Last night was a north side community meeting about the problem of vacant houses in the city of Youngstown. The meeting was organized by the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. The Collaborative or MVOC is a broad based community organizing initiative that was established in March of 2008. The primary purpose of the group is to unite groups throughout the community to work together to increase quality of life in urban neighborhoods in the cities of Youngstown and Warren, Ohio.
The MVOC philosophy is that change happens from the bottom up and that residents hold the solutions to the problems that face their communities. The MVOC is also connected to state and national organizing initiatives to begin changing state and federal policies regarding urban development.
The meeting last night was the culmination of three months of listening. The organizers from all four sides of Youngstown have been out in the community asking residents about the issues that effect their lives. It quickly became apparent to them, that one problem that heavily impacts residents is the proliferation of vacant properties.
Because of Youngstown's shrinking population there is an oversupply of housing stock. The estimated number of vacant structures is currently 6,500 and 20,000 vacant properties.
The current approach to addressing vacant properties is reactive, intermittent, and very expensive. The lack of effective policies regarding vacant properties has decreased residents' quality of life, and discourages development and reinvestment in the area.
The MVOC has been working to develop a plan that makes sense. They propose:
1. Neighborhood groups performing vacant property surveys to determine the true extent of the problem in each neighborhood. This information will be used to create a database and information system.
2. Neighborhood SUCCESS grants can then be strategically utilized to transform NVPC best practice recommendations into reality in the neighborhoods.
3. Neighborhood groups can develop action plans to hold lenders and slumlords accountable for their large holdings of vacant properties.
4. Collaboration with Lien Forward Ohio's Community Outreach Specialists to increase awareness of their services to neighborhood residents.
The MVOC provided attendees with a substantial outline of how to proceed to address the problems. There were between 75 and 100 in attendance at last night's meeting. Several residents provided personal testimony regarding their personal problems with vacant properties. I, for one, don't think this portion of the program was necessary as anyone living in this city has personal experience with vacant properties. We have all been impacted even if we merely walk or drive by these structures and lots. I do agree with the MVOC that there is a need for a survey to determine where the current vacant structures are located. Youngstown will be receiving approximately 1 million in federal dollars for demolition. It is imperative that the dollars be put to good use and that the demo projects be prioritized in terms of the which demo jobs can have the largest impact on the community at large. This type of stragegy needs to be developed by using a two pronged approach, community participation and input, balanced with the development of new policies and legislation based upon the most up to date urban development and legal research.
For example, to my knowledge there are currently no policies or programs in place for reporting newly abandoned properties or contacting mortgage holders to notify them of abandonment. If for example, there were a phone number that residents could use to report a newly vacant house, this would provide an early notification to the city who could then provide early notification to the mortgage holder. The mortgage holder would be advised that they are responsible for securing the the building, boarding it up, and maintaining the grass etc. Mechanisms for accountability must also be developed. If such as system were implemented,residents who plan to abandon property could be encouraged to call the hot line to report when they are leaving a property abandoned. The reporting person should be able to do this without fear of ramifications from the city and could be encouraged via public service ads etc.
This would also reduce the problem that exists from late notification. Currently, by the time an abandoned building has been secured, it has already had it's windows broken, copper stolen, and untold damage from vandals. This in turn makes it more difficult to sell the property at a later date via auction.
In addition, a policy could be implemented whereby if a resident plans to abandon a structure, and the property does not have a clouded title with the possible exception of real estate taxes, the property could be quit claimed to a landbank established specifically for this purpose. This in turn would allow the landbank to sell the building at a low price, with strict guidelines that purchasers must make needed repairs and maintain the structure. If policies such as this or similar to this were implemented it would reduce the numbers of homes that will ultimately be demolished. My understanding is that the cost of a demolition on average is $30,000. $30,000 could pay for a substantial rehab on many structures. Currently lien forward has a program to get vacant lots into the hands of residents, but I'm not aware of a program that provides that type of service for structures.
In addition to the development of policies to handle the problems of vacant structures, it is time to revamp our zoning laws. The 2010 plan allocates areas in the city to be used for numerous purposes, for example agriculture, however, our current zoning is not in compliance with that plan. If a citizen does wish to engage in agriculture, they must fight to get the zoning changed. This is not an easy task at the moment due to laws on the books regarding spot zoning changes. Furthermore, there are areas in the city that are in serious need of commercial enterprise. Due to the current zoning laws, the development of retail stores and restaurants is prohibited. Granted, one might not wish to have a large grocery store on a predominantly residential street, however, for the purposes of creating a sustainable community, where walking is possible, we must be able to have retail enterprises on more of our major streets throughout the city. It is clear that our residential neighborhoods are changing and do not resemble the neighborhoods of 30 years ago. There is a great deal of green space,as well as property in need of development. This development could include the neighborhood coffee shop, green grocers, etc. In other words it is time to address the need for more mixed use neighborhoods.
I would suggest that a commission composed of representatives from the zoning department, the zoning board, city planning, housing, legal experts regarding property and zoning, and community members be established in order to develop new policy regarding the changing landscape of our city.
The meeting last night was a good start to the journey we must take in order to shift the community paradigm toward one of collaborative problem solving, as well as to begin to see the possibilities that exist for us in our changing landscape. I commend the organizers for their quick assessment of the problems in Warren and Youngstown as well as their quick response in addressing the issues.
Below is Annie Gillam speaking to the group about vacant properties and demolition:
The young man below also addressed the meeting last night about the importance of voting.
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