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Rising from Rust

A look at how Ohio's land banks are battling blight

  • 17 min to read
A look at how Ohio's land banks are battling blight

Part I: The Richland County Land Bank fighting blight on a budget

How the Richland County Land Bank is using its limited resources to clean up the area's eyesores & beautify neighborhoods. 

MANSFIELD -- If land banks ran on mattresses and tires, the Richland County Land Bank could have conquered the area’s blight in no more than a year with money to spare.

The land bank would probably be profitable place, according to land bank President Bart Hamilton.

But junk doesn’t generate money. Hamilton knows this all too well.

The land bank’s efforts to rehabilitate and demolish hundreds of tax-delinquent eyesores takes time and money. The limited resources are quickly depleted when removing mattresses and tires and addressing larger, more expensive issues like asbestos and underground fuel tanks.

The land bank owns 225 properties, a mix of vacant houses and lots. Land Bank administrator Amy Hamrick estimates an additional 450 forfeitures – again a mix of houses and lots – are sitting on a list for the land bank to find end users for. Approximately one third of these have structures that need to be demolished.

That’s far more demolition projects than the land bank can handle.

The land bank is funded by a percentage of the penalties and interest on property taxes -- about $300,000 per year.

It takes nearly $100,000 to run the land bank, leaving approximately $200,000 for demolitions. At an estimated $10,000 per demolition, the land bank has the potential to tear down 20 blighted houses per year with these funds alone.

In early May, the land bank had 32 houses in the early phase towards demolition.

Funding sources, such as a $3.9 million from the Neighborhood Initiative Program (NIP), have helped the land bank to tackle more projects, but as the money runs out, Hamilton doesn’t expect it to be replenished.

“I hope we get more, but I doubt we will,” he said.

Approximately 100 houses are already slated for demolition with NIP dollars, and he believes only 10 more can be funded.

“We’re always going to run out of money before we run out of houses,” Hamilton said.

The land bank is taking steps in case more money would “fall out of the sky.” Grant money often comes with deadlines, so to hasten future demolitions, the Richland County Land Bank will fund costly asbestos removal in several properties.

“These houses are in the bull pen. Eventually, we’ll take care of them on our own, but if we do get more money, we’ll need to act quickly,” Hamilton said.  

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The Pride Levy

Much of the Land Bank's budget comes with strings attached.

This means Hamilton and his team often can't address commercial properties with their funds, but by working with Mansfield City government, the land bank can use a percentage of PRIDE tax to make progress.

The tax, which generates about $3.7 million per year, was first approved in 2014 and renewed in November 2017. 

In January, the city had $1.5 million in PRIDE dollars set aside for demolitions. City officials were contemplating using the money for the former Mansfield YMCA building at 455 Park Ave. West, the former Trinity Gospel Church at 168 Buckingham Ave. and a property at the corner of South Diamond Street and Cleveland Avenue. 

"The city decides, and we organize the demolition," Hamilton said. "They focus on commercial stuff that we can’t."

land bank example

Many properties, such as the one pictured above, are filled with trash and other materials when the land bank takes over them.  

More than Demolitions

Demolition is a crucial step in the land bank’s efforts to clean up blight, but the organization’s end goal is to return properties to private usage.

If the Land Bank determines the property has potential, based on an assessment, it won’t be demolished. Determining factors include the condition of the roof and foundation, the proximity to a school, the number of complaints the land bank has received about the property and the cost to potentially rehabilitate the place.

If repairs are too costly, the land bank will plan to demolish it. But if not, higher hopes are maintained for the property.

Since November 2013, when the Richland County Commissioners founded the land bank, at least 562 parcels of land have been transferred to new owners. This includes lots that came to the land bank vacant, lots that became vacant when a house was demolished and buildings purchased by people with plans to renovate them.

Hamilton can recall a time when the Mansfield city government was maintaining 600 vacant lots.

“This was money the city was spending and never getting back,” Hamilton said.

Now, he estimates only 300 vacant lots must be maintained by the city, which may be attributed to the lank bank’s side lot program.

Westinghouse Monument

Andrew Rex of Rex's Landscaping & Construction designed a monument near the former Westinghouse factory to memorialize the once significant area employer. 

The Side Lot Program

If homeowners with vacant land bank property adjacent to their owner-occupied homes or businesses, they can expand their property by purchasing it at land bank prices.

Richland County resident Andrew Rex has taken advantage of this program to acquire land around Rex's Landscaping & Construction, 34 N. Franklin Ave.

