Last updated: August 25. 2013 1:21AM - 112 Views

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Last week I visited Lima and saw firsthand the good work that Mayor Dave Berger is doing to keep his community safe. I joined Berger, Allen County Commissioner Cory Noonan, and local officials as an abandoned house on Calumet Street was demolished after sitting vacant for five years and becoming an eyesore to area residents and a threat to surrounding home values.

Newspapers across the country have chronicled the crimes that occur when homes are vacated, abandoned and left empty for criminals to use. Some of the stories are grisly, others shock our very senses, and they all make us wonder what policymakers can do to rid our streets of these criminal havens.

These challenges arenít limited to the toughest neighborhoods of some far away city. They are also here in northern Ohio ó stretching from streets in the Mahoning Valley to neighborhoods in Cleveland and even in Lima. The city of Cleveland estimates that more than 15,000 area homes are vacant, more than half of which are condemned and awaiting demolition. Lima has demolished nearly 250 homes, with nearly 1,000 still on the waiting list.

Similar situations are occurring all over Ohio in communities both large and small.

Abandoned and blighted structures are a major public safety issue. These are houses that no one will ever live in again, they have no historical significance whatsoever, and they do only harm to the communities in which they sit. Tens of thousands of vacant homes dot the streets of our cities, becoming magnets for illicit activity including drug use, rape, gang activity and murder. Abandoned structures also severely affect the housing values of other homes on that street.

For neighboring homes that are still occupied, this can mean that up to 75 percent of their home value is lost because of nearby houses becoming vacant, creating a downward spiral that quickly sends struggling neighborhoods downhill.

Municipalities and local land banks have worked collaboratively to tackle the growing threat that vacant properties pose to the public safety and economic well-being of our communities. However, with municipal budgets already stretched, there is little money available to tackle this problem. In response to concerns raised by local mayors and community groups, I introduced the Neighborhood Safety Act, which would allow communities to tap into additional funds to demolish vacant structures.

This bill has broad bipartisan support in the U.S. House. The identical House bill is sponsored by Ohio Reps. Dave Joyce, Marcy Kaptur and Marcia Fudge and is co-sponsored by Ohioans from both parties, including Reps. Tim Ryan, Jim Renacci, Joyce Beatty, Bill Johnson, Pat Tiberi and Mike Turner.

This bill simply allows the Hardest Hit Fund to be used to demolish blighted structures. The bill does not give Washington the power to mandate what amount can be used for demolition. Rather, it merely makes demolition an allowable use of these funds and gives states the flexibility to decide if they want to use some funds for this important purpose.

I am proud of the bipartisan support that this bill has received from a diverse group of Ohio mayors including Berger and his colleagues from Youngstown, Mansfield, Middletown, Warren and other cities.

While I push this effort legislatively, I have also asked the state to continue its efforts to reach an administrative agreement with the Treasury Department to remove this roadblock.

I do not believe that demolishing homes will solve all of our problems, nor do I believe that all of these funds should be used for demolition, as some have suggested. I agree with my colleague, Sen. Sherrod Brown, and community groups that some of these funds should be used to help struggling homeowners remain in their homes. There is a balance between demolishing properties and aiding struggling homeowners, and I support both goals.

During a recent visit to the Husky Plant in Lima, I saw firsthand a community that is poised to thrive. But in order for Lima and other cities around Ohio to grow, the people of our state need leaders who are willing to tackle the problems that are holding our communities back. This is one of those problems. But unlike so many we face, the solution has strong bipartisan support from policymakers across the spectrum. Itís time to take action, before more of our neighborhoods fall victim to the blight of abandoned homes.

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