August 5, 2015 [Bruce Geiselman, special to cleveland.com]
LAKEWOOD, Ohio – Most vacant homes in Lakewood don’t stay empty for long, and the same can be said for Fairview Park, North Olmsted, Olmsted Falls and Olmsted Township.
West-side mayors say the reason is a combination of strict code enforcement, in some cases financial assistance, and a strong housing market.
“We’re fortunate in Lakewood that our real estate market is very brisk and has been for the last couple of years,” said Dru Siley, Lakewood’s planning and development director. “There is a demand for all houses regardless of their condition. There is a buyer who sees an opportunity.”
More than 22,000 homes in Cuyahoga County were vacant last fall, years after the end of the housing crisis. The severity of the problem varies, worse in the inner ring suburbs, especially on the east side. But abandoned homes affect everyone in the county, based on the proportion of the tax burden and the millions of tax dollars thrown at the problem.
Determining the number of vacant homes is each city is difficult, but U.S. Postal Service numbers analyzed by the Northeast Ohio Community and Neighborhood Data for Organizing and Western Reserve Land Conservancy show trends.
- Fairview Park’s vacancies remained fairly steady between 2010 and 2014, with 108 vacancies in the fourth quarter of 2010 and 111 in the fourth quarter of 2014.
- Lakewood saw a decrease from 595 in fourth-quarter 2010 to 366 in fourth-quarter 2014.
- North Olmsted saw an increase from 163 in fourth-quarter 2010 to 212 in fourth-quarter 2015.
- Olmsted Falls stayed fairly steady at 57 in fourth-quarter 2010 and 63 in fourth-quarter 2014.
- Olmsted Township stayed steady at 60 in both fourth-quarter 2010 and fourth-quarter 2014.
Nearly every municipality will step in when grass is overgrown, either cutting the grass itself or hiring a contractor to do the work. Likewise, they will secure homes by boarding up broken windows. The municipalities then bill the owners.
The inner-ring suburb is dense with an old housing stock. Half of the city’s homes were built before 1920. Once the housing crisis struck in 2008, foreclosures created more empty and neglected houses.
While NEOCANDO estimates that in the fourth quarter of 2014, there were more than 360 vacant houses in the city, Lakewood city officials say those numbers appear too high. The city estimates the number of homes empty six months or longer is closer to 100. Four years ago, the number of long-term vacant homes was approximately 200, according to the city.
In 2011, the city launched a proactive approach for neglected houses, Housing Forward, a code enforcement program using a carrot-and-stick approach to bring houses into compliance.
Code enforcement inspectors went to each of the city’s 13,000 single- and two-family homes to identify maintenance code violations. The initial survey found 14 percent — or about 1,800 homes — needed obvious exterior repairs. Today, the city has reduced that number to only about 350 to 400 homes at any one time, Siley said. About 40 of those homes are long-term vacancies; most are occupied.
City inspectors then work with owners to fix violations. The problems could range from overgrown grass to a collapsing garage. If homeowners, frequently senior citizens, need assistance, the city tries to connect them with help. Sometimes LakewoodAlive, a private economic development group, will find volunteers to paint or make minor repairs to a house. The city also can help homeowners find financial assistance for repairs. Funding sources include federal Community Development Block Grant dollars and private lenders.
“That’s really the core to Housing Forward – proactive code enforcement and connecting homeowners to resources,” Siley said.
If homeowners refuse to cooperate, the city law department and Lakewood Municipal Court Judge can force owners to repair their homes or face fines.
If homeowners simply walk away from a house or die without heirs, the city can step in to protect the house until ownership issues can be sorted out and the house put back on the market.
“If no owner or lender will fix the issues, we will make sure the house is secure and weather tight,” Siley said. “We may put a new roof on the house to make sure no damage is occurring to the house, and then we mothball it. We put it in a position where it can withstand a few seasons of being abandoned before someone can buy that home.”
Lakewood has stepped in about 20 times in the last five years to make emergency repairs to a house it doesn’t own, Siley said. It puts a lien on the property to recoup the money eventually.
“We would rather spend $6,000 to $7,000 to put a new roof on a house rather than spend $12,000 to tear it down in a few years because of weather damage,” Siley said.
As a last resort, Lakewood, working with the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, can declare an abandoned house a public nuisance and demolish it. However, that’s only happened about 25 times in the last five years, in large part because of the city’s proactive approach to keep properties from deteriorating.