On one new piece of land, he designed a monument to Westinghouse to mark the once booming factory in a beautiful way. Rex spent months working to obtain one of the five-ton wheels used to power the plant.

“It took some effort because it was an EPA cleanup site, but finally we went through numerous people and got permission to have one of those wheels,” said Rex Landscaping director of operations Jon Stierhoff.

They have since placed the wheel down the road from the former Westinghouse building and added some landscaping. Rex hopes the local beautification program, Mansfield in Bloom, will show off the monument when America in Bloom judges visit in July.

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The Residential Rehabilitation Program

The monument is only the most recent of Rex’s interactions with the land bank.

His first encounter was in early 2015, when the Richland County Land Bank introduced Rex to the former Petersen Tire property, which has since become headquarters for Rex's Landscaping.

The three buildings featured 34,000 square-feet of tires and trash, all with roofs that Rex likened to “huge skylights.” The best of the three still “leaked like a sieve,” Stierhoff said, when recalling his first impression of the place.

But in April 2015, Rex bought the property via the residential rehabilitation program, typically designed for people who plan to fix up buildings as their primary residence.

“These guys, it didn’t scare them,” Hamilton said. “They saw a base to that building that is really strong, but a lot of other people who saw the building didn’t see that, they just saw the trash.”

The Land Bank’s residential rehabilitation program allows qualified owners to purchase properties for $1,000 plus the $89 recording fee after completing a lengthy application. This process includes a written request for property, a written plan for rehabilitation, a cost estimate, a project timeline, proof of rehabilitation financing and more.

“We want you to develop a plan for how you’re going to rehab the property, and we want to see where your money is coming from,” Hamilton said.

If the owner is unprepared or hasn’t taken care their other properties, the land bank likely won’t sell the property. Further, the new owner must sign and certify that they will occupy the property as their primary residence for a minimum of five years.

Rex realized the land bank was the ideal partner for him. He saw huge potential for the Franklin Avenue property, and that vision pushed him forward as he and his team removed 2,000 tires and nearly 50 dumpsters of trash and metal from the property.

Rex recalls spending an excess of $40,000 just for trash removal.

“The trash was certainly a huge issue,” he said. “Rumpke couldn't keep up with the amount of dumpsters we were filling there for a while.”

Stierhoff remembered filling the first few dumpsters in 15 minutes.

“We called and said, ‘We need dumpsters,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, we just dropped those off.”

Those were already full.

Fast forward three years and the building is transformed. The outside features several landscaping designs and the interior includes several spacious offices and provides plenty of room to store equipment. 

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The property fits the company's needs and has been praised by the community from the beginning.

“After we had cleaned up just the outside … people would stop by and bring us dairy queen cakes when it was hot. They brought pop, water and cookies,” Rex said. “And, you know, three years later it is still impacting people. We still hear weekly.

“In fact, yesterday I had a call from a gentleman who wanted us to do a wall for him, and he goes, ‘I'm calling you because of what you guys did for that building down there.’”

Rex is grateful for the opportunities the land bank has afforded him. The building was worth the time and effort to clean up, but still it wouldn’t have been possible for him to have acquired the property without the land bank’s programs. 

"I know not many landscape companies have facilities like this," Rex said.

Other Land Bank Success Stories 

Part II: Ohio land banks moving past the blight

How land banks across the state are addressing blight in their communities.

Richland County isn’t alone in its battle against blight.

More than 50 counties across Ohio are also working to diminish blight in their communities through land banks. Each is different. In size. In budget. In how it’s managed. In how it gets things done.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all, which does make it difficult to measure success for land banks,” said Allison Goebel, executive director at the Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC).

She studies revitalization and sustainable growth in Ohio, delving into issues like transportation innovation, infrastructure modernization and legacy city regrowth.

Often, there’s no straightforward grading scale, which is especially true with land banks.

Comparing land banks to land banks isn’t like comparing apples to apples. It’s closer to comparing grapes with watermelons, especially when considering how places like Franklin County and Montgomery County land banks so drastically differ in size compared to the Trumbull County or Richland County land banks.

Montgomery’s population was more than 500,000 people and Franklin County topped one million in 2016, according to the United States Census Bureau. At the same time, Trumbull County was just more than 200,000 people and Richland County’s population was the lowest of the four at 121,107.

The population of those county seats varies wildly, too. It was 860,090 in Columbus (Franklin County), 140,489 in Dayton (Montgomery County), 39,898 in Warren (Trumbull County) and 46,878 in Mansfield (Richland). 

Goebel sees success as the land bank’s overall impact on the community and the ability to move quickly when opportunities arise – often in the form of grant dollars.

