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Published: Saturday, 7/19/2008

Workshop targets Toledo's vacant house issue

BY KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Houses at, from left, 930, 928, 926, and 924 Baker Street near Lagrange Street have boarded doors and windows. Houses at, from left, 930, 928, 926, and 924 Baker Street near Lagrange Street have boarded doors and windows.
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From lowering property values to increasing the risk of fire and crime, vacant properties contribute to a number of neighborhood problems, as anyone who has ever lived near one can attest.

And yesterday morning, Toledo and Lucas County officials, neighborhood groups, housing advocates, and others gathered to discuss what to do about the vacant homes that blight a host of neighborhoods. A study released earlier this year estimated that vacant and abandoned properties cost Toledo taxpayers at least $3.8 million in 2006.

The vacant- housing workshop at the University of Toledo's Urban Affairs Center was organized by Toledoans United for Social Action.One of the morning's speakers was Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, who is touring the state advocating for changes in Ohio law to allow counties to have land banks, an aggressive strategy for dealing with vacant and foreclosed properties.

Mr. Rokakis said the situation in Cuyahoga County is dire and that the number of foreclosures jumped from 3,000 annually before the current crisis to more than 15,000 last year.

"What do you think a property is worth if there are 20 homes on your street and 10 are vacant and three have been torched in the last year?" he asked, referring to the plight of one elderly homeowner in the Glenville neighborhood on Cleveland's east side. "The reality is there is no value on that house."

Mr. Rokakis said he fears the situation could get worse, if neighborhoods are hit by investors snatching up homes for a few thousand dollars and flipping them to make a quick profit.

Mr. Rokakis is advocating legislation that would allow counties to create land banks that would acquire foreclosed properties and either demolish, rehabilitate, or sell the homes.

The idea is modeled after a land bank in Genesee County, Michigan, (home of Flint). The start-up funds would come from delinquent tax penalties and interest, Mr. Rokakis said.

"We need a responsible body that can take possession of the properties and decide what to do with them based on what's best for the community," he said.

While he said a land bank would not be a cure-all, "if we sit back and do nothing, I can only tell you it's going to get worse."

He and others from Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have decided, "We're going to scream as loud as we possibly can," about the problem, he said.

Lucas County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz said he supports the idea of allowing a local land bank to take over vacant and foreclosed properties.

"I am very supportive of [Mr. Rokakis'] efforts," said Mr. Kapszukiewicz, adding the idea easily could be applied in Toledo and Lucas County.

At yesterday's meeting, attendees also heard preliminary results and recommendations from "Toledo at the Tipping Point," a study of strategies for how to reclaim vacant properties and improve neighborhoods in Toledo. The complete study will be available Aug. 1.

Chief among the recommendations is the creation of a task force of high-level city, county, community, and business leaders meeting regularly to deal specifically with this issue. Additionally, it suggests expanded code enforcement and a more robust land-banking program.

While not as serious as Cleveland and Cuyahoga County's problem, the study said Toledo must act quickly to address the rising number of vacant homes made worse by a poor economy and the foreclosure crisis.

According to the presentation, the Toledo metro area's decline in housing sales was among the largest in the state. A 2008 study by RealtyTrac Inc. ranked the Toledo metro area 19th in foreclosure filings in 2007 among top U.S. metro areas, up from 30th in 2006.

Hugh Grefe, senior executive director of Toledo's Local Initiatives Support Corporation, who presented the results, also urged those in attendance to contact their congressional representatives in support of $4 billion in housing stimulus legislation to help rehabilitate foreclosed homes.

Mike Badik, Toledo's commissioner of housing administration, explained city ordinances that deal with vacant properties, including a vacant property registry that was approved by Toledo City Council but hasn't taken effect yet, and discussed other steps they could take.

The group informally agreed to create a steering committee and a task force and to meet again.

"We have been talking about housing problems and vacant properties and neglected properties for so long," said Kathy Clinker, a member of TUSA's housing committee.

She called the commitments for further action "a first step in doing something about it."

Contact Kate Giammarise at:

kgiammarise@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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