WARREN - It might not have happened as originally planned, but blighted communities will soon have access to more demolition money.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman toured a block of Washington Street Thursday morning with a variety of community leaders and volunteers to learn how the neighborhood is being helped through a combination of demolition and stabilization programs.
The Ohio Republican also was in town to discuss how legislation he proposed could help the city demolish vacant houses by using money from the federal Hardest Hit Funds program, which was created in 2010 to help prevent foreclosures.
Dubbed the Neighborhood Safety Act, Portman's bill sought to let municipalities and landbanks tap into $60 million of the state's uncommitted foreclosure prevention funds for demolitions.
The act was made partially moot, however, when it was announced later Thursday by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency that it has received approval by the U.S. Treasury Department to use up to $60 million of the remaining Hardest Hit Funds to raze houses throughout the state.
"I welcome today's announcement that the Ohio Housing Finance Agency has reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Treasury to use a portion of Ohio's remaining Hardest Hit Funds to demolish abandoned homes in our communities," Portman said later in a release.
Tribune Chronicle / Raymond L. Smith
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, left, listens Thursday as Warren Mayor Doug Franklin explains how a block of Washington Street in the city is being helped through a combination of demolition and stabilization programs.
"I will also continue to push Congress to consider the Neighborhood Safety Act, which has bipartisan support from mayors and members of Congress from both parties and would ensure that these funds are used as efficiently as possible," he said.
A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year by representatives David Joyce, Marcy Kaptur, Marcia Fudge and Timothy Ryan.
"Vacant and blighted structures are a major public safety issue," Portman said while walking the Warren street. "They become magnets for illicit activity including drug use, rape, gang activity and murder. Vacant structures also severely impact the housing values of other homes on the street."
Only counties with landbanks will be eligible for the $60 million in Hardest Hit Funds; Trumbull County is one of 16 that have landbanks. Trumbull's landbank is the third-most active in the state, behind Cuyahoga and Lucas counties.
Jim Rokakis, vice president of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, said his agency is working with five additional Ohio communities to establish landbanks.
"The benefit of these demolition programs is they are finite problems," Rokakis said. "If there are about 500 abandoned houses that need to be torn down, when they are demolished, a community can have a fresh start.
"There may be other problems of poverty, crimes and the lack of jobs, but getting rid of rundown, blighted homes will be virtually eliminated," he said.
Franklin said that more than 370 abandoned houses have been torn down using Neighborhood Stabilization Funds provided to the city and county several years ago, and about 40 houses are being torn down using the Moving Ohio Forward grant. At least another 60 houses have been identified to be torn down before the end of the year using the Moving Ohio Forward money.
"We've used a targeted approach in our demolitions in an effort to stabilize neighborhoods," Franklin said. "We are starting to see some benefits through people taking advantage of the county's side lot program and buying properties next to their homes, a rise in the number of community gardens around the city and property owners taking time to improve their properties."
Joan Sullivan, who has lead the creation of the Warren Central City Community Garden at Washington and Mercer Streets, was glad the senator visited her neighborhood talked to a few residents.
"We want people to see what neighborhood residents have been able to accomplish," Sullivan said. "They should know there are good people living in these neighborhoods who want them to be safe and to see their property values rise."
The $60 million freed of by the Treasury Department for demolitions will become the new Neighborhood Initiative Program, according to a release from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency. The program will partner primarily with landbanks to target residential demolition.
The maximum amount of assistance per property is $25,000 with an estimated average amount of assistance of $12,000. The agency estimates that nearly 5,000 vacant and abandoned homes will be demolished statewide through the program.
The program is expected to begin in early 2014 and conclude by December 2015.