Ohio cities target vacant houses, crime havens

Murder. Theft. Drug use. Sexual Assault. Vandalism. Squatting.

These are the sorts of things that go on inside vacant and abandoned homes - and Ohio’s cities are home to an estimated 100,000 of them.

With numbers spurred by population declines, economic woes and the foreclosure crisis, the ranks of vacant homes drain municipal resources, push area property values down and offer a private, anonymous hiding place to commit crimes.

In Ashland, the problem became particularly acute in September when a woman called police to say she was being held captive in a vacant home on Covert Court. Police rescued the woman, and found two dead bodies inside. They arrested Shawn M. Grate, 40, and charged him with murder and kidnapping.

Ohio efforts to combat vacant homes are gaining steam, with millions of dollars in new federal funding available for demolitions of such homes, a new state law in effect to speed up foreclosures and an increasing number of communities turning to land banks and other initiatives to combat the issue.

The work is far from done as legal and other complexities, staffing shortages and the sheer number of problem homes in communities hamper efforts to wipe out the problem.

“We’ve been averaging 100 demolitions a year for the last four years,” said JR Rice, manager of Mansfield’s Building and Codes Department. “There are still 1,000 we could do.”

Exact numbers on vacant or abandoned homes are hard to come by, in part because it is not always easy to determine the status of a home and because there are varying definitions for what constitutes a vacant or abandoned property.

The U.S. Census Bureau tallies vacant homes every ten years excluding properties that are empty because they are up for sale or rent, used seasonally or as a second home. The census found 175,861 such homes in Ohio in 2010. The Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which helps communities deal with the vacant housing issue, estimates the current number at about 100,000 in the state.

The census found 640 such vacant or abandoned homes in Newark in 2010.

The Licking County Land Bank is working to remove houses that are abandoned and ready to be foreclosed. These homes are concentrated in Buckeye Lake, Pataskala and Newark.

“Right now, we’ve identified about 56 homes we hope we can tear down, although some of them might be able to be rehabilitated,” Roy Van Atta, land bank executive director, said. “We’re looking to help remove blight from Licking County.”

The group applied for a $1.4 million grant with the Ohio Housing Finance Agency to help fund any demolitions or rehabilitation it can do in Licking County.

“We’ll find out in October if we met the requirements for the grant. Once we learned if we have, we’ll start to dig a little deeper into the preliminary list to see if we need to tear the houses down or fix them,” Van Atta said.

He added the land bank would secure any properties it’s considering for demolition to make sure there wouldn’t be anything bad from happening in them until they can be dealt with.

In Ashland.,the census found 190 vacant houses in 2010. The Grate case illustrates the dangers of vacant houses and the complexities of dealing with them, said Ashland Mayor Glen P. Stewart. The house the bodies were found in and a house next to it have been well-maintained relative to known problem properties, he said.

“When you drive by these two homes that are side by side, they don’t look abandoned,” he said. “The outward appearance is of being pretty decent homes compared to a lot of the homes we’ve already demolished.”

The city has since filed foreclosures on the homes over back taxes.

Unless a neighbor or someone else reports an issue, cops aren’t typically spending time checking up on vacant houses for criminal activity, said Major Joe Masi of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

“We can’t tell you whether someone belongs in a certain house or not,” he said. “Unless there is a neighbor that calls in and says ‘hey that house is vacant and someone is in the there that isn’t supposed to be in there’.”

The situation makes such homes magnets for all sorts of criminal activity, said Jim Rokakis, vice president of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy .

“They give people with a reason to hide a convenient place to hide,” he said. “You’d be amazed at how many dead bodies are found in vacant properties around the state.”

Getting rid of vacant homes can be expensive for cash-strapped municipalities. It can cost between $4,800 and $7,000 to demolish most vacant properties, according to the Government Accountability Office, and Columbus officials have reported they are spending about $12,000 per home on teardowns.

Mansfield passed an income tax levy in late 2013 that puts money aside each year for demolitions, and has torn down about 100 homes per year since, Rice said. Prior to receiving the funding, the city was tearing down about ten homes a year, he said. In 2015, the city collected $708,036 for demolitions from the levy.

“It should be able to make a big difference,” he said.

Chillicothe has also stepped up efforts to tear down houses, said Councilman Dave Tatman. Ross County created a land bank this summer that allows it to apply for money to tear down homes, he said. In September the land bank asked for at least $500,000 from a federal program and expects to hear back later this year, Tatman said.

Most charitable housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity would prefer a vacant lot to a dilapidated vacant house, he said. Once homes are demolished, the lots can be made available to nonprofits interested in building affordable housing there, Tatman said.

“It sounded like a viable way to get something done,” he said.

Legislative changes in Ohio and initiatives at the federal level have made tens of millions of dollars available for home demolition to communities that form land banks, Rokakis said. There are 41 such public bodies in Ohio, he said. The first was created in 2008, he said.

Other initiatives in Ohio include a law that went into effect Sept. 28 allowing bank foreclosures of vacant homes to be sped up in the courts.

“Many times the foreclosure process can take up to three years to complete and when that occurs it lends itself to vandalism and a lot of other illegal activity,” said State Rep. Cheryl Grossman, R-Grove City, an architect of the law. “Now it’s shortened down to about a six-month process.”

Despite ramped-up efforts to deal with the vacant home problem, challenges remain - particularly in smaller cities, Rokakis said. Taking possession of vacant homes can involve a lot of administrative and legal work that small communities just don’t have time to tackle, he said.

“They don’t have large staffs,” Rokakis said. “You can’t expect them to get up to speed overnight.”

Others lack funding to demolish homes, but are unwilling to create the land bank that is needed to take possession of homes and to apply for the millions in federal funding that is available, he said.

“They take a very conservative view when it comes to government and view land banks as being more government,” he said. “If you don’t want a land bank then don’t do it.”

But there is no point in getting in the way of such efforts, Rokakis said.

“Not a lot of good happens at vacant properties,” he said. “It just doesn’t.”


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