Ed FitzGerald introduces plan to create vacant property demolition fund

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Ed FitzGerald introduces plan to create vacant property demolition fund

April 22, 2014 [Andrew J. Tobias, cleveland.com]

While the proposal remains light on specifics, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald has taken the first official step toward borrowing $50 million to demolish thousands of abandoned houses throughout the county.

FitzGerald on Tuesday introduced legislation [PDF]to create a county property demolition fund. The new proposal does not contain many key details, such as a financing mechanism, where the demolitions will be distributed or even a specific dollar amount.

But FitzGerald indicated some elements of the plan are intended to be open-ended. He said he envisions the county bankrolling and tracking demolitions, while leaving it to individual municipalities to identify which houses need to come down. Further details will be fleshed out in the coming weeks, he said.

“I see us as empowering local communities. It’s the local cities, the local city administrations that need to decide how it makes sense for their community,” he said.

FitzGerald first announced his demolition plan two months ago at his “State of the County” address. At the time, he said he would direct his staff to review the county’s finances to free up $50 million in bonding capacity.

While that financial review is still ongoing, FitzGerald, who will leave office at the end of the year, told reporters Tuesday: “We have verified we’ve run a tight enough ship that the county can afford to do this.”

Depending on how much time council spends reviewing and developing the program, FitzGerald said the county could borrow money as soon as June, and houses could start coming down in the fall.

There are 15,000 abandoned properties throughout Cuyahoga County. The negative effects of blight are myriad – vacant houses can attract crime, drive down nearby property values and make it more likely that neighbors will walk away from their mortgages. Demolishing unsalvageable properties can help reverse the damage,according to housing advocates.

“We know this [neighborhood blight] is a big problem. We aren’t saying that this is going to solve it entirely. But this is a very strong message the county is going to be fully engaged in this very important work,” FitzGerald said.

FitzGerald held a press conference Tuesday announcing his legislation on the front lawn of a boarded-up, abandoned house on Cudell Avenue on Cleveland’s west side. The house, which on Tuesday had several feet of standing water in the basement and a leaky roof, is owned by the Cuyahoga County Land Bank and seems a good candidate for demolition.

Rehabbing the house, appraised at $50,000, would likely cost tens of thousands of dollars or more. Meanwhile, median, arms-length home sales in the neighborhood have dropped from a high point of $80,000 in 2005 to just $20,000 in 2013.

Joining FitzGerald Tuesday in support were Jim Rokakis, a former Cuyahoga County treasurer turned land re-utilization advocate who lobbied FitzGerald to create the program, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty and Frank Ford, the chairman of the Vacant and Abandoned Properties Action Council.

“We need to send a message to people on this street and in these neighborhoods that there is a chance for things to come back. We just need to address these blighted homes,” Ford said.

Cleveland Councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed asked county council Tuesday night to design the program to also allow for the money to be used to rehabilitate and mothball houses, rather than exclusively knocking them down. Johnson has argued that focusing too heavily on demolition as a solution to blight is shortsighted and results in the loss of architecturally valuable homes.

If language providing flexibility for rehabilitation is not included in the plan, Reed said, “I assure you people will come in and demolish, demolish, demolish.”