The city can also buy an abandoned property, fix it up, and then sell it to a new buyer. The city has taken this approach about a dozen times in the last three years.
The most recent example is a 91-year-old house on Quail Street in Birdtown. The property was tax delinquent when the city bought it with federal money in 2013 and paid off the tax lien. The city repaired the house inside and out and in July sold it to a refugee family.
The city paid $57,000 for the house, spent $50,000 on renovations, and sold it for $90,000. In the end, the city spent $17,000 subsidizing the renovation, but it prevents an empty house from sitting on the block, where it would damage property values and affect quality of life of other residents, city officials said.
Neighbor Mark Eschenbach, who used to cut the grass when the house sat abandoned, credited the city improving the condition of the property.
“It looks a lot better than it did,” he said. “They kept it pretty well maintained, including putting a new roof on it.”
The township hired James McReynolds in June 2014 as the township’s first full-time building commissioner in about five years, and he is working with township trustees to address abandoned and neglected homes.
The township is aware of at about a dozen vacant homes. Township trustees in June created a three-member volunteer nuisance abatement committee – a group of private citizens who patrol the township in search of dilapidated properties.
“They go out and take notes and take photos,” McReynolds said. “We are looking for those houses that stand out as the worst in an area, and they typically are abandoned properties.”
The citizens report their findings to McReynolds, who verifies the violations, and then contacts the property owner with a notice of violation. Foreclosure cases, where a bank takes possession of a house, are especially difficult.
“We have found that banks are reluctant to do anything more than secure a property and occasionally cut the grass,” McReynolds said.
He tries to work with property owners, giving them time to correct violations. However, if they fail to respond, he resorts to correcting the problem, often sending out township workers to cut grass or board up broken windows. The property owner is billed.
“We are not punitive,” McReynolds said. “When we go after legal recourses, it is because it is our last resort.”
The township’s access to legal resources is limited. Unlike cities, which have law departments, the township must rely on the county prosecutor’s office or hire outside counsel for legal assistance with enforcement.
The township recently established a process by which trustees will hear nuisance complaints brought by the building department against a property owner. Trustees will try to resolve the conflict with the homeowner, but if they fail, the case could be referred to Berea Municipal Court for enforcement.
The policy is new, and no cases have yet been referred to the court, McReynolds said.
In Fairview, Mayor Eileen Patton said the city tracks foreclosures when it becomes aware of them to make sure they don’t fall into disrepair.
Patton said she is not aware of any abandoned or neglected homes, but says the city puts pressure on owners to correct violations.
“When we do, it is a long and tedious process,” she says.
When a bank-foreclosed property is abandoned and falls into disrepair, she contacts the bank involved to demand repairs. She recounted one instance in which she was dealing with a banker from Dubai.
The city, working with the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, demolished one dilapidated house about a year ago. Neighbors are now using the property for green space, she said. That is the only demolition case she could recall.
“We have been very fortunate,” Patton said, attributing the city’s success to its “reputation of not letting people get away with it.”
The city is aware of nine homes that are neglected, Service Director Joe Borczuch said. It can’t say for sure whether they are abandoned.
Mayor Ann Marie Donegan believes problems with neglected homes spiked around 2011. In 2011, the city was aware of 105 homes in foreclosure. In 2014, there were 48.
“We, fortunately, are not on the same level as some inner-ring suburbs,” Mayor Ann Marie Donegan said.
The city tries tracking down owners of problem properties to make repairs. If necessary, the matter can be taken to Berea Municipal Court. In some cases, the city will hire a company to cut the grass, passing along the costs to the property owner.
The city is wrapping up a 10-year-old case involving not a home but vacant property where old buses, bulldozers, excavators, backhoes, and other pieces of equipment were stored. The case started in Berea Municipal Court and has worked its way up through the 8th District Court of Appeals. The city received a decision in late spring that will allow it to go in and clean out the property, Donegan said.
The city doesn’t collect data on vacant homes, but has a comprehensive exterior maintenance program that applies to every house, said Planning and Development Director Kim Wenger.
When the city becomes aware of a house where the grass is not being cut and homeowners don’t respond to notices of violation, the city will send contractors to cut the grass and bill the property owner. If not paid, the bill is tacked onto property taxes, she said.
“I don’t think we pinpoint foreclosures and vacancies as major issues,” Wenger said.
Instead the city works with homeowners to correct any problems.
She could only think of a couple of instances in previous years in which houses had to be demolished because of their dilapidated conditions.