EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part I 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 -- 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
The next story in this series will publish tomorrow. Follow along at richlandsource.com/risingfromrust.
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