The gargantuan task of ridding Youngstown and other areas of Mahoning County from the blight of dilapidated and unsafe housing looms so large that the fight must play out on many diverse fields.
One new and promising field is a program spearheaded by the Mahoning County Land Bank in cooperation with state and federal governments.
The land bank is seeking part of the $60 million Ohio is receiving through the federal Hardest Hit Fund. The U.S. Treasury Department agreed last summer to target that amount for housing demolition from the pot of $570 million Ohio was allocated to provide funds to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.
The land bank has its sights set on owners of about 50 houses in need of demolition to turn over the structures to the agency, according to Debora Flora, executive director of the group. With funding approval, the agency would then expedite their demolition.
The project promises to be a win-win-win for owners of blighted properties, for residents seeking long neglected neighborhood cleanup and for the federal agency overseeing the program that could profit from a cleanup of its own sullied image.
Owners of blighted properties who cannot afford the high costs of demolition win because they can donate the properties to the land bank, thereby ridding themselves of a costly and embarrassing liability and headache.
Once funding is approved, the land bank can proceed more quickly than individuals in razing structures and clearing properties for redevelopment. In Youngstown, for example, the assistance would be a blessing for city leaders who have been working slowly but surely toward demolishing unsafe, abandoned and unsightly properties for decades. The task, however, overwhelms the city’s limited human and financial resources. Even though about 3,000 city homes have been demolished thanks to a mish-mash of programs over the past 10 years, more than that many remain scars on our urban landscape. They also serve as barriers to meaningful neighborhood and citywide pride and redevelopment.
For a city that has lost 100,000 people and their homes over the past five decades, the massive network of blighted properties also stands as a breeding ground for sickness, danger and crime.
LAND BANK DESERVES FUNDING
Officials at the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, which administers the Hardest High program in Ohio, should give the Mahoning Land Bank’s application serious consideration. True to the premise of the HH program, Youngstown and Mahoning County fit the bill as one of the hardest hit communities in the United States in population loss, urban decay, deindustrialization and poverty.
The high potential for success of this program in Mahoning County, throughout Ohio and 17 other states receiving Hardest Hit funding will also benefit the program itself. After all, Hardest Hit’s track record over its four-year life has been less than stellar. Late last fall, Christy Romero, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, harshly criticized to Congress the inefficient handling of the Hardest Hit Fund and the “toxic corporate culture” that still thrives within certain banks. At the end of fiscal year 2013, states had spent only 22 percent of the roughly $1.7 billion of its funding, Romero said, adding that only 145,000 people had received aid — a measly 27 percent of its original goal.
Clearly the Hardest Hit fund could use a success story or two to regain respect and to put past problems behind it. Quick approval of the Mahoning County Land Bank’s application would enable the troubled agency to take one small step toward enhanced credibility while allowing Greater Youngstown to gain measureable ground in its war on blight.