Land Bank's mission excites new director (Toledo Blade)

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Land Bank’s mission excites new director (Toledo Blade)

Cynthia Geronimo has what some might consider an endless task.

As the new executive director of the fledgling Lucas County Land Bank, Ms. Geronimo and her small staff — there are three other full-time employees — are charged with transforming thousands of vacant and abandoned properties, putting them back to productive use.

She said despite the enormity of the job, she is excited to be part of the organization’s work. “The core mission of the Land Bank is to preserve [property] values and strengthen neighborhoods,” she said. “I see my role as moving us forward toward that mission.”

The bank is funded by an increase in penalties for delinquent property taxpayers. It acquires tax-delinquent vacant homes and works to find a use for them — be that demolition, selling a vacant lot to a neighbor who would like a larger yard, finding someone who can rehab the property, or selling the parcel to a community group.

Vacant homes can hurt neighborhood properties values, increase the risk of fire, invite vandalism, crime, and other problems. A 2008 study released before the height of the housing crisis estimated that vacant properties cost Toledo taxpayers at least $3.6 million annually.

Ms. Geronimo is a lifelong Toledo resident who grew up in the old south end and still lives in the neighborhood. The University of Toledo graduate has degrees in finance and law. She has worked for Lucas County for 16 years, as a civil bailiff for Common Pleas Judge James Jensen, in the recorder’s office, and the auditor’s office.

She has a commitment to challenged neighborhoods, and her experience has given her knowledge of the systems and processes at her new job, said Michael Beazley, the Land Bank’s president.

Ms. Geronimo started working at the Land Bank in June, shortly before former executive director David Mann left to work at a local law firm.

The Land Bank has only been acquiring properties since February, 2011, but it has had some high-profile successes already.

It facilitated the purchase of Gray Gables, an 1892 farmhouse in Oregon, to a family to rehab the dilapidated building. It aided in the razing of the three-story Collingwood Arms and Collingwood Manor apartments at 2127 and 2131 Collingwood Blvd.; the buildings had been vacant and neglected for decades. Since last year, overall it has sold more than 100 parcels.

One of those was a home in Southwest Toledo near Dorr Street and Holland-Sylvania Road purchased by Jim Bolander and his wife.

The house had been vacant, its plumbing and air conditioning units had been stolen, and doors were broken, but the home was basically intact, said Mr. Bolander, who lives in Holland.

“It was a nice house,” he said. “We saw the potential there.” After working several weeks to fix the home, it is now occupied by renters.

“For being a government agency, you figure there is all this red tape and stuff,” he said. “But it was actually a pretty easy process,” he said of purchasing the home from the Land Bank.

Ms. Geronimo said the Land Bank works off an approximate $1.6 million annual budget. In 2011, the organization reported about $388,000 in expenditures that includes salaries, property purchases, and maintenance, she said.

The agency has ambitious plans for the months ahead.

At a press conference Tuesday morning, Land Bank and city officials announced plans to tear down 900 vacant and abandoned structures, mostly in Toledo, between now and December, 2013, using $6.8 million. The funds include $3.2 million allocated to Lucas County as part of a February settlement requiring the country’s five largest mortgage lenders to pay $25 billion to the U.S. Attorney General. The other funds are Land Bank monies primarily collected from delinquent taxpayers and a $400,000 grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

The buildings will be torn down in six waves, beginning Aug. 23.

The buildings that will come down were selected after discussion with neighborhood groups, churches, and community development corporations.

“We didn’t pick these ourselves,” said Wade Kapszukiewicz, Lucas County treasurer and chairman of the board of the Land Bank. “These were suggested to us by neighborhood groups.” Ms. Geronimo said city utility and fire department data were also utilized.

She was also careful to note the agency is only looking to demolish those properties which “absolutely have to come down,” particularly in the city’s historic districts.

“The Land Bank has been very receptive to working with us,” said Jeni Belt, president of the Old West End Association. She noted her group is working with the Land Bank to make sure neighbors can salvage any historically or architecturally significant elements from homes set to be demolished, such as unique woodwork, fixtures, and sidewalks.

The land bank concept originated in Michigan; the first one in Ohio was in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County. The Ohio legislature then created the opportunity for 41 other counties to have land banks (the idea is limited to counties with larger populations).

“There are quite a few counties that have been calling us … with questions as to how we were set up,” Ms. Geronimo said.

The state provided for lots of local flexibility with regards to the organizations’ approach to dealing with vacant properties, said Lavea Brachman, executive director of Greater Ohio, a sustainable land use organization.

“It’s a fantastic tool,” Ms. Brachman said.

Mr. Kapszukiewicz said it is important people understand the agency is not intended to be a panacea for all problems surrounding urban vacancy and blight, however.

“This is about stopping the erosion of property values in our neighborhoods and hopefully reversing that,” he said.

Adds Joshua Murnen, general counsel for the Land Bank, “The sheer scale of the problem is our biggest hurdle.” The total number of vacant properties in Lucas County is unknown, he said.

But Ms. Geronimo is emphatic that progress will be made one parcel at a time.

“It goes a long way, one house at a time,” she said. “Making a difference in that neighborhood and stabilizing that neighborhood.”