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Issues persist over blighted housing projects

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Vacant homes in the 2200 block of Kent Street in Toledo are just a few of the homes developed as tax credit properties.

THE BLADE
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COLUMBUS -- Top leaders from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency have met with Toledo officials to discuss vacant tax-credit homes blighting several neighborhoods, but haven't reached any specific agreements as to how to proceed.

"At this point, there are more questions than answers," OHFA Executive Director Doug Garver told board members at a meeting Wednesday morning.

A recent Blade investigation found more than a sixth of about 800 houses built in Toledo in the last 15 years for low-income residents are vacant. Of these, more than 100 are boarded up.

The homes were built as part of a federal tax-credit program in which local developers can sell tax credits to investors, such as banks, to raise funds for acquisition, rehabilitation, and construction.

Of the 21 projects built in Toledo since 1997, six have vacancy rates of a quarter or more.

At a meeting last week, agency officials highlighted an internal audit they conducted and a five-point plan they are in the process of implementing in response to the problems highlighted by The Blade.

Among the steps: The agency will modify the process it uses for tracking and reviewing completed work, assigning all Toledo project files to other employees for follow-up, inspecting all Toledo projects before the end of the year, and reporting some of the units to the IRS that are not in use.

On Monday, officials from Toledo's Department of Neighborhoods met with OHFA leaders, as well as representatives of the Lucas County Land Bank, the National Equity Fund, and Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing.

The National Equity Fund and OCCH are syndicators that facilitate tax credit deals, acting as a broker between the developers who sell tax credits and the investors who buy the credits.

"There was a general discussion about the strategies to address the areas of frustration we have identified, but no agreements or commitments [were] reached," said Jen Sorgenfrei, spokesman for Mayor Mike Bell.

The dire state of some of the worst developments with high vacancy rates has prompted the city to try to find other groups to take over several projects.

However, neighborhoods officials have said the complicated deals with multiple parties involved are very difficult to unravel.

"It's a work in progress," Mr. Garver told The Blade after the meeting. "It's a very challenging situation."

Hal Keller, president of Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing, said his agency intends to provide funds to rehab the 14 vacant properties in its projects in Toledo, but it wants assurances the homes won't fall back into vacancy and disrepair.

"We want a plan from management and the local general partner to make sure they will succeed," he said.

As to how to do that?

"We're evaluating our options," he said.

Mr. Keller, who was at the meeting Monday, described it as "very positive."

"Everybody is very focused on moving ahead," he said.

Mr. Garver said it was helpful to visit Toledo and look at some of the more struggling developments.

"I can't give you anything specific because there is nothing specific right now. We're looking at what are the issues and what can they do about it," he said.

OHFA's responsibility is making sure the properties are monitored in accordance with IRS guidelines.

"Our immediate responsibility is to get those files back up to full compliance ... and that will happen by the end of August," Mr. Garver said.

No other meetings between OHFA and the city are scheduled, he said.

"It is very important to us that we resolve this situation," he said.

Officials from the Lucas County Landbank and National Equity Fund could not be reached for comment.

Contact Kate Giammarise at: kgiammarise@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.

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