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Many Ohio Communities Still Dealing with Thousands of Abandoned Homes

File photo (Brian Bull / ideastream)
File photo (Brian Bull / ideastream)

There are so many vacant, abandoned and boarded-up empty houses in Ohio that dealing with them is now almost an industry in itself. Scott Smith sells a Michigan-made product called Home Illusions, which he says he’s marketing to landlords and municipalities.

SMITH: “Basically we manufacture a vinyl graphic in the form of a window or a door – goes right over top of the plywood.”

KASLER: “It essentially makes that plywood look like a real window or a real door.”

SMITH: “Absolutely, yes.”

KASLER: “So it makes the home looked more lived in.”

SMITH: “Yep.”

And the problem of abandoned housing has become so big in Cuyahoga County that Habitat for Humanity International, the charitable organization known for bringing volunteers together to build new homes for lower-income families, has changed its approach a bit. John Habat is with Greater Cleveland Habitat for Humanity.

“In Cleveland we’ve moved totally to rehabbing vacant houses," Habat said. "So this year and next year and perhaps the next few years, we will not build any new houses because of the abundance of vacant properties already available.”

But while those ideas might help overwhelmed communities handle the visible damage of the foreclosure crisis, they don’t solve the problem.

For the official who was one of the first to speak out about it, the solution in most cases is not in renovation, but demolition. Jim Rokakis was the Cuyahoga County Treasurer during many of the worst years of the foreclosure crisis, and now heads the Thriving Communities Institute. He says none of Ohio’s biggest cities have avoided the devastation.

“None," Rokakis said. "And in fact, if you visit some of the small towns in Ohio, you will learn that nobody has escaped this. Look at Mansfield, Ohio, Lima, Ohio. There’s no shortage -- I hate to say this -- of depressed and depressing small towns in Ohio.”

Rokakis says $60 million in demolition assistance is coming from the federal government’s Hardest Hit Fund, which has provided billions of dollars to 18 states that suffered the highest numbers of foreclosures.

And $75 million has come from the nationwide settlement with five banks over the use of robo-signings, when thousands of documents were signed without any verification or review.

Attorney General Mike DeWine says every state got a chunk of that settlement.

“There are a few states that are using some of their money to do this," DeWine said. "The majority of states are not. No state is using as much money as we are to assist local communities to deal with this blight.”

Rokakis says there’s about $180 million now available for demolition of abandoned and vacant homes. It’s a lot of money, but he says it’s not enough.

“That gets us about a fifth of the way there," he said. "So it’s a problem. The people who live in these neighborhoods don’t have any political clout. We have to devote some resources to helping clean up really what are the inner cities of Ohio.”

Rokakis headed up the state’s first land bank, a corporation which acquires abandoned properties to clean up and sell. He now helps to set up land banks. There are 16 land banks in Ohio, and eight more are on the way, thanks to a state law that allows any county with more than 60,000 residents to create one.

But Rokakis says that will still leave a lot of area uncovered -- those 24 land banks will cover only about 60 percent of the 42 counties that can legally set them up.