July 13, 2013
LIMA — Gary and Sheila Frueh have lived at the corner of Calumet and Eureka streets for decades. For the better part of this one, a house caddy corner from them has been a nuisance.
On Friday, an eyesore years in the making came down in minutes. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, is trying to get communities more resources to demolish more properties like it.
Portman, Lima Mayor David Berger and Allen County Commissioner Cory Noonan touted a bipartisan bill Portman is trying to get passed in Congress that would give states and communities more flexibility on how to spend already appropriated money aimed at helping repair damage of the housing crisis.
The three men, along with Fire Chief Mark Heffner and Police Chief Kevin Martin, stood in front of 333 Calumet St. moments before a crew reduced the house to rubble. The property has been tax delinquent since 2006, and now $12,000 is owed in back taxes. It has been abandoned and unoccupied since 2008.
Berger was an early supporter of Portman’s Neighborhood Safety Act, which would allow states to spend money already appropriated through the Hardest Hit Fund.
Portman said his idea of greater flexibility for spending meshes with the original intent of the appropriation, to help people who owe more on their mortgages than homes are worth currently.
“This is a partnership, one place we can help, to improve home values, which is where the money started with,” Portman said. “If you have houses like this in the neighborhood, it’s hard to see your home value go up.”
Portman’s bill states that any amounts of assistance that have been allocated through the Hardest Hit Fund program may be used to demolish blighted structures. More than $7 billion of Hardest Hit Funds have been appropriated but are not presently allowed to be used for demolition in states such as Ohio. States that experienced the sharpest decline in home prices during the economic downturn received these funds to help struggling homeowners refinance.
The bill has been introduced and has bipartisan support in the House and Senate. It has yet to be assigned a committee.
The Western Reserve Land Conservancy estimates there are 100,000 vacant and never-to-be-occupied structures in Ohio. In Lima, the number reaches at least 1,200, Berger said.
“Abandoned properties do nothing for communities other than to drag us down,” Berger said. “It’s really good news that Sen. Portman along with others in the House and Senate on a bipartisan basis are working to get us additional resources.”
Without additional funds, the city typically appropriates about $150,000 a year for demolitions, allowing for about 30 structures at $5,000 to $10,000 each. Doing that math, Berger said, quickly results in more than $5 million needed just to take down property that people have walked away from.
“We just don’t have that,” Berger said.
In recent years, Lima has used funding from several federal and state sources to take down hundreds of vacant and blighted houses. Most recently, the city has used $530,000 from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to demolish 70 structures, including the house that was taken down Friday.
Vacant houses pull down home values and increase crime and safety problems in neighborhoods, Martin and Heffner said.
Martin referenced the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention, and said vacant homes send a signal to criminals that communities don’t care.
Heffner said vacant structures contribute to fires at a much higher rate than structures overall. For example, 43 percent of fires in vacant buildings are intentionally set, contrasted with 10 percent for all structures. Also, fires in vacant structures cause 50 civilian deaths and one to two firefighter deaths a year and cause injuries to 4,500 firefighters annually.
“My job is to protect life and property,” Heffner said. “The solution is aggressive demolition.”