Studying vacant housing

As much as 20 percent of Youngstown housing and 10 percent of Mahoning County housing may be vacant.



YOUNGSTOWN — This isn’t the only city wrestling with an abundance of vacant housing.

Urban sprawl, the foreclosure crisis and globalization have contributed to abandoned property rates averaging 15 percent in American cities, according to the National Vacant Properties Campaign. This Washington-based nonprofit organization has studied the scourge of urban housing abandonment in cities from St. Louis to San Diego.

The next region to benefit from its expertise may be Mahoning County. A local task force has begun a campaign to conduct a NVPC-led assessment of the county’s abandonment problem.

Officials from Youngstown, Mahoning County, Wick Neighbors Inc., Home Savings and Loan, and First Place Real Estate-Coldwell Banker hope to raise about $100,000 to investigate the scope of the local problem.

“Toledo; Duluth, Minn.; and Detroit, Mich. — they’ve all done this,” said Margaret L. Murphy, executive director of Wick Neighbors, the organization spearheading the effort. “Buffalo did tremendous things.”

According to William D’Avignon, Community Development Agency director, Youngstown has already benefited from studies led by NVPC in Cleveland and other parts of Ohio. Responding to the organization’s recommendations in those locations, Ohio lawmakers have altered sections of housing law that simplify the demolition process for municipalities here and elsewhere in the state, D’Avignon said.

A regional-level assessment of vacant property issues in Mahoning County led by the organization could streamline Youngstown’s efforts to reduce blight and reverse diminished property values, D’Avignon said.

“They’re going to look at what processes are taking place at the county level with foreclosures, how the city is handling the land bank, ” said D’Avignon. “They’ve got a reputation to kind of have the wherewithal to pull it all together.”

Nobody can be sure just how big a problem vacant property has become in the county, D’Avignon said. The 2000 census reported there were 3,325 “excess housing units” in Youngstown. Since then, there have been hundreds of demolitions and potentially hundreds more sales, abandonments and foreclosures.

As much as 20 percent of Youngstown’s property and 10 percent of county property may be abandoned, he said.

The proposed study would offer greater insight on the issue, Murphy said.

In some ways, Youngstown is ahead of the curve on the issue of housing vacancy, D’Avignon said. At $1.52 million, Youngstown’s current budget for demolition tops Detroit’s $800,000, a city more than 10 times its size.

But by and large, municipalities are ill-equipped to solve this problem independently, according to the NVPC. Abandoned properties cost local governments between $3 billion and $6 billion annually in lost in tax revenues. Meanwhile, increased crime, fire hazards and health threats associated with abandoned housing stress municipal service providers.

A study conducted by NVPC in Austin, Texas found evidence of illegal use by prostitutes, drug dealers, property criminals, and others was present in 83 percent of vacant, unsecured properties.

About 6,000 firefighters are injured every year in vacant or abandoned building fires, most of which are the result of arson, the organization reports. Furthermore, vacant properties reduce property values, speeding the urban exodus.

None of these issues are new to Mahoning County, Murphy said. But with some help from NVPC, local agencies could potentially utilize winning strategies from other communities to speed demolitions or help homeowners remain in their homes, she said.

Until plywood-covered windows and trash-strewn lawns are remedied, there’s little hope for progress in other revitalization efforts, she said.

“It’s basic to neighborhood reinvestment,” she said. “You cannot reclaim a viable [housing] market in the city until you start to tackle vacant properties.”

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