EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part II of a three-part series within the "Rising from Rust" project looking at how the Richland County Land Bank and other Ohio-based land banks address blight.
MANSFIELD – 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.
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. “
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.
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.
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.
The next story in this series will publish tomorrow. Follow along at richlandsource.com/risingfromrust.