Citizen soldiers take aim at Y’town’s housing blight


The National Guard has never been afraid to stare crisis in the face and conquer it head-on. As the oldest military branch of our country dating to 1636, the citizen-soldier brigade has aided in securing American independence, in responding to hurricanes and other natural calamities and in assisting urban communities and college campuses to restore law and order in times of rioting and tumult.

Given the National Guard’s track record of success, it’s heartening indeed to hear of plans to deploy troops from the Ohio Army National Guard’s 112th Engineer Battalion unit, based in Brook Park, to the streets of South Side Youngstown to fight an aggressive urban enemy – housing deterioration and neighborhood decay.

Specifically, Youngstown City Council members on Wednesday night authorized the deployment of about 40 members of the unit to the area of Hudson and Idlewood avenues this July to use their expertise and equipment to make measurable headway in the war on urban blight.

The deployment represents another example of the city’s creative strategies and dogged determination to deal with the crisis of dilapidated and decaying housing stock for which Youngstown leaders merit credit.

As Mayor John McNally put it late last year, “Demolitions are still the No. 1 quality-of-life issue we have in the city.”

The planned deployment, which must be formally authorized by the U.S. Department of Defense, brings with it a triple whammy of benefits to the city in easing the financial and tactical burdens to the city, in lessening public health and safety hazards and in clearing the way for neighborhood beautification and redevelopment.

First, the Guard’s mission will save the cash-strapped city thousands of dollars. The unit will cover all costs of demolition except for preparatory demolition work and fees for the dumping of debris. It will enable the work to be completed more quickly and with less bureaucratic red tape.

Second, the expedited razing of the abandoned and rickety South Side structures will positively impact public safety. In a front-page story last week in The Vindicator, city Fire Chief John O’Neill credited progress in the city’s demolition program for helping to lower the number of vacant homes that caught fire in 2016. Crews last year responded to 126 vacant house fires, a 35 percent reduction from the 195 blazes in 2015.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the direct linkage between the record number of vacant-structure demolitions in 2016 – 571 – and the telling decrease in dangerous fires last year.

Fewer vacant structures also means fewer opportunities for abandoned housing to become attractive breeding grounds for illicit drug and other criminal shenanigans. Once cleared, the vacant properties can serve as a catalyst for neighborhood pride, cleanup and redevelopment.

SUCCESS ACHIEVED ELSEWHERE

These and other benefits have successfully been achieved by other National Guard units in the nation, and there’s no reason to believe similar success cannot be achieved here. In Dallas, for example, the Texas National Guard’s “Operation Crackdown” in recent years has been singlehandedly responsible for knocking down about 300 abandoned and blighted homes, leading to redevelopment of entire neighborhoods.

In Youngstown, the Guard deployment complements and builds upon other successful and creative projects to put severe dents in the city’s massive stockpile of decaying and nuisance properties. Last summer, for example, volunteers from the 910th Civil Engineer Squadron, based out of the Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna, helped the city street department take down about 80 houses on the South Side.

In a creative financing move last year, the city restructured water and sanitation fees to provide an additional $2.5 million annually to add muscle to the Street Department’s yeoman’s job of expediting demolitions this year.

Clearly, however, with estimates of vacant structures needing torn down still hovering well above 3,000, much more work and creative strategies to perform that work loom large. The National Guard mission, however, serves as one more tangible indicator that the city has no inclination to let down its guard in battling blight.

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