The Knox Hill Neighborhood Association is preparing a report they hope to present to the council on the negative impact of the VBML (Vacant Building Maintenance License) on redevelopment and restoration efforts not only in their neighborhood but city wide. The report is expected to be complete in late January/early February 2010.
The Knox Hill Neighborhood Association began its "Save not Raze Project" http://sites.google.com/site/knoxhillneighborhoodassoc/Home/save-not-raze-project
earlier this year. The goal of the project is to get properties that were declared "Nuisances" back into the hands of people who would restore them.
In looking at these "nuisance properties' the group found that the properties didn't often meet the traditional definition of a "Condemned House'. These properties didn't have major structural issues or holes in a roof. As one local resident put it "they just don't look pretty". Further study of these houses and review of city records on them revealed that they all had VBML orders against them at one point and them were "fast tracked" to condemn orders.Bulldozed in 2009, this Victorian house at Blaine and Fairmount, was easily restorable, and neighborhood residents were outraged by it's destruction.
As Greg Drake, Knox Hill Neighborhood Association Board Member puts it, " A VBML is often a "Death Sentence" for a historic home. Once its there, it is almost impossible to get rid of it and no one wants to buy a house with a VBML and restore it because of all the red tape of waivers and multiple email and meetings with inspections".
More disturbing, based on preliminary review of several homes in the neighborhood, VBML's are being put on houses with something as simple as broken window or the fact a door was kicked in by copper thieves. These are simple repairs that could easily be done under a Repair Order. The foreclosure crisis has compounded the problem as a house might be in the process of foreclosure , sheriffs sale, transfer from HUD to Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae to liquidation. When the inspector can't track down an owner easily, they slap a VBML order and HUD does not respond to such orders as they have tens of thousands of homes and a VBML order gets put on the property and the new owner is blindsided by it after they bought the house. The group believes the act of boarding a window or door should not trigger a VBML whose original purpose was as an enforcement tool against "hard core" vacant properties that had been vacant for 5,10-15 years and presented a clear and serious risk to first responders who might enter them. Instead, it appears to have just become a "revenue stream' for the city and its original intent, saving and stabilizing properties where intervention was desperately needed, has been lost.This classic double bay windowed Victorian, built in 1890 and easily restored, is in pre foreclosure, headed to VBML list, this house may have no future.
The other thing the group is finding is that overworked inspectors will resort to a VBML as a "quick fix'. Repair orders for example require several visits to a house to check progress on repairs where as a VBML usually requires only an annual visit .
The other component of this is if people are not buying historic homes to restore in Cincinnati neighborhoods that have a VBML order just where are they buying and the answer seems to be Covington and Newport across the river. That means not only is the city losing residents its losing millions in tax dollars and spending dollars to another state.
The group after studying their own neighborhood, which has over 20 properties on the VBML or condemn list, and perhaps a dozen more headed to it, is that their problem is perhaps city wide, so the group is reaching out to other neighborhood groups and community councils and leaders for data on VBML houses in their neighborhoods. The group is not only looking for data, but for real "first person" accounts of how the VBML has had a negative effect on restoration efforts in their community. We want the council to understand this is personal, how it affects people's lives and how it makes restoration, which is already a time consuming and costly task, even worse. As one study committee member put it, "We know their will be this 'pushback' from the City Manager's office who wants no changes to the ordinance what-so-ever, but the council ultimately runs the show and has the power to change the ordinance and we hope, if they understand the millions of dollars in revenue that are being lost to our local economy, that they will stand up to the city manager and make the necessary changes for the betterment of the community. The reality is, that if this program continues to be run the way it is, sooner or later, this city will face a class action lawsuit, lose, and have to repay millions of dollars in VBML fees, plus punitive damages. The city cannot afford that."
The group is outreaching to two specific groups of people:
1.) People who were "blindsided' by a VBML . Those who purchased a house, has title searches done and months later after beginning restoration got hit with a VBML letter from an inspector. Or people who were considering a house in foreclosure and found out about the VBML in the process and changed their mind about purchase.
2) People were restoring in Cincinnati, who now restoring in the Covington and Newport areas directly because of the VBML program and the red tape.
The goal is to shed light on the issue and educate the city council about exactly how the VBML program is currently being administered vs the original intent of the council and the negative economic impact to the city coffers caused by the loss of revenue when people buy elsewhere or simply walk away from restoration when confronted by a VBML. A critical issue given the city's current deficit shortfall.
The group hopes that, once the council sees the negative impact to neighborhoods, it may 'redirect' city inspections to more closely follow the original intent of the VBML and look at ways to lift VBML's that soudl be reapir orders, by a simple administrative review/sign off when a house is bought by an owner occupant as a primary residence, rather than resort to the waiver program which is time intensive.
This will still leave the enforcement clout against the out of state landlord/investors whom own multiple properties and have no inspection of occupying a house. The VBML program has been around for years and it's time for serious review/investigation about how it is being run.
If you have a story to tell about a VBML experience or if you now restore outside of Cincinnati because of the VBML program please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and your information will be forwarded to the study committee.