Building a strong, diversified and bountiful arsenal of munitions often proves critical to success in any battlefield on any war front.
And so it goes with Youngstown’s ongoing war on urban blight. In recent years, the city has mounted an increasingly strong, diversified and multi-pronged attack on housing decay and the many social, health and aesthetic ills that it breeds.
For example, Youngstown has entered partnerships with state and federal agencies to expedite demolition of thousands of homes that had fallen into total disrepair and had stood as only seedy shanties for drug trade, vandalism, prostitution and criminal hideouts. Left to rot, they also posed serious health threats to responsible neighbors.
The city also has cracked down on irresponsible landlords of rental properties and absentee landlords of vacant properties. All landlords are now required to register all rental homes and apartments and be subject to inspections to ensure compliance with minimal standards of safety and health.
AIM, GOALS OF NEW LAW
Most recently, Youngstown leaders have wielded yet another potentially effective weapon to fight housing blight. This year the city has enacted an ordinance requiring those filing foreclosures on vacant houses — usually banks — to post a $10,000 cash bond to provide incentives for owners to be more accountable in property maintenance.
As of last week, the city had collected bonds from 48 properties and is working to acquire the $10,000 bonds from 18 other property owners, said Maureen O’Neil, neighborhood improvement coordinator. If a bank maintains the property well, it would receive all but $200 of the $10,000 back once the house is sold. The $200 covers administration fees. If the house falls into disrepair, the city can use the money for required maintenance or demolition.
The reasoning behind the bond is sound. Foreclosures wield devastating and costly impact on communities large and small. One foreclosure can ring up as much as $34,000 in local government agency bills, according to a joint congressional economics committee report last year. Trash removal, unpaid utilities, sheriff and police costs, inspections and potentially even demolition of the property all contribute to that cost.
YOUNGSTOWN TAKES THE LEAD
It also is encouraging to see Youngstown take a national leadership role with this initiative. Only one other city in the United States — Springfield, Mass. — has enacted and is enforcing a foreclosure-bond ordinance. In addition to providing the city with some form of collateral for costs incurred for maintaining or demolishing abandoned homes, the law may also lessen the mammoth scope of foreclosures by encouraging the bank or lender to seriously reconsider foreclosure in the first place, thereby lessening potential blight and slowing urban flight.
Of course, not all are happy with the ordinance. Robert Klein, founder of Safeguard Properties, a Valley View, Ohio, business that is the nation’s largest mortgage field service company, called Youngstown’s law “overblown” and “punitive.”
To some extent, Klein may be right, but that does not make the foreclosure-bond law wrong. The problem of foreclosures — more than 5,000 in the city in the past decade — is overabundant, demanding a forceful response that some may translate as overkill or “overblown.”
The law also is intentionally “punitive” toward those who deserve punishment — negligent lenders who fail to maintain, sell or clear properties after bankruptcy actions and who prefer to keep them in shambles while claiming hefty tax write-offs for them.
By and large, officials say, the most irresponsible owners of foreclosed properties are those of absentee lenders, powerful national banks with few direct ties to Youngstown or the Mahoning Valley. In contrast, most local financial institutions have been supportive because they understand the debilitating impact on lives and communities that foreclosures bring, they say.
And despite the vocal opposition, the law already has survived a federal legal challenge. U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor last fall dismissed a lawsuit filed by heavy-hitting national banks, finding that the ordinance does not constitute an illegal tax nor does it violate any state law or the U.S. Constitution.
Clearly the ordinance passes muster on legal and practical grounds, and it holds promise toward reducing the scope and devastating personal and community impact of housing foreclosures in Youngstown. In concert with a variety of other tools and programs to preserve viable housing stock in the city and to reverse the pace of urban decay, city leaders should enforce the bond law aggressively.