By Ed Runyan
Despite the approximately 1,100 Trumbull County housing demolitions that have taken place in recent years, the need for more demolitions is still great, says Matt Martin, director of the nonprofit Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership.
There are about 3,000 vacant homes in Trumbull County, about half of them in Warren.
TNP, which was formed in December 2010 and manages the Trumbull County Land Bank, took down about 250 homes in the past two years. TNP, the land bank, county grants writer Julie Green and the planning commission, and the city of Warren took down about 850 more dating back to 2009. TNP expects to demolish 300 in 2017.
If that sounds ambitious, that is because the land bank has been successful in acquiring grants to carry out demolitions, in part because it succeeded in using the money it has received in the past.
The land bank was awarded an additional $1.3 million from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency’s Neighborhood Initiative Program in October, bringing the total of awards to $12.5 million over six rounds of funding.
The land bank has spent about $5 million of the $12.5 million, but the program has deadlines. The money needs to be used by the end of 2018, Martin said.
So even though the land bank expects to carry out a record number of demolitions in 2017, Martin says it’s a pace that needs to keep up through 2018.
The remaining money is enough to demolish about 700 more homes because the cost is about $1 million per 100 homes, or $10,000, on average, per home, including asbestos removal.
Even though the land bank has about $7 million available, it could take as much as $25 million to remove every abandoned home, Martin said.
The way many Ohio counties such as Trumbull have tackled their problem with abandoned and blighted homes has been to use a land bank to acquire tax-delinquent homes through foreclosure.
That’s where Lynn Griffith III, an assistant county prosecutor, comes in.
Griffith is the attorney who has handled tax foreclosures on behalf of the county treasurer’s office and the land bank for several years. County Treasurer Sam Lamancusa formed the land bank.
When a property owner gets behind on property taxes for a home, Griffith can file a tax foreclosure. If the foreclosure is completed, the property typically goes into the land bank.
In many cases, after the land bank demolishes the home, a neighbor will purchase the land to create a “side lot” for themselves. The process reduces blight and puts the property back into productive use.
Griffith has filed tax foreclosures on a record number of homes in recent years.
The prosecutor’s office filed only 18 tax foreclosures in 2011, but that number rose to 139 in 2012 and 394 in 2013. It was 344 in 2014 and 446 last year, according to common pleas court records.
So far this year, Griffith has filed 487.
“These grants have deadlines, so there’s a need to get these cases filed and finished so [the land bank] can use this grant money,” Griffith said. “Trumbull County has been aggressive in getting this grant money.”
It takes six to 12 months between filing a tax foreclosure in common pleas court and completion. Along the way, the owner of the property is notified by the court that the foreclosure has been filed and given the opportunity to bring the taxes up to date.
In many cases, the owner owes more in property taxes than the property is worth, and the owner allows the property to be turned over to the county. The owner takes steps to retain the property in about 10 percent of the cases, Griffith said.
Jami Bishop, a common pleas court magistrate who handles many of the tax foreclosures, said tax foreclosures can take less than six months if the owner does not respond to notices from the court and a default judgment is issued.
Bishop said she works with property owners who want to remain in their tax-delinquent home by allowing them to resume tax payments and eliminate the delinquency at a rate of 10 percent of the delinquency every six months. Interest and fees on the delinquency are not charged during that time.
The land bank recently began a program called Building a Better Warren that puts people to work to reclaim usable materials from homes the land bank has acquired that will be demolished.
Two workers recently reclaimed tin-ceiling tiles from a home on Washington Street Northwest. Items such as these are being warehoused and catalogued for now until the land bank has clearance to market the items for sale to the public, Martin said.