War on blight is money well spent
Posted on 08/07/15 in Economic Development
After staring death in the face, land banks are still in business to manage and repurpose abandoned properties – a vital function in cities battling blight.
Some background: Congress has refused to raise the 18.4-cent per gallon gas tax last raised in 1997. That means America needs new funding sources for roads and bridges. A Senate highway bill last month proposed snatching $300 million from land banks in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and others. This would have seized $71 million from Ohio’s efforts to demolish blighted homes.
Anyone who has recently driven or taken transit through Cleveland knows many neighborhoods still have vacant, abandoned, and dangerous properties in need of razing or renovation. As of the last quarter of 2014, Cuyahoga County has 25,000 vacant properties, says Jim Rokakis, director of the Thriving Communities Institute, a nonprofit combating blight.
Mercifully, thanks to advocates in U.S. Senate, the proposal was removed from the bill. Sen. Rob Portman was one of the strongest advocates for restoring land bank funding.
Rokakis said if the bill had gone through as proposed, some of Ohio’s 22 land banks would have gone bankrupt because they now own vacant structures that they don’t have the money to maintain or demolish.
“Remember, [the land banks] obtained these homes on the promise that if they foreclosed on them and took possession of them that the Department of Treasury would award them the money to remove the properties -- and green them after demolition,” Rokakis said.
The funding controversy exposed the precarious existence of the land banks. Federal funding is a lifeline to these institutions. Rokakis indicated that cities with distressed properties are already near broke, and without federal funding would be able to complete very few demolitions of distressed properties. Many argue land banks are already underfunded.
Blight affects communities across Ohio. Just last week, Cuyahoga County demolished a Shaker Heights blighted home across the street from my house. My neighbors are relieved to have its depressing presence removed.
Blight lowers home values, resulting in a smaller tax base. It trashes community morale and can lead to more crime and public health problems. Blight harms everyone, whether they live in a neighborhood directly burdened or in an outer ring suburb with taxes made higher by depressed city and inner-ring property values.
The county recently hired a senior housing executive for the first time. This is an essential step to taking leadership on this issue. Cuyahoga County faces enormous problems with blight and cannot rely solely on independent organizations and nonprofits to lead the efforts. The Cuyahoga County Land Bank is critical to the success of this operation.
With around 20,000 vacant homes needing intervention -- whether it’s demolition, maintenance, renovation, repair or flipping -- Cuyahoga County will need to lead a successful campaign to fight blight before it contaminates even more neighborhoods.
I’ve written a forthcoming report that outlines successful efforts, describes ways to gain new funding, proposes using existing infrastructure, and highlights the need for local government leadership to combat blight. Look for it soon from Policy Matters.
-- Marcia Brown
Marcia is a Policy Matters intern and niece of Sen. Sherrod Brown, who, along with Sen. Portman, opposed the highway bill proposal to reduce funding for land banks.