Columbus And Franklin County Turn To Land Banks To Fight Blight

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'Vacant' sign identifies one of thousands of abandoned houses in Central Ohio(Photo: Steve Brown, WOSU news)

As some residential neighborhoods in Columbus and Franklin County sink from the effects of abandoned properties, local governments are turning to land banks to stop the decline.

But limited resources means the land banks cannot help all blighted properties.

“The street is looking like something from shantytown.”

Mildred DellaFlora refers to a block on Dunbar Drive near Northern Lights shopping center. Della Flora has owned a house on the street since 1955. She rents it to family members. But she’s upset that one house on Dunbar was abandoned nine years ago and left to decay. She says the vacant house with weeds and litter devalues her property a half block away.

“But, I still own this property and I still put money into it to keep it nice. So, it’s important to me that the street just doesn’t go into shambles.”

DellaFlora and other property owners on Dunbar might soon get help. Franklin County treasurer Ed Leonard says the county is expected to fund a land bank that will acquire the abandoned house and possibly level it.

“What we have been doing is working with the prosecutor to initiate a foreclosure action on it so that we can move toward getting it in the land bank.” Says Leonard.

Leonard adds the county land bank, unlike its City of Columbus counterpart, will be able to take possession of an abandoned property as soon as it enters a foreclosure and before a sheriff’s sale. Columbus has to wait until a foreclosed property goes to sheriff sale. Both, city and county officials say the new county land bank is then capable of a quicker response to blighted properties.

Emory University Law professor Frank Alexander says both city and county run landbanks focus on properties the market is not going to touch.

“The primary purpose of a land bank is to address the growing inventory of vacant and abandoned, tax delinquent, tax-foreclosed, substandard properties.” Says Alexander.

Combined, Columbus and Franklin County are expected to spend an estimated $15,000,000 dollars over the next several years to acquire vacant and abandoned housing. But Alexander says its uncertain whether an aggressive demolition program will help decades-old neighborhoods pockmarked by vacant and abandoned properties.

“When it actually goes back on the tax rolls depends upon how quickly the demand re-emerges in that neighborhood or in that city.” Alexander says.

Columbus counts 6,200 vacant and abandoned houses. Columbus wants to level as many as 900 houses during the next several years. It will first concentrate its efforts on the southeast side. Reverend John Edgar at ‘Community Development for All People’ on Parsons Avenue says the city’s land bank works closely with neighborhood leaders to identify the worst blight.

“The key issue is that we cannot as a community allow six thousand vacant houses to be left unattended. If a vacant house is not dealt with it will always, almost always get worse and worse.”

Columbus city council will decide next month whether to fund the demolition effort with with monies from its capital improvements budget. City officials have also asked for a portion of state settlement funds from a successful suit against some mortgage lenders. County treasurer Ed Leonard says the county landbank will be funded with delinquent taxes on abandoned properties.

Tom Borgerding