Now that the money is secured to tear down about 450 dilapidated homes in Trumbull County, the next and more important phases - deciding which homes to demolish and creating plans to rebuild - deserve much attention.
The easy part is done. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine offered Trumbull County $500,000 with no strings attached and up to another $775,000 if it could generate a dollar-for-dollar match. After some unnecessary political wrangling in Warren, the Trumbull County Land Utilization Corp., or land bank, gathered enough money to maximize the grant. The land bank itself contributed more than $160,000 from its 2.5 percent share of delinquent property tax penalties.
As a sidebar, it's interesting to note which communities chose to participate. Brookfield, Howland, Hubbard Township, Warren Township, Weathersfield, McDonald, Girard, Hubbard, Newton Falls, Niles and Warren ponied up money.
Other communities certainly have a need. Just this week Champion declared 41 properties public nuisances and Vienna did the same for 24 others (not all these properties hold structures eligible for demolition). Liberty begged for money to raze five structures but offered no financial share.
For those frugal enough to be able to offer a match, there's an expectation of immediate improvement to the quality of life in the neighborhoods that have abandoned, dilapidated houses. Eyesores disappear. Dangerous playgrounds for curious children are gone. Havens for criminals are eliminated. Property values rise. According to a Land Policy Institute study, Genesee County, home of Flint, Mich., saw property values increase by $112 million after spending $3.5 million in demolitions, a 3,200 percent return on investment.
Don't expect similar results here. In addition to other variables possibly contributing to Flint's increased property values, a well-vetted strategy for tearing down and rebuilding is a must. Nobody destroys their way to prosperity, yet Trumbull has not yet embarked on a rebuilding strategy. The focus is primarily, almost exclusively, on destruction.
If not careful, the county could end up with a lot of vacant property to maintain. One way to avoid that is to convince next-door neighbors to buy the land. But if other dilapidated eyesores remain nearby, it might not be worth the property tax and maintenance burden for a next-door neighbor, especially if elderly or a slumlord, to take the vacant land. Thus, the need to tear down chunks of blight rather than a house here and a house there, and the need to better enforce zoning laws.
A Department of Housing and Urban Development grant has enabled Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership to hire an urban planner who is working with the land bank to select which houses to demo.
Enforcement is difficult when homeowners with upside down mortgages walk away and have no other assets to attack. It's also difficult when banks begin to foreclose but stop just short of taking the deeds, thus avoiding responsibility. But government is still falling short when it comes to preventing houses from getting condemned in the first place. Hopefully another HUD grant for TNP and the City of Warren to hire a zoning worker will help.
So far, Trumbull County has made the right moves to get the most demolition money available. In comparison, Summit County doesn't even have a land bank yet. It is now scrambling to meet a June 30 deadline to offer a match for the $3.78 million it is eligible for. If Summit or any other county fails, Trumbull should be ready to pounce with more matching money.
While 450 houses could fall with this $1.2 million, the attorney general's office estimates that 2,500 houses could be torn down in Warren alone. There's still a long way to go.