Although 3,000 vacant houses were demolished in Youngstown in the past seven years, even city officials question its impact on neighborhoods.
“It’s been a scattershot approach,” said DeMaine Kitchen, the mayor’s secretary/chief of staff, who oversees the city’s demolition program. “We’re trying to do more organized demolition, prioritizing areas. We’re getting better, but we need to improve.”
But thanks to the city’s involvement in the federal Strong Cities, Strong Communities [SC2] initiative, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing Youngstown with a twofold approach to help improve its demolition efforts.
Beckie Northrop, an expert on housing and community development with BCT Partners, a New Brunswick, N.J., firm working with HUD, will spend Monday through Friday in Youngstown talking to city officials and key stakeholders such as the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. and the Mahoning County Land Bank, about demolition. She said she’ll also look at best practices in other cities.
“We’ll work with the city to streamline the process,” she said. “We’ll look at existing procedures and find ways to improve and expedite demolitions. We’ll look at how the city plans for demolition, and determine if they are demolishing their top priorities. We’re looking to do it smarter and faster.”
Northrop said she plans to return in late March or early April to “get all the key players in the city for a brainstorm” meeting, and then issue recommendations a few months later.
HUD selected Youngstown in December 2011 for the SC2 initiative, designed to give struggling cities needed resources — primarily personnel assistance — to spur economic growth and operational efficiency.
“When we joined SC2, we asked for help with planning, economic development and demolition,” Kitchen said. “I’m not a demolition expert.”
Local activists praise the work Kitchen and other city officials have done with demolition in the past year, including the creation of a website that monitors the status of houses on the demolition list and an effort to prioritize structures to be taken down.
“It’s still scattershot, but it’s getting better, and houses are coming down faster,” said Gary Davenport, an organizing fellow at the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, a community organization focusing on improving the quality of life in the area.
“Scattershot” means the city is demolishing one or two houses on a street that needs to have several more structures taken down to protect the safety and property value of those living there.
The Rev. Paul Heine, pastor of Martin Luther Lutheran Church and president of the Newport Neighborhood Association on the city’s South Side, said he’s pleased the city is focusing on residential-housing demolitions along its main corridors as well as near libraries, schools and churches.
But there are some in his neighborhood who aren’t pleased, he said. They live near dilapidated houses on side streets that likely won’t be demolished.
“Side streets are not a targeted area,” he said.
Almost a decade ago, city officials determined that “scattershot” demolition wouldn’t be effective. In its internationally praised Youngstown 2010 plan, adopted in 2005, the city evaluated every community, making a series of recommendations.
Among them is “targeted demolition,” meaning a focus on taking down vacant properties in specific neighborhoods that “could help to make these areas sustainable and keep them from slipping into terminal condition,” the plan reads.
Instead, the city’s demolition program largely has taken down dilapidated houses throughout Youngstown without a focus on specific neighborhoods.
That hasn’t done enough to solve the city’s vacant-property problem, Kitchen said.
Former Mayor Jay Williams, who served from January 2006 to July 2011, and his successor, Charles Sammarone, made vacant- housing demolition a top priority. The city demolished about 2,500 houses during Williams’ tenure as mayor.
Since Sammarone took over in August 2011, 548 houses have been demolished, Kitchen said.
The goal is to demolish 1,000 houses this year, he said. About 1,070 need to be demolished quickly among the 4,000 to 5,000 houses in the city that are vacant, Kitchen said.
But Sammarone has said the city has money this year to demolish about 335 to 400 more homes this year.
“We’ve been taking down houses, but every day, we add to that list” so the city can’t catch up, Kitchen said.
“There are so many vacant properties” in Youngstown and “there is a need to be strategic” with demolition, said Heather McMahon, MVOC’s executive director. “We need to follow a neighborhood-by-neighborhood plan and focus on strategic demolition.”
The city has “made great strides” in improving that issue, she said.
“Scattershot demolition is never effective, and we see that across industrial cities in the Midwest,” McMahon said.
In addition to BCT concentrating on improving Youngstown’s demolition practices, HUD is providing free legal research from Walter Haverfield, a Cleveland law firm, and the Washington, D.C., law office of Reno & Cavanaugh to identify state and federal rules, regulations and laws that make it more expensive and challenging for Youngstown to demolish houses.
City officials have repeatedly pointed to one policy change that’s hampered its demolition efforts.
Youngstown and numerous other cities have specifically complained about the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s interpretation in 2010 of an existing law that requires communities to test properties for asbestos before demolition.
That raised the demolition cost to the city from about $3,500 for a residential structure to about $7,500, Sammarone said.
“Is there over-monitoring of the federal government?” Northrop said. “That’s the crux of the matter, and it starts with the EPA reinterpretation.”