In her experience, success follows when land banks target their limited resources, engage the community and collaborate with similar organizations. 

She commended Richland County’s efforts to find the right people to rehabilitate properties, highlighted Franklin County’s effective use of community partners and pointed to specific projects in Montgomery and Trumbull Counties that have found purposes for newly vacant lots.

“We can’t just pull-down blight, we have to think about how redevelopment looks,” she said.

rex.JPG

Andy Rex, owner Rex's Landscaping.

Re-purposing Properties in Richland County

The Richland County Land Bank rates houses before demolishing them.

If it’s beyond repair or deemed “too costly,” it joins the ever-growing list of properties that will be considered for demolition. But if there’s hope, the land bank looks to get it in the hands of someone who will rehabilitate the property.

One of the land bank’s favorite examples features a local landscaping company. The owner, Andrew Rex, transformed a longtime eyesore on a well-traveled road into the current location of his business, Rex's Landscaping.

Since that first interaction in 2015, when the land bank introduced him to his future headquarters, Rex and the land bank have continued to find mutually beneficial deals.

Rex grows trees for landscaping purposes on several former land bank properties, and he recently built a monument to Westinghouse on a side lot near his headquarters, acquired through the land bank’s side-lot program.

“We saw that some nurseries had gone in (somewhere north of Richland County), and they had bought sections from the city that had roads in it and everything, and they made every section a different type of plant,” Rex said of his inspiration for buying vacant lots for landscaping business. “We wanted to incorporate a little bit of that here on Lilly Street."

He plants trees in the vacant lots and later will unearth them for relocation in a landscaping job.

It’s a win for Rex and the land bank. The properties fill Rex’s business needs, and the land bank no longer needs to maintain those properties.

“It was just one of those things where the stars lined up,” Richland County Land Bank president Bart Hamilton said. “It was good for them; it was good for us. “

Twigs to Trees

The Montgomery County Land Bank's Twigs to Trees initiative aims to reforest parts of Dayton and the surrounding area in an economical way. 

Urban Forests in Montgomery County

The Montgomery County Land Bank believes strongly in finding purpose for its vacant lots.                    

According to program manager Susan Crabill, the land bank has worked with neighborhoods to start a few urban forests and community gardens -- often on a shoestring.

“Taking down a house in a neighborhood – a blighted property – changes the neighborhood, Crabill said. "But if you can take it one step further and enhance what would have been just a vacant lot with trees or maybe trees that produce food, I think that little bit extra makes that neighborhood feel that it matters."

“Twigs to Trees,” one of the land bank’s relatively new initiatives aims to transform vacant lots into urban forests and soon food forests.

The land bank enlists volunteer labor to overplant more affordable saplings rather than slightly larger trees. And then they don’t receive much attention – if any at all.

Though all the trees won’t likely take root, Crabill has seen that enough of them do.

“When you think about reforesting, in no time, you’ve spent $10,000 on a lot,” Crabill said. “But we didn’t have a $1,000 in everything.”

She estimated that about $500 went into one half-acre lot that was planted in March by local high school students and a nearby elementary school’s science classes.

At one planting session, Crabill explained to the students how they could one day return to the lot and show their grandchildren their fully-grown trees. That led one elementary school student to ask if he could write his name on the tree.

“They go right by it on the way to the school, and now they’ve taken some ownership of it,” Crabill said.

Involving the community and the city has been crucial in Crabill’s opinion. The community often provides volunteers, while the city helps design a realistic plan.

“The majority of the lots will be yours one day. What makes it easier?” Crabill recalled a portion of the conversation with the Dayton Public Works Department before launching the Twigs to Trees initiative.

The department requested that the trees be planted in rows to make mowing easier. And further, the design is meant to create a “living barrier,” stopping people from backing up to the curb and dumping their trash.

Eight more sites have already been identified to continue Twigs to Trees.

“I’m very proud of the program,” Crabill said. “We’re still trying to get our legs under us, but we hope for great things.”

The Montgomery County Land Bank was founded in 2013. It expects to demolish more than 1,100 houses in 2018, and others will wait their turn until 2019.

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Trial, Error & Success in Trumbull County

The Trumbull County Land Bank willingness to take risks has paid in rewards.

Founded by the county in 2010, and later taken over by the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership in 2013, the land bank has found effective ways to reduce blight and support redevelopment by trying everything from wildflower gardens to temporary art installations prior to demolitions.

“Having an understanding that you have to be willing to try new things, but knowing when to cut your losses is a really important thing, especially in community development,” said Shawn Carvin, Trumbull County Land bank program director. “Not everything is going to be perfect the first time or work long-term.”

