The Van Wert County Courthouse

Friday, Jan. 28, 2022

Burning down the house

If only we could, as the Talking Heads once celebrated in song, burn down the house. Oh for the day when the fire department could flame out a dump for practice, back before the EPA, in its never ending crusade to save us all from things that never seemed to hurt us before, made the practice illegal.

Now, every day on your block or maybe once a month while not driving your normal route, you find yourself passing by that obviously abandoned structure that looks as if a stiff breeze might take it down. But, year after year, it seems to survive not only stiff breezes, but heavy winds. At least most of it does.

By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum
By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum

What remains of these haunted habitats is not only an eyesore but a health hazard and a devaluation to every property from which they can be seen. This problem seems to grow exponentially as the county ages. Newer housing clusters together on the edges of town while the older housing zones are left to make do in strange arrays of the upkeep spectrum.

A few years ago the county created the Phoenix Initiative as a community development effort to disappear some of these properties. The idea was that the county would partner with a city, village or township that could obtain rights to a property to be demolished. Costs to tear down a home generally came in under $10,000.

The program has been slow going, with the major roadblock being the owners of these properties, many of who think they are sitting on some sort of gold mine if they just wait it out. A good number of these owners do not live in the county. Even when they let the taxes go so we can foreclose, someone buys it at auction instead of letting it revert to the county with the intention of flipping it for a few hundred dollars again and no work ever gets done. In fact, most of these are beyond repair. If they were cars we would call them “totaled”.

The Phoenix Initiative requires the owner to either sign over the property or allow a lien to be placed on the property for the cost of a teardown. There is no money made available for acquisition, however, as it seems inappropriate in most cases to use county taxpayer dollars to buy a property above its actual value. Especially when it is hard to tell if the owner is innocent in the home’s deterioration or has taken the insurance money and ran after a casualty incident.

The demolition of abandoned and dilapidated properties has also been a priority of the City of Van Wert since Mayor Jerry Mazur took office. We’ve worked with the City on a couple of Phoenix Initiative properties but the problem is always the same — absentee and unrealistic owners with little to lose just letting the property rot.

The good news: We’re developing a new weapon to deal with all this.

Land banks are created under the same state guidelines as Community Improvement Corporations and are similar. They are quasi-governmental, but can buy and sell property without the normal constrictions of government. There are several steps to create these things and it all usually takes over a year. The City and County of Van Wert are working to create one in a month and it looks like we’ll make it.

Prior to last year, under Ohio law, counties needed to have a population of over 60,000 to form a land bank. That has changed to have no population restriction. Allen County began creating a land bank before the law was changed. Unfortunately, no great effort was made to inform small counties that federal money to the tune of $60 million would soon be made available for counties with land banks. We caught wind just weeks ago. Big counties would like to absorb all of this money as they normally do.

None of the other small counties in our region are even attempting to create a land bank and complete the application for the money by the September 2 deadline, but we stand to gain over a half million of that federal money if successful. County Community Development Director Sue Gerker and myself are scrambling to put together the required stacks of documents and written proposals because there is literally nothing to lose but our time and effort (and nobody cares about that).

The best thing about the federal money is that a fifth of it can be used for acquisition. Some of the owners of these dumps are innocent. Some turned elderly and were unable to fix their properties as things went to hell. A storm or fire might have caused damage that insurance found a way not to cover. A contractor could have taken repair money and performed no work. There are literally a few dozen reasons we have these dumps.

The way I see federal money is that if it is going to be wasted, and it certainly is going to be, let’s waste as much of it helping our county as we can. If we don’t use it to acquire properties to tear down, President Obama will just buy everyone a cell phone or give it to Solyndra. Someone tell me I’m wrong.

We haven’t won the grant and there is a good chance we won’t, but we’ll be well positioned for the next round whenever that comes even if we don’t. When the land bank does get some money we could use the community’s help in identifying properties to demolish, the condition being that they have to be vacant, the last use has to have been residential, and they can be acquired for a few thousand dollars.

And, if you can figure out how to explain to someone who otherwise doesn’t know that a house with no windows, no siding, a partially collapsed roof, and a family of raccoon tenants has no value at all, that would be helpful too.

POSTED: 08/13/16 at 6:21 am. FILED UNDER: Opinions