Ohio Tears Through Blighted Housing Problem

Apr 5, 2012
Originally published on April 5, 2012 8:33 am

Cleveland resident Cedric Cowan was asleep on an overcast spring morning when the roaring sounds of splintering wood and falling rubble jolted him awake.

Cowan lives in a neighborhood hit hard by foreclosures. He initially thought someone was moving into the house on the other side of Fairport Avenue.

Instead, he woke that morning to find a crew tearing down the two-family house.

Over the course of three hours, an excavator smashed, crushed and ripped apart the abandoned house while a worker sprayed the rubble with a hose to keep the dust down.

Cowan says he can't help but feel relief. He's been watching people moving into vacant houses, he says — and he doesn't like it.

"They don't pay no rent," Cowan says, and "then the [houses] catch on fire. So I'm glad they're demolishing this one."

Making A 'Bold Statement'

Shuttered homes often draw arsonists, vandals and scrap metal thieves. To help alleviate those problems, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine wants to destroy abandoned homes all across the state. He's setting aside $75 million of the state's mortgage settlement money to fund the demolitions.

"I wanted to make a bold statement, set an example, and say that our state's never going to be the great state we want it to be when we have neighborhoods that are being eaten alive by these homes," DeWine says.

Besides being a crime risk, crumbling old homes drive down property values. DeWine says demolition helps out those he considers the "real victims" of the foreclosure crisis: the neighbors of blighted homes.

"If you're paying your mortgage and the value of your house was $120,000, and now it's $60,000 because you live by a neighbor whose house is abandoned, you're a victim," DeWine says.

Back at Fairport Avenue, the excavator has gutted the old home and is crushing debris under its treads.

Gus Frangos, president of the Cuyahoga Land Bank, describes this kind of demolition as a "root canal." The bank has torn down nearly 800 houses in three years.

Frangos says it would cost up to $80,000 to restore the Fairport Avenue house — more than 10 times the cost of simply tearing it down.

"The siding and the wood is rotted. The interior walls are bad. All of the mechanicals — the electrical, the plumbing — everything is missing, stripped," Frangos says.

The house is just one example "of thousands of properties that are decaying neighborhoods," he says. "And we need to try to stabilize the tax base by removing that decay, so that people don't live next to the stuff."

'Barely Making A Dent'

The city of Cleveland has spent more than $40 million in city and federal dollars to demolish 6,000 vacant homes since 2006. Attorney General DeWine is pushing cities to match the state's demolition funds in order to destroy the largest possible number of homes.

The effort pleases Jim Rokakis, director of the land preservation organization the Thriving Communities Institute.

If the state's $75 million demolition funding "leverages another $75 million, we're talking $150 million," Rokakis says — an amount he says "will take down 20,000 structures in the state, or about one-fifth of the total. That is a powerful impact."

But Dennis Keating, a professor of urban planning and law at Cleveland State University, says the problem is bigger than the demolition fund can tackle.

Even if the money is matched by local governments, Keating says, it "would barely make a dent in what we already have in the backlog of vacant, abandoned housing. And I suspect we'll have a lot more in the future."

Someone with a glass half-full perspective, says Keating, would say $150 million "would take care of half of what we have now."

But the half-empty view? "We still have thousands more," Keating says.

Either way, Attorney General DeWine says, Ohio should receive its mortgage settlement money next month.

Copyright 2014 Cleveland Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wcpn.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

State governments are deciding what to do with their share of $25 billion. The money comes from a settlement with major banks over abusive foreclosure practices.

In Ohio, a lot of the money will go to demolishing foreclosed homes.

Brian Bull of member station WCPN has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMOLITION WORK)

CEDRIC COWAN: Somebody tearing the house down. I didn't know it. I thought somebody was moving in there.

BRIAN BULL, BYLINE: Cleveland resident Cedric Cowan didn't expect to wake up to a home being demolished on the other side of Fairport Avenue. Cowan lives in a neighborhood hard hit by foreclosures.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMOLITION WORK)

BULL: Over the course of three hours, an excavator smashes, crushes, and pulls apart an abandoned two-family house. A worker sprays the rubble with a hose to keep the dust down. Cowan says he can't help but feel relief.

COWAN: Because I been seeing people moving in houses that is vacant. They don't pay no rent. And then the house catch on fire. So I'm glad they're demolishing this one.

BULL: Shuttered homes often draw arsonists, vandals, and scrap metal thieves. Ohio attorney general Mike DeWine wants to destroy abandoned homes all across the state. He's setting aside $75 million of the state's mortgage settlement money to fund demolitions.

MIKE DEWINE: I wanted to make a bold statement, set an example. And say that our state's never going to be the great state that we want it to be, when we have neighborhoods that are being eaten alive by these homes.

BULL: Besides being a crime risk, crumbling old homes drive down property values. DeWine says demolition helps out those he considers the real victims of the foreclosure crisis: neighbors.

DEWINE: If you live in a house and you're paying your mortgage, and the value of your house was $120,000 and now it's $60,000 because you live by a neighbor whose house is abandoned, you're a victim.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMOLITION WORK)

BULL: Back at Fairport Avenue, the excavator has gutted the old two-family home, and is crushing debris under its treads.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUSHING NOISE)

BULL: A root canal is the way to describe this demolition says Gus Frangos of the Cuyahoga County Land Bank. In three years, his organization has torn down nearly 800 houses. Frangos says it would cost up to $80,000 to restore this house, more than 10 times the cost of simply tearing it down.

GUS FRANGOS: The siding and the wood is rotted. The interior walls are bad. All of the mechanicals, the electrical, the plumbing, everything is missing, stripped. This is one of those examples of thousands of properties that are decaying neighborhoods. And we need to try to stabilize the tax base by removing that decay, so that people don't live next to the stuff.

BULL: The City of Cleveland has spent more than 40 million in city and federal dollars to demolish 6,000 vacant homes since 2006. Attorney General DeWine is pushing cities to match the state's demolition dollars in order to destroy the largest possible number of homes. This pleases Jim Rokakis. He's director of the Thriving Communities Institute.

JIM ROKAKIS: If the AG's 75 million leverages another 75 million, we're talking $150 million, $150 million will take down 20,000 structures in the state, or about one-fifth of the total. That is a powerful impact.

DENNIS KEATING: The money even matched by local governments would barely make a dent in what we already have in backlog of vacant, abandoned housing, and I expect we'll have a lot more in the future.

BULL: That's Dennis Keating, a professor of urban planning and law at Cleveland State University. He says the problem is bigger than what the demolition fund can tackle.

KEATING: So again, glass half full would say that would take care of half of what we have now; the half empty, we'd still have thousands more.

BULL: Attorney General DeWine says Ohio should receive its mortgage settlement money next month.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Bull in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.