Land banks created to help remove, rehabilitate run-down homes

Photo by Janelle Patterson Bed springs fall into the caving floor of the living room in a blighted home in Lowell.

MARIETTA — The first home to catch the eye in Lowell is a burned-out shell.

Wind passes through the slats and broken windows.

Vermin call it home.

And once a week from the beginning of April through the end of September a village employee adds the property’s lawn to the list of village properties needing trimmed.

“Nobody wants to move in beside this, it tears down the property values next door and throughout the whole village,” said Lowell Village Mayor Steve Weber of the home at 207 Main St.

Photo by Janelle Patterson Moldy papers and videos litter one of the blighted properties in Marietta.

The charred remains welcome visitors and passersby to the village and the Buell Island bridge and sits just a stone’s throw from the village firehouse.

“It’s a safety hazard and the rats and birds have taken over,” explained Weber as he climbed the concrete steps to the crumbling structure on Thursday. “We cut the grass once per week to try and keep the vermin away but that drains on village funds and we’ll never see that money come back because nobody’s paying the taxes on it.”

But this isn’t the only story of blight and drain on local coffers in the county.

“It’s the same story if you go to New Matamoras or Beverly or Belpre,” said Weber. “Blight isn’t just a city problem for Marietta, it’s all over. And I don’t have $15,000 or more just sitting in the village coffers to tear down the homes that are bringing down the whole village. And no one wants to buy a property with years of back taxes to pay off on it either.”

Across Ohio, 41 of the 88 counties are battling blight by utilizing the Ohio Housing Finance Agency’s Neighborhood Initiative Program to create county land banks.

“Essentially we started out by proving we needed to remove and/or rehabilitate run-down homes in three target areas in our county,” said Robert Ritchey, Columbiana County’s land bank liaison. “We saw adjacent counties to us, namely Mahoning and Trumbull, really benefiting from the authorities of a land bank to scrub titles, remove liens on properties and erase back taxes. Then Trumbull County really helped us along in the beginning to create our land bank.”

Since 2014, Ritchey said through funds established by the NIP for Columbiana County, 66 homes have been or are in the process of being torn down with another 28 on the list for East Liverpool, the Village of Wellsville and Salem.

“The NIP process is very in-depth but it also makes it very easy to get the money for those demolitions back,” said Ritchey. “And because we were able to prove how much this has benefited our communities, especially East Liverpool, we were recently awarded another $3.2 million to tear down or rehab more properties.”

With a county land bank established, vacant properties, burned homes without hope of repair and collapsing houses returning to the grasp of the elements can be foreclosed, and if the property goes through two sheriff’s sales without purchase, the property’s liens and back taxes can be scrubbed anew.

“Adjacent property owners have been extremely happy with what we’ve been getting done,” said Ritchey. “Even in densely packed neighborhoods, when you take away one crumbling home, you take away a breeding ground for vermin, crime and lost neighborhood property value.”

Columbiana has a similar makeup to Washington County.

“We’re a river county too and rather than having just one big city, we have a spread of smaller communities and villages with one larger city about the size of Marietta, only ours is named Salem,” said Ritchey.

In Marietta one of the challenges with battling blight is out-of-town, and even out-of-country, ownership on vacant properties.

“There’s a nice brick home at 818 Second St. that isn’t falling apart yet but will quickly head that way and there’s no way to track down the owner. All I know is they have an address in Germany,” said City Code Enforcement Official Wayne Rinehart. “Right now the city has to mow it every warm season and no one is paying the taxes so we’re not making that money back at all…It’s four years behind on taxes.”

But the establishment of a land bank would need to be initiated by the county commissioners.

“The way land banks were explained to us a couple of years ago I understood it to mean that the county would be taking over ownership of all of these properties,” said Commissioner Ron Feathers. “The only way I could ever support this is if the properties could be reintroduced into the private sector after the blight was taken care of. But I’d like to pursue and research what authority the county already has to scrub those titles without having to establish a land bank as well.”

But City Development Director Andy Coleman said having a land bank is Marietta’s only option to stave off slum and blight.

“We can see the benefit it’s providing to other counties throughout the state and it’s not just a Marietta issue,” said Coleman. “We can’t keep up with the vacant and blighted properties across the county and that drives away development too when investors see the fallen state of these homes.”

Weber said in the meantime until funding and title scrubbing options change in the county, he hopes to have the village seize the house on Main Street in Lowell and work out a controlled burn with local firefighters to destroy the safety hazard.