By Ashley Luthern
Drive down almost any residential street in the city, and odds are several vacant homes — sometimes called “feral houses” — will dot the scenery.
The city has tried to address the growing vacancy problem for decades by boarding up homes and eventually tearing them down so they don’t serve as havens for illegal activities such as prostitution and drug dealing.
Yet, despite the city’s past focus on vacancies with such concepts as the Youngstown 2010 plan and even the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the reality is that no comprehensive demolition list exists.
This has been a source of great frustration to neighborhood residents, interested property buyers and even some city employees and officials.
Mayoral office administrator DeMaine Kitchen said a new citywide internal software program that will easily track every stage from housing inspections to demolition is nearly complete.
But for one couple, it’s too little, too late.
Terence Langston, 28, and Sheneefah Johnson, 32, met while studying business at Youngstown State University. They are engaged and expecting a child; Johnson has three children from a prior relationship.
Langston and Johnson searched for a house and decided on 618 Sherwood Ave. on the city’s South Side. It seemed like a sound choice: It was near Langston’s mother’s house, had a new grocery store nearby and was next door to a church.
“We knew it was a fixer-upper, but we weren’t worried about it. We were planning on staying there for a long time. That was going to be our house,” said Langston, who owns a construction company, Langston Legacy.
They paid a $250 deposit and $250 first-month mortgage to Home Solutions Partners, IV, REO, LLC, of Dallas, Texas, the house’s listed owner.
In September, the couple contacted the city for water service and Dominion East Ohio for gas hookup. When city officials told them to hire a registered contractor to do the electric work, they did so and paid him $1,750.
In late January, an “act of God,” as Johnson calls it, occurred: A car accident in front of the Sherwood house knocked out an electric pole.
“The contractor had to get a work order from the city because he needed the line repaired. He went down [to the city’s Public Works Department], and he called us and said they won’t release the work-order permit because it’s on the demolition list,” Johnson said.
This was the first time Langston and Johnson heard that the home they purchased was set to be torn down. The couple waited until mid-February for a home inspection.
When a city inspector came out, he told them the roof needs to be repaired to make it habitable.
But all work on the house was on hold because they couldn’t get a work permit from the city for electrical work, Langston said.
And they “absolutely would not have” considered buying the home if they knew it was on the demolition list, Johnson added.
Kitchen said confusion about demolition stems from the fact that even though city officials have referenced a so-called demolition list in the past, the properties on any list really depended on whom was speaking.
“There was really not even a process. It was complaint-driven and determined by whomever you were talking to: demolition department, administration, neighbors and council. There really never was any order,” Kitchen said.
Now, city hall is trying to bring order to demolition.
“Without a doubt there’s an overabundance of vacant homes. What we do now is lump them together by streets, geographic regions and a couple blocks. Now we’ll take it a step farther. ... The houses that have been so-called ‘on the list’ for the last 15-20 years, we’re trying to get those first. However, there are new structures that come up because of fire and immediate safety problems,” Kitchen said.
The software program is undergoing a trial and should make internal city operations “more efficient,” he said.
Housing inspectors and city administrators will look at the same program. City residents who are concerned about properties can call code enforcement, their council representative or the mayor’s office to report a house.
When an inspector goes to the property, the results will be entered in the system. Other steps in the process are title searches, sending letters to owners and bidding out contracts for asbestos, abatement and demolition.
“The software basically won’t let a house go to the next step until the previous step is completed. I can monitor the process even though [inspectors] are not at city hall. It lets me know if there’s a backlog and bottleneck and I can determine why,” Kitchen said.
Jean Schaefer, a city employee who reports to Kitchen, helps keep track of what structures are slated for demolition.
“When it’s put on the list, we send out a 30-day notice to the owners that says you’re not allowed to transfer property,” said Schaefer.
In fact, Home Solutions purchased the house in Sept. 17, 2010, through a warranty deed for $1,384. Unaware of the sale, on that same day, city officials mailed a notice to the previous owner, Federal National Mortgage Association, warning them the house could be razed.
Presumably, now that Federal National Mortgage no longer owned the house, that notice was ignored. Home Solutions in Dallas did not respond Friday to calls for comment.
“People flip houses constantly, and that’s a problem,” Schaefer said.
Not only should the new system help prevent flipping properties, it also should help the city compete for federal and state dollars designated for demolition, such a $75 million state housing demolition program run through the Ohio Attorney General’s office.
The city has demolished more than 2,500 vacant structures in the past six years, but officials have said there are about 2,000 more vacant structures that need to come down.
Estimates from the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, a grass-roots community organizing initiative, put the number of vacant structures at about 3,000, in various stages of decline.
This year, the city is starting the demolition process with 45 houses, made available on a list to The Vindicator.
It usually costs the city about $4,000 to $6,000 for each housing demolition, city officials have said.
Although the tracking software likely will improve the process, many neighborhood groups want a system that is transparent. Kitchen said that at least initially the software program is for internal use only.
Lack of transparency in tracking demolitions is something neighborhood groups want to change, said Phil Kidd, who has worked on housing problems with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.
“We want a website that all citizens are able to clearly track ... and get the whole process going on with code enforcement, which may result in demolition,” Kidd said. “There isn’t a clear communication of this information about what is happening with these homes.”
Kitchen said the new software will be public in that anyone who calls a city official or department can ask them to check the property’s status.
Langston and Johnson said their lives have changed entirely because of confusion about demolition. They’ve emptied savings, taken out housing loans, dropped out of YSU this semester and now plan to move.
“We just want answers,” Johnson said.
Kitchen said the city would be liable if anything happened to Langston or Johnson inside the Sherwood house.
“The house is uninhabitable according to our inspectors. ... But we’re not going to tear the house down if it’s restored to livable conditions. Technically it’s not on the demolition list,” Kitchen said.
When The Vindicator called the city’s Demolition/Housing Code Enforcement department about the Sherwood property two weeks ago, a reporter was told it was on the demolition list.
Johnson said the whole experience has left her frustrated.
“It’s like we did something bad. ... Why didn’t you [the city] do your job and knock this house down if it was on the demolition list?” Johnson said.