Former Cuyahoga Treasurer Jim Rokakis pushes for federal demolition assistance (Plain Dealer)

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Former Cuyahoga Treasurer Jim Rokakis pushes for federal demolition assistance (Plain Dealer)

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Money that Cleveland and its suburbs could get from the state for demolition would help, but proposed federal assistance would take cleanup of the housing market even further, former Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis says.

Rokakis now heads the Thriving Communities Institute, an organization he founded last year with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

He is helping Ohio counties set up and fund land banks that can acquire abandoned property and prepare it for new use. Cuyahoga County and Cleveland already have land banks.

Appearing Tuesday before a Cleveland City Council committee, Rokakis applauded Ohio’s decision to earmark $75 million from a nationwide settlement with mortgage companies for demolition. Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs hope to receive at least $12.5 million that could be matched dollar for dollar.

A bill that U.S. Rep. Steven LaTourette, a Bainbridge Township Republican, plans to introduce holds the promise of additional help, said Rokakis, a former Cleveland councilman. The legislation would authorize bonds, similar to those Congress has used to finance recovery from natural disasters.

LaTourette plans to introduce the bill by March 1, said his chief of staff, Dino DiSanto. All states would receive money, but a portion would be reserved for Ohio and other states hit hardest by foreclosure and abandonment.

The county has 27,000 vacant houses, with 16,000 of those in Cleveland, according to NEO CANDO, a data-analysis service at Case Western Reserve University. Many of the houses may be salvageable, but at an estimated cost of $8,000 to $8,500 per house, demolition could be prohibitively expensive.

Cleveland no longer leads the nation in foreclosures, but Rokakis said that is not necessarily cause for celebration.

In many cases, he said, lenders are choosing not to even bother foreclosing on properties, leaving them in a “zombie” state. Recent research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland supports that contention.

“I don’t think we’re at the bottom; we have to recognize that,” Rokakis told the council committee. “I’m not optimistic. We’re not out of this.”

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