimony in the recent mortgage fraud cases heard in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

“It’s about confidence in a neighborhood,” Blume said. “If you get a sign that a neighborhood is deteriorating people aren’t going to make investments in that neighborhood. It affects people’s decisions whether they’re going to invest in their own properties whether or not they’re even going to stay there.”

In Hamilton, the impact has been significant, said city Health Director Bill Karwisch.

“It’s happened all over our city, he said. In some areas, particularly the Fourth and Second wards, the concentration is high enough that you’ve started to see a major disinvestment.”

Each year Karwisch has more than 2,000 property maintenance complaints coming through his office.

“Typically we’re first alerted about problems by neighbors,” Karwisch said.

A yard is unkempt. In some instances, the building is standing open or windows have been broken out.

“Getting the problems resolved is often an uphill battle,” Karwisch said.

‘Some lending institutions will not get involved until after the home goes through a sheriff’s sale,” Karwisch said.

“That might run anywhere from nine to 12 months. In those cases it’s up to the city to maintain the property.”

Smaller communities also have been hit.

With a population of about 10,300, Trenton led the county in foreclosures per capita with filings for one in every 112 residents in 2004.

Trenton’s problems have also resulted in city staff spending an inordinate amount of time tracking down banks and mortgage companies because of problem properties, said Trenton City Manager Pat Titterington.

“That’s very difficult because when you’re dealing with out-of-state companies, they’re not very responsive,” he said, adding that problems center within many of the newer subdivisions.

“A large number of (foreclosures) are on some of the newer homes being built, where there is zero down and lower costs per month that goes on for a period of time,” he said. “Then when it comes time to pay the real principal, people realize they can’t afford them.”

As state legislators and the mortgage industry go to battle to curb Ohio’s rising foreclosure rates, communities like those in Butler County have been forced to create local preventatives against spreading blight.

“It’s a problem that has definitely been recognized by city council and the administration,” said Karwisch.

More than five ordinances have been put on Hamilton’s books in the last year to target dilapidated, vacant properties.

“The city is also keeping track of vacant buildings and working to better engage the lending institutions to maintain the properties that have been assumed through foreclosure,” he said.

“Those communities that are successful in doing that, in the long run, they don’t have the problems that arise from large areas becoming blighted and people leaving,” Karwisch said.

For 60-year-old Prather, leaving is not an option.

“With all the boarded up homes around here I can’t get nothing out of my home.” I’m surely not going to get out of this home what I’ve put into it,” he said. “I’m stuck.”

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