He recalled the land bank’s efforts to create wildflower lots in 2013. The idea sounded appealing, but once the flowers were planted, they received dozens of complaints from neighbors.

“They look like tall weeds,” Carvin said, admitting he also wouldn’t have wanted to live next door.

A year into the program, the wildflowers were cut down.

“That was an expensive lesson to learn, but we learned it,” Carvin said.

Yet it didn’t discourage him from experimenting again. Recently, the land bank in partnership with the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership tried a two-day temporary art installation in a blighted house.

"We wanted this event to showcase local artists and have them explore themes around vacancy, blight, neighborhood revitalization, and the issues and successes our community has seen over the past decade," Carvin explained."In a post industrial city, similar to Mansfield, we wanted to capture the past and present state of our city while also highlighting what the future may bring.

"All of this with the idea of the art installation being temporary, as the house will be demolished, much like issues that artist were exploring in the work that they installed in the house."

The project, known as “Occupied Warren,” featured all sorts of artwork by local artists inside and built into the house. Then it was opened to the public June 8 and 9 to large crowds of between 500 and 600 people. 

"The event blew our expectations out of the water," Carvin said. "The artists involved with Occupied Warren delved deep into the topics we outlined for the project. There were happy positive outlooks for our communities future, there were dark, depressing installations getting into topics of addiction, decay and the issues facing our city, but all of the installations and artists spoke their truth, through their art."

Surveys collected during the event echoed his own opinion of the event. 

"These surveys showed that the art made people think, made people consider the pain that others have experienced and the truth that our city has been in plagued with issues, but we are starting to see a renaissance," he said. "Many attendees were uncomfortable with some of the installations, which to us is a positive. We can not ignore things because they make us uncomfortable, we have to embrace that feeling and understand and learn from it." 

See photos from Occupied Warren at www.artofwarren.com

Goebel of the GOPC complimented the county’s ability do a lot with a little, often through its community engagement efforts.

“I’m just always impressed with Trumbull County land bank is doing,” she said. “They are working with extremely limited resources in a distressed community.”

The land bank’s Lots to Love Program offers two possible outcomes for vacant lots, which may have come into land bank procession vacant or been the result of a demolition.

The first is what most land banks call a “side-lot program,” where the next-door neighbor is given the opportunity to purchase the lot. If they turn it down, the lot may continue to sit vacant in other counties, but not in Trumbull.

The Lots to Love program lets residents develop a plan for the property.

“They come to us with an idea. We help with logistics and resources, and then they go out and get community support,” Carvin said about the process.

The community must get a petition signed by the neighbors, develop a plan and propose a budget and way to maintain the property long-term.

Legally, the property remains in the land bank’s procession – with a higher insurance policy – but through this program, the community takes responsibility for it.  

Carvin has seen community gardens, Zen gardens, basketball hoops, a labyrinth and more.

The land bank has taken down 550 houses since its creation and intends to demolish 450 more over the next two years.

“What we are working on now is getting rid of the worst of the worst and maybe borderline properties that are probably demolitions that could start to be renovations,” Carvin said. “But the question is always what do we do with the vacant land now? It’s a misconception that land banks are only interested in demolition.”

He’s proud of the community-driven projects that have already transformed vacant lots, but the land bank is currently developing a strategic plan to better approach this.

$180 Million and Growing: The Beneficial Impacts of the Land Banks of COCIC and City of Columbus

Image from the Greater Ohio Policy Center's 2018 report entitled "$180 Million and Growing: The Beneficial Impacts of the Land Banks of COCIC and City of Columbus." 

Collaboration in Columbus & Franklin County

Goebel of the GOPC believes blight could soon be under control in Franklin County.

In a March 2018 report, she and her colleagues outlined how the Columbus Land Redevelopment Office and Central Ohio Community improvement Corporation (COCIC) have generated $180 million in economic impact in Columbus and Franklin County communities in the past five years.

The organizations have demolished more than 1,600 blighted structures across Franklin County, facilitated the reuse of 1,300 properties as rehabs, new construction, community gardens and side lots, and financed over 100 residential rehabilitations, emergency stabilizations or new builds, according to the report.

“Through demolition and strategic intervention, the land banks have taken control of and mitigated a considerable portion of the most blighted properties in Franklin County. While also dealing with the foreclosure and blight crises, the land banks are adapting to the changing pipeline of problem properties and are beginning to successfully address blight before it happens,” the report states.

