The Blade’s recent reporting on blight in Toledo — thousands of empty homes that have decayed beyond salvation, derelict commercial buildings, neglected lots turned into dump sites — is causing some longtime Toledoans to lament that their city has never looked worse.
Blight threatens property values, public safety and health, and neighborhoods’ quality of life. It encourages arson, burglary, drug trafficking, and other crimes.
It endangers young people walking to and from school, and discourages job-creating economic development. It tarnishes the city’s image and repels potential visitors and new residents.
Toledo is by no means beyond redemption; to the contrary, its problems with blight are more manageable than those of many comparable cities. Still, general trends offer no comfort when you live next door to an eyesore.
So blight demands an aggressive and coordinated search for solutions: by engaged elected officials and regulators, by Toledo’s banking and business communities, by homeowners who refuse to surrender to encroaching deterioration. The emphasis must be not merely on tearing down and cleaning up — although both are essential — but also on creative reuse of property. There are heartening signs of progress in the battle.
“We’re adjusting to the new normal,” says Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz, who chairs the county’s land bank, a nonprofit corporation that is one of the community’s most effective tools to renovate vacant homes and commercial buildings that can be saved and to demolish those that can’t. “We’re moving incrementally in the right direction.
“Toledo’s situation is no different from the stories they tell in Dayton and Akron and Buffalo,” Mr. Kapszukiewicz told me last week. “And we’re nowhere near [as bad as] Detroit or Cleveland.”
Toledo’s blight has accumulated over nearly a half-century. The city has about 100,000 fewer residents today than it did in 1970 — a decline of one-fourth. That population exodus left behind a lot of abandoned houses; it was accompanied by losses of businesses and capital.
The domestic auto industry that Toledo relied on for decades as its economic base has downsized brutally. These trends haven’t abated, despite green shoots of recovery in the city.
The longer-term conditions have been aggravated in recent years by the subprime mortgage debacle that led to the global Great Recession and created a crisis of home foreclosures, in Toledo and across the country. Although Toledo continues to emerge from the downturn, the slog remains slow and arduous.
Mr. Kapszukiewicz estimates that 4,000 vacant buildings in Toledo are so decrepit that they must be torn down, out of a total of 100,000 properties in the city. By comparison, Detroit officials say they need to demolish 80,000 abandoned buildings there — a total roughly equal to the number of all homes in Toledo.
But the treasurer concedes that his estimate is an educated guess; nobody knows for sure how many abandoned properties Toledo has. You can’t make good policy with bad, or no, data.
So it’s vital that the land bank is assigning volunteers, armed with smart phones and tablet computers, to count every property in the city, to report on its condition, and to snap a photo. When that survey is completed — by year’s end, Mr. Kapszukiewicz says — the city will have better information on which to base its blight-fighting plans.
Community activists complain that responsibility for fighting blight in Toledo is fragmented among so many branches of local government — Mayor D. Michael Collins’ administration, City Council, the housing division of Municipal Court, the land bank, nuisance-abatement regulators, law enforcement — that no one is directly accountable. Mr. Kapszu-kiewicz, a former city councilman, insists the land bank’s relationship with city officials is productive.
But such cooperation needs to be more visible. The Collins administration’s pairing of police officers and code inspectors to identify blight and enforce property-maintenance laws is a useful new initiative. There have to be many more such joint programs.
Toledo doesn’t need a bureaucratic, duplicative new blight “authority.” A strong local leader (paging Mayor Collins) can bring together all of the officials and agencies charged with busting blight to define a common, and immediate, agenda. They need to treat community organizations as full partners in this effort, not nuisances.
It’s urgent that the city raze abandoned buildings and clean up vacant lots before they can infect otherwise healthy neighborhoods. But in the longer term, it’s even more important to find new owners for homes, and uses for land, that can be rehabilitated.
The land bank is pursuing such a balanced strategy. In the past two years, it has demolished 838 buildings in Lucas County —more than 90 percent of them in Toledo — and plans to tear down another 600 by 2016. Mr. Kapszukiewicz notes that his agency is the only one in the city or county that now spends money on demolition.
But the land bank also has sold 180 vacant, foreclosed homes to buyers with credible plans to renovate them, along with 16 commercial structures whose investors intend to make them places of business and jobs again. In all, the land bank has found new purposes for more than 900 of the properties it has reviewed.
It’s given 90 homeowners grants for new roofs, and contributed more than $900,000 to neighborhood groups to help them carry out their missions. This week, the land bank will launch a program called Heritage Homes, which will provide low-interest loans to owners who want to improve houses that are more than 50 years old.
“So many properties are sitting vacant that can be saved,” says David Mann, the president of the land bank. “Helping homeowners before their properties tip to abandonment and demolition is the most efficient system we have for getting ahead of the curve.”
Similarly, keeping vacant lots clean is necessary, but not sufficient. Steve Madewell, the executive director of Metroparks of the Toledo Area, suggests the city could use larger empty lots as sites of urban agriculture — not just community gardens, but also thriving small businesses.
“People have a desire to get connected to nature,” Mr. Madewell says. “Agriculture is a viable land use that needs to be explored.”
Reviving abandoned properties, preventing buildings from falling vacant in the first place, and finding innovative new uses for empty spaces will help stabilize neighborhoods and expand the city’s tax base. These are the ways Toledo will defeat blight.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.