Friday, April 17, 2009

Mr Mayor,Members of the Council: You do not "Fight Blight" with a bulldozer

Building Cincinnati had an article yesterday about the councils "bright ideas" for what to do with all the vacant lots given the city has all this Bulldoze money at hand. I responded in the comments section but felt a more detailed answer is needed and feel free to forward this to your local councilperson.

In the 1960's the Federal Government had the "bright idea" that the best way to turn around cities was to Bulldoze those "old houses" in the urban neighborhoods and replace them with nice new "ranch homes" the Old FHA homestead program, OR, to tear down blocks of neighborhoods and build housing projects.

Most ALL Urban Planners agree that fixing "blight by bulldozer" or "Urban Renewal" as the Feds called it was a failed experiment. I remember this first hand as Indianapolis went into neighborhoods like the Old Northside, Herron Morton, Holy Cross and bulldozed those "big old houses" that were left behind by "white flight" in the 1950 and early 1960's. Huge amounts of what was once the grand architecture of Indianapolis and other midwest cities was lost in the 1970's by the federal Governments bright idea..

What "urban renewal" did was create ghettos. The few remaining residents who did not leave as part of "White Flight" in the 50's and early 60's left due to Urban renewal. Why? Because their was no 'community" left to live in.

Cities like Indianapolis were dead for over 30 years. Its Urban Neighborhoods were full of high crime , drive by shootings, and drugs. It was ONLY in the late 1980's when "Urban Pioneers" as they were called, came to Urban Neighborhoods and attracted by the few Victorian homes left, started renovations. Even so, it was along, drawn out process and it was another 20 years before builders were even thinking about maybe building in Urban Neighborhoods again. The city had to pump Millions and Millions of dollars in incentives and new streets and sidewalks and parks to get builders back in. The city lost Billions of dollars of tax revenues in those 30 years and Indianapolis almost didn't make the turn around. Cities like Detroit NEVER DID!
Cincinnati largely escaped the 1960's "Urban Renewal movement. It had strong neighborhoods , there wasn't allot of "white flight" like occurred in most cities. Sure there were some failed housing experiments in the West End, but Cincinnati was one of the few cities to escape this "failed experiment"and today is known Nationally for its fine architecture.

However the Cincinnati City Council hasn't learned ANYTHING from this. The problem of blight was caused by the city emptying out OTR and dumping section 8 housing into Price Hill, Fairmount, Westwood and Walnut Hills, and Avondale. There was no "plan" , it was "Oh we had a riot, we have to do something".

So stable neighborhoods became "destabilized' by the city of Cincinnati and now 8-10 years later the city wants to "fix"" the problem it created with a bulldozer!

My response is "thanks but no thanks! The Knox Hill Neighborhood" does not need 20 vacant lots , we need 20 well maintained houses. We know first hand what a vacant lot looks like. This property pictured here is the result. It is on out TOP 5
"Problem Property List". The city has had an ongoing battle with this property owner for FIVE years. From the Vending Machines sitting in the yard to the PIT BULLS he breeds and sells (funny how you can't seem to get rid of those dogs, I believe you have an ordinance against them?), this is what happens when you bulldoze a house and have a vacant lot in the areas where you are 'fighting blight". You replace a blighted
house that that could be restored,with a blighted vacant lot!
Bulldozing 'seems' like an easy approach, problem gone. But all you do is create a new set of problems. People want and are attracted to neighborhoods that look complete, that have a street presence. A neighborhood with a bunch of vacant lots, looks like a neighborhood in decline. Experience has shown us that it can take years before people come along who cares about a neighborhood and want to live there and want to turn it around. And you can't expect the owner of a blighted house you bulldoze will maintain his now vacant lot with a huge lien against it any better. If the city does not get a judgement and obtain the property in lieu of judgement, you accomplish NOTHING!