Goebel doesn’t believe comparing the Franklin County organizations to other land banks would be fair.

“It is its own thing compared to the rest of the state,” she said.

But their efforts to collaborate with community-based organizations could be replicated elsewhere.

The COCIC’s Trusted Partner Program makes removing blight easier by bringing in more hands. The organization teams with groups that it has vetted and approved for rehabilitation projects, deconstruction projects, new construction, lot beautification, community gardens and more.

“What the land bank says is, ‘You’re the experts, so we’ll let you do this with the appropriate amount of oversight,” Goebel said.

Part III: The start of a land bank association & the value of sharing ideas

How Ohio's land banks currently share ideas and may soon meet in under the organization of a land bank association, which Michigan has already formed.

No two land banks are alike, but Ohio’s more than 50 land banks do face similar challenges and can learn from one another. 

Montgomery County’s efforts to grow urban forests in Dayton and the surrounding areas could be replicated anywhere by engaging the community.

Trumbull County’s unique attitude towards new ideas could benefit any land bank.

And by sharing ideas, these separate entities can better achieve their common goal: to mitigate blight and make their counties more beautiful.

The Beginning of a Land Bank Association

As more and more land banks have formed in Ohio, they’ve consistently shared ideas through informal networking meetups organized by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, but now the 52 land banks are considering starting their own Land Bank Association.

“It’s something that many of us feel makes sense at this stage,” said David Mann of the Lucas County Land Bank.

He explained that more than 60 percent of Ohio’s counties have land banks. The only state with a comparable number of land banks is Michigan, which has already formed a Land Bank Association.

Image from the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

Image from the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. 

Mann and Shawn Carvin of the Trumbull County Land Bank, addressed fellow land banks about the potential at a quarterly, informal networking meeting on May 30 meeting in Richland County.

Both expressed gratitude for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s efforts to connect land banks regularly, but Mann believes it would be "complacent” to think the organization will forever organize such meetings.

The land bank association could be up and running as soon as fall 2018.

So far, Ohio land banks have met quarterly in Richland County via networking meetings organized by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy

“Basically, it’s an opportunity for the land banks to share questions, share ideas,” said Robin Thomas, land bank program director with Western Reserve Land Conservancy. “I think the thing people come for is the chance to talk to other land banks.”

The meeting generally features three or four presentations relevant to all land banks. However, the May meeting was the first to include an hour for project presentations. Three Ohio Land Banks pitched their project ideas – some further along than others – and asked for feedback.

“It’s about coming up with a couple ideas of what they can do,” Thomas said. “The others may see some of the problems that land banks are having.”

The presentations started off with a short introduction from the speaker. But more time was spent in a large group conversation with people from the crowd bouncing ideas off one another, as they explained how they had previously encountered similar obstacles as in the project described.

Allison Goebel, of the Greater Ohio Policy Center, studies Ohio cities’ revitalization efforts. She applauded the state’s land banks for meeting informally until now, but she sees the need for a land bank association.

“The meetings have informally served that role, but as more and more land banks come on … having a framework to get the input that creates that shared voice, assistance and learning opportunities, I think it’s a great idea,” she said.

The Michigan Land Bank Association

Michigan is a few steps ahead of Ohio when it comes to land banks.

The state’s first land bank formed in 2005. Its land bank association started in 2008, according to Eric Schertzing, Ingham County treasurer since 2001 and the president of the Michigan Land bank Association for its first five years.

“That first rush had like five land banks, and then we grew from there,” Schertzing said. “When you get more members you want to come together more formally.”

In his experience, even before the land bank association formed, the greatest challenge has been time.

“Treasurers keep busy, and land banks are an additional major responsibility,” he said.

He likened organizing the first several meetings to “herding cats.”

“I just had to get people to one more meeting that they didn’t have time for,” Schertzing said.

Communities saw the need for land banks at that time, as the economy took a dive.  Federal funding flooded land banks, allowing them to make progress in their communities despite the declining economy.

But it wasn’t until later that the value of the Land Bank Association became clear to its members.

“Post the flush of federal money, we had a lot of land banks that had done a lot of stuff and couldn’t get anything else done,” he said. “We pulled together recognizing a need to make the necessary work of the land bank to happen in good times and bad.”

Since then, Schertzing has stepped away from managing the Land Bank Association, but he still believe in its purpose and believes Ohio's efforts to start its own land bank will be worthwhile. 

To read other stories in this series, visit richlandsource.com/risingfromrust.

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Staff Reporter

Proud Pennsylvania native. Joined the staff in April 2017. Formerly Tracy Geibel.