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Published: Tuesday, 8/5/2008

Toledo taxpayers, neighbors bear woes of vacant sites

BY KATE GIAMMARISE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledoan Sue Postal hates the vacant house on her street.

The house, in the midst of foreclosure, has been empty for three or four months, she estimates.

"It blatantly looks empty," she said. "It just says, 'Come over and pick on me.'•"

It also makes the neighborhood look bad to potential home buyers, she said.

Luckily, in the Old West End, one of Toledo's most historic neighborhoods, neighbors have pitched in to mow the property's grass, Ms. Postal said, and there haven't been any of the break-ins or copper-pipe thefts that plague empty houses in other parts of town.

A study about vacant properties in Ohio released earlier this year said vacant and abandoned properties cost Toledo taxpayers at least $3.8 million in 2006 in demolition, boarding-up, grass-mowing, and trash-removal costs.

"I'm sure this isn't just the Old West End, I'm sure it affects every part of Toledo," Ms. Postal said. "I'm sure in other neighborhoods, there are other people with the same scenario."

Ms. Postal is correct: Many Toledo neighborhoods are struggling with what to do about vacant and abandoned properties.

In fact, Toledo's problem with vacant properties "is poised at the proverbial tipping point," according to a draft report of a study its authors plan to release later this week.

The study was conducted by the National Vacant Properties Campaign and was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Local Initiatives Support Corp., and the city of Toledo.

The study, titled "Toledo at the Tipping Point," states the city has moderate levels of abandonment and vacancy when compared with other cities, but warns "powerful market forces could bring on a vacant property crisis."

While city and county programs have helped keep the number of vacant properties somewhat in check, "without aggressive action and political commitment, the number of vacant properties could quickly increase beyond the reach of local programs," the study states.

The study uses census data from 2000 to estimate the number at about 7 percent of the city's 139,880 housing units.

That's not as serious as the number of vacant housing units in other Ohio cities like Cleveland, Dayton, and Youngstown, said Joseph Schilling, a professor at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech and one of the study's authors. Those cities all have double-digit percentages of housing units vacant.

But the problem in Toledo could get worse, because of the area's declining housing sales and increasing foreclosures.

"Vacancy and abandonment will likely increase as borrowers and lending institutions walk away from properties when the foreclosure process begins, because the home is worth less than the outstanding mortgage and encumbrances," the study states.

Toledo has been trying to chip away at blight with consistent demolition, Mr. Schilling said.

"Toledo has a lot of positive individual programs and policies - housing court, a good code-enforcement program that has been on top of the demolitions, a LISC [Local Initiatives Support Corp.] office that helps with community development," Mr. Schilling said. "The challenge is harnessing all of these individual programs into something that is more powerful and effective."

Thus, the study's main recommendation is the creation of a task force of high-level city, county, community, and business leaders meeting regularly to deal specifically with the vacancy issue.

Additionally, it suggests expanded code enforcement and a more robust land-banking program.

"Toledo has this window of opportunity," Mr. Schilling said. "It might be six months, a year, it might be less. They need to take aggressive steps now to really control and manage the blight and abandonment from vacant properties."

"We're telling Toledoans and their leaders to be proactive and contain vacant properties now. Hopefully some ideas in this report will get them going in that direction," he said.

Toledo and Lucas County officials discussed some of the study's recommendations and implications during a conference last month at the University of Toledo's Urban Affairs Center, which is organized by Toledoans United for Social Action.

Joe McNamara, chairman of city council's neighborhoods and community development committee, said he believes the idea of creating a task force to deal with the problem could be effective.

"Intergovernmental cooperation is critical for any problem. The city and the county, everybody has different resources they could bring to the table."

Contact Kate Giammarise at:

kgiammarise@theblade.com

or 419-724-6133.



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