I'm not just 'speaking' about this issue, I've actually done something about it. We bought a house and a lot next to it. Had we not come along would likely be going on your bulldoze list. It is on your VBML list and I dare you to take me to court! It is perhaps the best maintained property on the block and has had more invested in it than the entire block has seen in the last 20 years combined.
We are putting our money where our mouth is, over 150,000.00 by the
time we are done and we have set up the neighborhood group and website . We have promoted the area to loacl realtors. We have set up our own crime watch.
All things that you were elected to do, but don't. I have been instrumental in turning around several urban neighborhoods in the last 20 years. I can do the same thing here, but the city certainly is not helping by using failed strategies from 30 years ago that we know from experience do not work and doom a neighborhood to fail.

Before you congratulate yourself on how a "Urban Garden"or"adopt a lot"will make you, the
council look good, and how it will help your re-election, why don't you stop congratulating yourself and ask the neighborhoods what they want?. As for us we have a plan is is called "Save not Raze"

We have 20 properties on the VBML or Condemn list and while we agree some properties like Irish Cliffs Apartments need to be bulldozed and we will celebrate the day it comes down. BUT don't bulldoze our neighborhood, homes built in the 1870-1890's and can easily stand another 100 years, without asking us. It cost the city, 8-12,000.00 bulldoze 1 house (times 20) and we are looking at spending 160-240K dollars "tearing down" my neighborhood, not building it up!

Take just a portion of that say,50K, and create a Facade Grant Program so we can help lower income residents and seniors who have stood by this neighborhood since the 1950's, in spite of your attempts to destroy it, and let's fix up their homes instead. Maybe buy those blighted properties spend a few thousand painting and sprucing them up and reselling them to owner occupants willing to sign a protective covenant that they will pull permits and restore them? I know you can buy them and stabilize them for less than you will spend Bulldozing them? How about thinking 'out of the box'? How about using Historic Preservation as a development tool?
Trust me those "blighted' properties will have buyers.

Spend those demo monies on more inspectors, more attorneys, more enforcement, PERHAPS A FULL TIME HOUSING COURT? But we don't want your bulldozers , thank you very much! Before you 'write off' my neighborhood , maybe you should come and look at it. I will be happy to show you around as I am working on my house every weekend! What are you doing to help my neighborhood?


matt said...

Definitely, there are too many wonderful historic buildings being torn down. Certainly it is hard to find the best solution for problematic vacant houses that are so bad nobody wants to buy them, but even if you just slated a sale for the price of the lot for the house and then gave even half the money that would have been used for bulldozing for the specific use of rehabbing, I think a lot more people would commit on some of these houses.

Jim McNulty said...

You are correct sir...
We have to keep up the pressure on the city to clear out the obsolete apartment buildings like Irish Cliffs. The goal is to create an environment that encourages people to come back and invest their life savings to bring one of these great houses back to life. Not everyone is going to be an urban pioneer. Our future rehabbers need to be reasonably sure that 1)they will be moving their families into a safe area, and 2) that there is an expectation that their investment will increase in value.
That is why we need to strategically take out as many worn out, crime ridden, and social service laden apartments as possible. We have a 60/40 ratio of apartments to homes in Westwood- we aim to reverse that.
Unfortunately, we have lost a few treasures, but not too many. The faster we get rid of apartments, the the more of these homes we can save.

Jim McNulty said...

Also, instead of fighting with the city, we try to keep them busy citing and razing apartments. (Ok, there is a minor skirmish every now and then...)
It's a race to get the apartments gone, using every tool available, before we lose more old houses.
There is not enough government money in the world to rehab all of the great houses in our neighborhoods. And the government money often comes with strings that are not acceptable. The best use of government money is to do what they do best- destroy stuff. We just have to make sure they destroy the right things.

Paul Wilham said...

I think for Westwood to be sucessfull they need "downzoning" to prevent multi family infill from being built. Also serious efforts should be made to stop the illegal conversion of single family homes to multi family apartments.

To my mind if Cincinnati follows the path of most cities, like Indinapolis where I am moving from, the Near Burbs (townships) will wind up as the new dumping ground for section 8 as enforcement of lead based paint rule make many properties obsolete as section 8. Slumlords are now buying those vinyl sided suburban foreclosures and I cant wait to see the outcry when those McMansion's built during the hosuing boom are converted to apartments.

As commute times grow, the appeal of downtown living is growing.