By ROBERT CONNELLY, KALEA HALL and EMMALEE C. TORISK
The next 21⁄2 years will be a constantly spinning pinwheel of acquiring, demolishing and greening properties for the Mahoning County Land Bank until a $4,266,250 Neighborhood Initiative Program grant is exhausted.
Neighborhoods in Austintown, Boardman, Campbell, Struthers and Youngstown that have been identified as “tipping-point neighborhoods,” or areas that are still strong but show signs of weakness, will be targeted.
“Hundreds of properties will be touched,” said Debora Flora, land bank executive director.
The $49.5 million in funding from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency was made available only to land banks across Ohio. The federal funds originally were for people losing homes to mortgage foreclosure, but were not used as quickly as intended and were repurposed.
Eleven land banks in Ohio, including those in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, received a portion of the grant. Trumbull County was awarded $3.2 million.
And since it’s a reimbursement grant, all of the work must be finished, and the paperwork turned in, before the land bank will see any of those funds.
The last demolition activity must be completed by mid-2016, and each project can be reimbursed up to $25,000 by the OHFA. Each property to be demolished must be acquired by the land bank — a time-consuming endeavor — then demolished. Grading, seeding and beautifying the remaining plot of land also is expected, as is maintaining it for three years: the life of the forgivable mortgage OHFA places on each property.
The $25,000 per property can be used to offset any of those costs.
Even if the land bank spends the maximum amount on each demolition, and Flora doubts that it will, it will be able to demolish 177 properties through five communities. She noted that the average cost for demolition is $8,500, which includes testing for and abating asbestos, but not the expenses associated with acquiring and buying the properties.
Flora added that the land bank, working in conjunction with those five communities, is still pulling together its plan of action to determine which properties in which areas should be addressed first.
“Everyone wants us to start in their backyard, and we understand that,” Flora said.
She said, too, that even once activity seems to have started, residents shouldn’t become too concerned “if there’s a period of time where people don’t see anything happening on the ground.”
Again, because this “is an unusual creature in the world of demolition grants,” the acquisition process alone could take anywhere from a short amount of time to a year. Still, the wait will be worth it, she said, explaining that the land bank knows these demolitions are “going to be progress.”
“If we can change the course of these neighborhoods, that’ll be a start,” Flora said.
The new grant will be used only in specific areas in Austintown Township, which will continue its demolition program powered by a previous grant through the state attorney general’s office.
Austintown has been using a previous grant to tear down 22 homes since July 2013. Austintown’s zoning inspector, Darren Crivelli, said the township will continue the demolition program, whether a home meets the new grant’s requirements operated by the land-bank office or if the township has to pay for it.
“Regardless of whether we have grant money or not, the trustees are going to be aggressive with maintaining the demolition program,” Crivelli said.
Austintown received $89,828 from the Moving Ohio Forward grant program created by Attorney General Mike DeWine. About $55,000 of the amount the township received was unmatched funds, meaning they will be reimbursed for that money. The grant awarded Mahoning County $1,531,680.
Those funds have almost run out with the homes taken down during March. Roger Smith of the land bank expects his office to meet with Austintown trustees to discuss which properties within a target zone to demolish.
The designated area where the land-bank grant money can be used for demolition is bordered by four roads and a stream. Those are North Meridian Road, Bundy Avenue/County Line Road, Mahoning Avenue, North Raccoon Road and Four Mile Run stream.
Smith said he doesn’t know how many buildings will be torn down with the $4.26 million grant through the state.
“The average is expected to be $12,500 per property. Could be less, could be more depending on circumstances,” Smith said. “Acquiring a property through foreclosure in this county takes approximately a year.”
Smith said the land bank isn’t going to tear down homes and leave an empty, lot behind. “The lots are going to be ... well graded and seeded and there may be some other improvements made to the property.”
Crivelli added that while the township continues to tear down homes, residents are “glad to see the neighborhood blight removed,” but would like to see more.
“We don’t base it on aesthetics, and I think sometimes residents wished we did ... we just have to jump through a lot of legal hoops to do it right,” he said.
In Boardman, the grant received by the land bank will help keep the ball rolling on demolition. The township knocked down 11 homes in 2013 and three so far this year via the state Moving Ohio Forward program, Zoning Inspector Sarah Gartland said.
The township already has been reimbursed approximately $39,000 from the grant program.
“We have more we want to do,” Gartland said. “We just keep going.”
The target demolition area will be in north Boardman —“closest to Youngstown,” Flora said.
Gartland said the township is rezoning those areas to prevent multiplexes from developing there.
“We are going to pick properties that are good for the land bank, which are the properties that something can be done with,” Gartland said.
Outside of demolition and rezoning, Gartland is developing a master plan for Boardman, which includes developing an identity for each part of Boardman and preserving the integrity of neighborhoods by demolition and rezoning.
“The whole thing is clearing out and replacing [demolished structures] with something beneficial to the community,” Gartland said.
STRUTHERS AND CAMPBELL
Ed Wildes, safety-service director for Struthers, doesn’t think it’s fair that hundreds of city residents are forced to face blight in their neighborhoods every day, likely through no fault of their own.
“People don’t deserve to live next door to a house that’s half-burned down with windows busted,” said Wildes. “They deserve better.”
Aside from major aesthetic issues and negative effects on property values, such blight also poses a safety concern, Wildes said.
For those reasons, among others, both Wildes and Mayor Terry Stocker have concentrated their efforts on ridding the city’s neighborhoods of blight. Since 2008, when both took office, the city has demolished more than 90 dilapidated homes in the city.
Despite this progress, a lot more work remains, Wildes said. A recent survey of the city’s housing stock revealed about 275 vacant homes.
“I can go to any ward in this city and find a house that needs taken down,” he said.
Wildes explained thathis reaction to the city’s receiving a portion of the Neighborhood Initiative Program grant was naturally “a good, positive” one. A majority of the city’s neighborhoods qualify for the demolition funding — especially those in the 1st, 3rd and 4th wards — but Wildes said he’s somewhat disappointed that certain areas with houses that need to be taken down won’t be helped.
He also wishes that the acquisition process that must take place before demolition can begin was quicker. In the meantime, he knows the city will be responsible for continuing to maintain those properties — mainly cutting the grass.
“What are you most interested in: getting rid of a blighted piece of property, or them getting ownership of the property?” Wildes asked.
But, overall, Wildes said he feels fortunate that the city was selected to receive this demolition funding — funding that will help the city cross several blighted properties off its list.
Judith Clement, director of administration for Campbell, agreed.
Homes in roughly two-thirds of the city qualify for the demolition funding, but which homes actually will be demolished is “contingent upon which homes the land bank can acquire,” she explained. It’s going to be a lengthy process.
Even so, Clement’s looking forward to the next few years, when almost every neighborhood in the city will be positively affected by this demolition work.
“We have so much blight in the town,” Clement said. “I’m very happy about it — anything to improve this town.”