Thursday, March 11, 2010

Knox Hill asks HUD to investigate Stimulus Fund allocations?

The Knox Hill Neighborhood Association is asking HUD to conduct an audit review of City of Cincinnati Federal Stimulus fund expenditures after it was learned yesterday that the city may be spending monies in a neighborhood not approved for stimulus funds and "may" be violating Federal Law.

Knox Hill currently has a complaint process ongoing with HUD over the city's failure to comply with Section 106 review as it pertains to Federally funded demolition of property over 50 years old for which federal review process is required to determine if properties may be eligible for registry nomination. If a property is found eligible for nomination a cost benefit analysis is normally conducted and sign offs are required to actually proceed with demolition, since normally Federal Monies may not be used for demolition of historic eligible structures.

Knox Hill Neighborhood Association has maintained the city lacks that proper process and may have violated federal law by not allowing proper process for public input. The city has put forth that changes will be made to the processes taking effect in April of this year HOWEVER those process changes have not been spelled out to Knox Hill or other neighborhood or community group. The city has maintained no federal funds were spent on demolition in Knox Hill and they are in compliance with Federal guidelines, yet Knox Hill has asked the city for an accounting of how Federal monies were disbursed citywide in 2008 and 2009 but the city has failed to produce documentation. Knox Hill claims the city accounting and payment procedures may be lax and potentially historic property may be demoed using Federal tax dollars and without proper neighborhood input or review as required by the section 106 review by federal law.

Yesterday an issue was raised concerning a property at 2186 Harrison in Westwood. A Westwood area resident noted that demolition equipment was on site and sent an email to Ed Cunningham at the city regarding that, noting that the neighborhood wanted Apartment buildings not single family homes demoed. Regular readers may recall this house was at the center of controversy when Westwood Concern members attempted to board it after months of trying to get the city to do so.

Mr Cunningham's response (which I happened to be CC'd on) was as follows:

"I understand your concern. Thank you for contacting us. This building is being demolished by the City with Federal Neighborhood Stabilization funds intended to help communities recover from the foreclosure and housing crisis."

However Westwood was not one of the communities with accepted proposals for which Federal Stimulus funds were approved for. Those neighborhoods where those funds are allocated were Avondale, East Price Hill, Evanston and Northside, and the suburb of Mount Healthy. Since Westwood was not targeted approved area as part of stimulus funding, no public notice was made (the city's typical excuse for blanket program notification for programs), therefore no Section 106 review took place on 2186 Harrison.

Knox Hill has long maintained that the current process of public input at Nuisance Board hearings is not adequate under section 106 review guidlines, as it is not known at the Nuisance Board hearing what funds will be used to demo since the purpose of the hearing is to order the owner of the property to take down the building. The time between Nuisance declaration and actual demo by the city can be several months and fall in different calendar/fiscal spending years and the city does not know what funds will be used. This issue is critical to Knox Hill which plans on a Federal Historic registry nomination later this year. Currently the city has 40 plus properties on the VBML, Condemn or Nuisance list. Knox Hill has maintained the city is "fast tracking' foreclosed properties to take advantage of stimulus funding and claims the actions of the city Vacant Building Task Force amount to "Governmental Redlining" of economically disadvantaged neighborhoods'. The city has denied any "fast tracking" of properties yet Knox Hill has researched several properties in their boundaries and found that houses are going from simple open door or windows to condemn status in as little as 3-4 months often while properties are in the foreclosure process where properties have been abandoned by the mortgage holder but the bank has not yet completed the legal foreclosure process.
EXAMPLE OF FAST TRACKING: 1875 Knox was turned in for an open window on 9/24/2009 it went from that to condemn on 12/03/2009 before the foreclosure process has even been completed. Neighbor's note this house is very restorable and could provide a nice home for some family. The property has not yet been declared a nuisance but is just one step away from being bulldozed!

2186 Harrison in Westwood has its nuisance hearing in 2009. There is no public records of a section 106 review process on that building. The house in question is a brick, Late Victorian/Craftsman, built in 1905 and extremely solid. The property sold for 95,000 in 2003 and went into foreclosure in 2006 when it transferred from Wells Fargo to Duetsche Bank It was then sold to an out of state investor. the property has traded hands twice since then. The question is if the Foreclosure stimulus fund could even be used since this is not currently a foreclosed property but rather a privately owned one. Demolition of this house would do nothing other than further erode the county property tax base.

Apparently the city is citing one of the reasons to demo in the email, was that according to Ed Cunningham, "the city has paid over 1000.00 already in Grass cutting and Board up fees". I spoke last night on the phone to resident who lives not far from there who asked the question many Community leaders often ask, "Do they think that if they bulldoze it they wont still be cutting the grass?, We are not solving anything here just creating a different problem!"

It raises the larger issue. Since the city has liens for board up and grass cutting why not take the owner to court, sue for the liens and be awarded the property by a court and then turn it over to a group like Westwood Civic or Concern so the house can be cleaned up by volunteers and resold to a preservation minded buyer who would restore it? An owner occupied under restoration house would provide a key anchor along that block of Harrison.

In an email correspondence to HUD officials Knox Hill have asked for an official Program Audit of city demolitions in 2008-2009 and the withholding of Federal funding to the city until it can demonstrate that proper accounting procedures are being used to provide for 106 review where properties are over 50 years old and may be historic eligible. They further claim it to be citywide problem, which 2186 Harrison is evidence the city is demoing potentially historic property, using federal funds, without a proper section 106 review.

Knox Hill has asked HUD, if they cannot process this issue at the State level to elevate the neighborhood complaint to the Federal level office of HUD or the Federal Attorney General's office for investigation to if Federal stimulus monies are being mis-spent outside the approved areas for which the stimulus funds were intended.

"If we have to seek a federal court injunction to stop all demolitions in the city, then that's what may need to happen to make the city wake up" stated one Knox Hill resident. "They cannot bulldoze potentially historic properties in our neighborhoods with our federal tax dollars and not follow the federal laws they are required to follow. Federal law does not allow monies allocated and approved for neighborhood A to be spent in neighborhood B, without approval. They are telling us that no federal funds were spent in our area and they didn't have to do the 106 review. We asked for proof by accounting records from 08 and 09, YET we learn they were ready to spend federal monies in an neighborhood not approved for those monies to demo and they expect us to trust them?"

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