Ohio Tears Through Blighted Housing Problem

Cleveland resident Cedric Cowan was asleep on an overcast spring morning when the roaring sounds of splintering wood and falling rubble jolted him awake.

Cowan lives in a neighborhood hit hard by foreclosures. He initially thought someone was moving into the house on the other side of Fairport Avenue.

Instead, he woke that morning to find a crew tearing down the two-family house.

Over the course of three hours, an excavator smashed, crushed and ripped apart the abandoned house while a worker sprayed the rubble with a hose to keep the dust down.

Cowan says he can’t help but feel relief. He’s been watching people moving into vacant houses, he says — and he doesn’t like it.

“They don’t pay no rent,” Cowan says, and “then the [houses] catch on fire. So I’m glad they’re demolishing this one.”

Making A ‘Bold Statement’

Shuttered homes often draw arsonists, vandals and scrap metal thieves. To help alleviate those problems, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine wants to destroy abandoned homes all across the state. He’s setting aside $75 million of the state’s mortgage settlement money to fund the demolitions.

“I wanted to make a bold statement,” DeWine says. “Set an example. And say that our state’s never going to be the great state we want it to be, when we have neighborhoods that are being eaten alive by these homes.”

Besides being a crime risk, crumbling old homes drive down property values. DeWine says demolition helps out those he considers the “real victims” of the foreclosure crisis: the neighbors of blighted homes.

“If you’re paying your mortgage and the value of your house was $120,000 — and now it’s $60,000 dollars because you live by a neighbor whose house is abandoned, you’re a victim,” DeWine says.

Back at Fairport Avenue, the excavator has gutted the old home and is crushing debris under its treads.

Gus Frangos, president of the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, describes this kind of demolition as a “root canal.” The bank has torn down nearly 800 houses in three years.

Frangos says it would cost up to $80,000 to restore the Fairport Avenue house — more than 10 times the cost of simply tearing it down.

“The siding and the wood is rotted. The interior walls are bad. All of the mechanicals — the electrical, the plumbing — everything is missing, stripped,” Frangos says.

The house is just one example “of thousands of properties that are decaying neighborhoods,” he says. “And we need to try to stabilize the tax base by removing that decay, so that people don’t live next to the stuff.”

‘Barely Making A Dent’

The City of Cleveland has spent more than $40 million in city and federal dollars to demolish 6,000 vacant homes since 2006. Attorney General DeWine is pushing cities to match the state’s demolition funds in order to destroy the largest possible number of homes.

The effort pleases Jim Rokakis, director of the land preservation organization the Thriving Communities Institute.

If the state’s $75 million demolition funding “leverages another $75 million, we’re talking $150 million,” Rokakis says — an amount he says “will take down 20,000 structures in the state, or about one-fifth of the total. That is a powerful impact.”

But Dennis Keating, a professor of urban planning and law at Cleveland State University, says the problem is bigger than the demolition fund can tackle.

Even if the money is matched by local governments, Keating says, it “would barely make a dent in what we already have in the backlog of vacant, abandoned housing. And I suspect we’ll have a lot more in the future.”

Someone with a glass half-full perspective, says Keating, would say that $150 million “would take care of half of what we have now.”

But the half-empty view? “We still have thousands more,” Keating says.

Either way, Attorney General DeWine says Ohio should receive its mortgage settlement money next month.

Copyright 2012 Cleveland Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wcpn.org.