For Cuyahoga County demos, a strategic plan and code enforcement both needed: editorial

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For Cuyahoga County demos, a strategic plan and code enforcement both needed: editorial

January 31, 2015 []

Remember that $50 million demolition bond former Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald promised in his “State of the County” last February?

Well, thanks to some laudable examples of both bipartisanship and continuity, the administration of new County Executive Armond Budish — in cooperation with county council and the county Land Bank — has begun to roll out one of the most ambitious and comprehensive efforts to eradicate zombie properties in recent history.

Now the challenge must be to yoke those dollars to a carefully planned, strategic effort focused on neighborhoods where demolitions can make an immediate difference to property values and where properties can be bundled, either as mixed-use development, green space, urban farms or for another beneficial economic opportunity.

This program is also a time to take stock of deficiencies in local housing enforcement efforts to ensure that absentee owners keep their properties up to code and, if they don’t, that they are held accountable in Housing Court.

Last October, county council approved the Cuyahoga County Property Demolition Program. In December, council President Dan Brady created a Community Development Committee to oversee its implementation.

And on Monday — barely a month after Budish and many on county council took office — the first applications for demo dollars are expected to land at the county’s Board of Control, according to Gus Frangos, president of the Land Bank.

The Land Bank will be one of those applicants. The ordinance that describes the demolition initiative — underwritten by a county bond — provides three, one-time allocations of $3 million for the Land Bank. That money will be used to raze blighted properties the Land Bank received from Fannie Mae and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as from local tax foreclosures and tax forfeitures, Frangos said.

Frangos added that 16 municipalities already have contracted with the Land Bank to handle their demolitions — from Moreland Hills, Lakewood and Shaker Heights to East Cleveland. “Everybody has a little need,” Frangos said.

And some communities’ needs are bigger than others’.

Frank Ford, senior policy adviser at the nonprofit Thriving Communities Institute, broke down those needs for county council:

• Approximately 8,000 properties ready for demolition in Cleveland;

• An additional 1,013 properties in East Cleveland; and

• An estimated 1,000 properties in the rest of Cuyahoga County.

“We’re talking roughly 10,000 properties total,” Ford said.

The $50 million is not enough to tear down all of them. That would require $100 million — each demo costs about $10,000. But it will go a long way, as long as the money is spent wisely.

Even though Cleveland is home to 80 percent of the targeted blight, the money must also be aimed at achieving change on blocks or in neighborhoods where city and community leaders have documented both overriding need and urgency — and provided redevelopment plans that are funded and make sense.

How the demo money is going to be dispersed is still under review, said Budish for this editorial.

Obviously, cities should have to provide an economic development plan for the vacant land. But, Budish said, he wants to hire a deputy director of housing and community revitalization to oversee the process and work with communities to frame these projects in consistent and practical ways.

“If the county acts quickly and strategically some of these properties may be viable for renovation,” Ford said. “The issue isn’t that some of the properties can’t be rehabbed. It’s that the housing market is so distressed it’s not financially feasible to renovate them.”

Frangos agrees. “Once we start tearing down the worst of the worst, that’ll promote more rehabs.”

Cleveland city councilman Mike Polensek takes it a step further. “Why aren’t these slumlords in Housing Court for code violations? Hold them accountable. Enforce the code. Not everything needs to come down.”

That would be a good conversation for the new county deputy director of housing and community revitalization to have with municipal housing-enforcement officials.

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