Tax liens, foreclosures and vacancies plague Youngstown



By David Skolnick


A study of the city’s 62,569 parcels by a community organizing group paints a bleak picture of Youngstown.

But in issuing a vacant-property report, members of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative said Thursday there are ways to improve the city’s housing vacancy and blight problems.

With 1,470 structures in foreclosure as of Nov. 30, 2010, Youngstown has a foreclosure rate of about 1 in 40. The national average is 1 in 139.

The report states that 23,831 of the city’s total land parcels, 31.51 percent, are empty. That’s more than twice the national average of 15.4 percent.

Also, 3,246 structures are vacant, giving the city a vacancy rate of 44.8 structures per 1,000 residents. That’s nearly 20 times the national average. Of those vacant houses, nearly 36 percent of them are considered “an immediate hazard to the neighborhood,” the report states.

The current figure of 3,246 vacant structures is an improvement over the 4,566 vacant houses listed in the MVOC’s 2008 report of the city’s housing stock, but much more needs to be done, those with the organization say.

About half of that reduction in vacant structures is a direct result of the city’s having those houses demolished.

The city plans more demolitions.

The city is receiving $1.1 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this year for programs to stabilize neighborhoods. City officials have asked for a waiver to a HUD restriction that no more than 10 percent of the grant can be used for demolition.

“Demolition activity alone is not enough to face the housing problems,” said Sybil West, a member of the Bennington Block Watch on the city’s East Side, at Thursday’s MVOC press conference.

Without a strategy to stabilize neighborhoods, many of them are in jeopardy, the report reads. They include Crandall Park North, Lincoln Knolls, Cornersburg, Kirkmere, Belle Vista and Rocky Ridge.

MVOC officials listed four recommendations that should be implemented this year to tackle the city’s vacant-property problems.

They are:

Fix the city’s code enforcement, which the report states “is perceived as lacking focus and direction, and failing to provide a systematic approach to code compliance.”

“From the neighborhood perspective, you call the housing department with a problem and they say, ‘It’s not my responsibility,’” said Francine Jeffries, president of the Newport Neighborhood Association on the city’s southwest side. “Then you call the health department and they say, ‘It’s not my responsibility.’ The city needs to have one centralized department instead of being all over the place.”

Mayor Jay Williams, who attended Thursday’s event at the Covelli Centre’s community room, said steps are being taken to coordinate how the city’s inspectors take care of complaints.

“We need to cross-train our inspectors,” he said. “We also need to unify our ordinances.”

Establish a Mahoning County land bank by July 1.

County commissioners have authorized the creation of a land bank. But to receive funding from county property-tax late fees for this year, the land bank has to have a program in place by July 1.

Adopt a vacant-property registration ordinance for the city.

That would require owners of vacant or abandoned properties to register with the city. That would provide a point of contact in case the property becomes a nuisance and may encourage the owner to devise a rehabilitation plan by imposing fees.

The city is working to put such a policy in place, Williams said.

Develop a more meaningful and formal partnership between the city and community groups.

In the past two-plus years, the number of active neighborhood citizen groups has doubled to about 40, according to the MVOC.

The city needs to establish a way for the public to track housing cases in the court system and bring back a citizen inspection program, the report states.

“We’re not going to stop until the right things are done,” said the Rev. Michael Harrison, MVOC board chairman.

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