Monday, January 18, 2010

Demolition for Demolition's sake is not a 'Cure' for Cincinnati Neighborhoods

Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati are about to receive 24 million in Federal monies for "blight abatement' of foreclosed properties as part of the Federal Stimulus which can be used for demolition of properties OR to stabilize and rehab those properties.
Demolition for Demolition's Sake is a cure for Cincinnati neighborhoods.

There appeared to be an overriding message from Cincinnati government that the only or even the best way to eradicate blight is to remove an offending property. Essentially to blame a structure for what happens inside of it. The Police and Fire Departments will provide dramatic numbers about the problems associated with neglected structures. At the same time, however, statistics also show that, by properly securing such properties, that risk would be substantially reduced. According to the National Vacant Properties Campaign , demolition does not eliminate blight, or the social costs inherent with it.

The criminal element, does not say "oh the city tore that house down I guess I will stop being a criminal". What is criminal, is City officials attempting to use Fear to convince a community that they know what is best for it.

The National Vacant Properties Campaign published in 2005, “Vacant Properties: Their True Cost to Communities
Demolishing crumbling vacant buildings does not completely eliminate the costs associated with abandonment. The resulting vacant lots still require maintenance. A study of vacant lots in Philadelphia estimated that the city and closely related public agencies spent $1.8 million annually on cleaning vacant lots. At the current level of activity and assuming a three percent inflation rate, this adds up to $49.6 million over the course of twenty years. The study only included the costs of five out of the fifteen agencies that have a role in vacant property management.

Rehabilitation is clearly a better choice. The St. Paul, Minnesota budget for maintenance and security costs associated with vacant buildings revealed that while demolition saves $4,697,25 the rehabilitation of a vacant building will save an estimated $7,141 in maintenance costs over a twenty-year period.”

There is another huge cost to taxpayers, the loss of tax revenue. A house generates significantly higher property tax than a vacant lot. A typical house in a lower income neighborhood in Cincinnati may pay between 500 to 1500.00 a year in property taxes. A vacant lot by contrast may pay only 150.00 a year in taxes and those numbers may go down. Currently an average vacant lot is assessed at about 2400.00. However as there is a 'glut' of vacant lots the value of those lots goes down not up. Currently there are numerous city lots in the MLS for 600.00. As those numbers go down and 'speculators" who have no plan to build on them but merely hold them, will appeal property taxes based on sales numbers. Meaning that as vacant lot values go down property tax revenue, used to pay for things like Schools, Library, Parks , Children and Senior services are reduced. Eventually resulting in either a 'special levy' or an increase in property tax rates meaning the rest of us pay higher taxes.

The City of Cincinnati added property to its "nuisance list" (Demo list) worth about 10 million dollars last year. When that property is reduced to Vacant lot status the tax revenue reduction will be dramatic. Because of the foreclosure crisis, little new construction is happening and certainly not in the Urban Neighborhoods the city is targeting for blight abatement meaning the development of vacant lots into anything may be decades away. Cities like Detroit have vacant land that has now been sitting vacant for 40 YEARS! With no prospect in site that it will be redeveloped. Many are now speculating the city has been "fast tracking" foreclosed property from VBML to Nuisance hearing throughout 2009, in anticipation of the "foreclosure blight abatement" funding.

Both the County and the City have a big problem. The 24 million in Federal funds will require SECTION 106 review, which means that a property over 50 years old(most property in the city) must be looked at to see if its listed on national registry or eligible for listing on the registry individually or as part of a group of buildings as part of a historic district. ANYTIME federal monies are used this 106 review must take place. The County doesn't even have an office or Preservation with anyone certified to conduct a106 review and hasn't even started a programatic agreement and the city has not returned its Programatic Agreement to the state with a plan to provide for public comment process on the 106 review. Something that local preservationist are only learning that the city should have been doing and apparently hasn't been doing. This may mean that property was demoed over the last few years, without the benefit of public input (required under federal law) and the city may have violated Federal law by demolishing those properties without proper review.

The Knox Hill Neighborhood Association recently voiced their concerns to the Ohio Preservation Office via email and phone calls and received a detailed email response regarding those concerns. Excerpts from that :

"The central issue here is whether the City of Cincinnati is fulfilling its responsibilities to engage the public and consulting parties in dialogue regarding how projects that it conducts using funding originating from HUD affect historic properties. The regulations implementing Section 106 (36 CFR Part 800) require the City to make information about individual projects available to the public and consulting parties and to actively solicit their opinions regarding the effects of these project on historic properties. How - or if - the City is doing this remains unclear."

"If HUD determines that its grantee - the City of Cincinnati - is not fulfilling responsibilities set forth in federal regulations, the agency may withhold funding or, I suppose, enact other disciplinary measures."

Those concerns of the Knox Hill Neighborhood Association have been forwarded to HUD. It may be interesting to see what actions are taken next.

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