Last year, 1,881 properties were listed on the City of Toledo's official registry of vacant and abandoned homes. But that's just a fraction of the number of empty, boarded-up houses in the city. Dealing with neighborhood blight begins with knowing how big the problem is.
Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz estimates there may be as many as 9,000 vacant and abandoned houses in Toledo. Most are products of the national housing crisis that began in 2008 and was especially tough on Toledo and Lucas County, he says.
This year, more than 3,000 county homeowners may lose their houses to banks and mortgage companies, down from a peak number of 4,160 foreclosures in 2009. Some experts say a backlog of default notices suggests the Toledo area may face another spike in foreclosures.
The Lucas County Land Bank has made progress in turning around abandoned properties since it launched last year. Mr. Kapszukiewicz, who is chairman of the Land Bank board, says that in the past 14 months, the agency has acquired 450 properties, nearly 90 percent of which now have new owners.
The land bank hopes to spend at least $4 million over the next two years, including $2 million in state matching funds from a recent settlement with five of the nation's largest mortgage companies accused of mortgage abuses. That's enough to raze 700 to 800 homes.
But that would make only a small dent in the 4,500 to 5,000 homes in Toledo that Mr. Kapszukiewicz estimates need to be demolished. The land bank is exploring ways to take advantage of low interest rates to borrow more money, so that it could qualify for a bigger state match and tear down more decrepit buildings.
Meanwhile, vacant homes continue to deteriorate and reduce the value of surrounding homes in city neighborhoods. They are broken into, stripped of copper plumbing, and used for crime and as a dumping ground for unwanted tires and other trash. Often, the buildings are set on fire, accidentally or deliberately.
It is imperative that city officials at least know where all the boarded-up homes are. A strapped city budget is no excuse for not keeping the registry of vacant houses up to date.
Banks and mortgage companies -- the most frequent owners of abandoned houses -- need to be reminded of the law that requires them to register these buildings with the city, There should be stiff penalties for noncompliance.
Banks could cut their losses and hand over many of these properties to the land bank for free, if the agency could take them on. Mr. Kapszukiewicz says the land bank has grown a lot in the past year, but with so many vacant properties the agency is "to the point of being overwhelmed."
The best solution is aggressive mortgage relief, to keep people in their homes as the economy continues to recover. Saving the character of Toledo's neighborhoods, as the land bank does, by finding new owners for abandoned homes is a worthwhile alternative.
But razing buildings that can't be saved is a sad necessity. That starts with an up-to-date, accurate inventory.