By Karl Keith
Winston Churchill once observed, “It is the courage to continue that counts.”
During a recent trip to New Orleans, I discovered some amazing people who clearly possess this courage to continue.
The City of New Orleans remains scarred from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. The storm and the floodwaters that followed left thousands of homes and buildings destroyed or severely damaged and abandoned. On a tour of the city, I visited and spoke with several individuals who are courageously fighting to remain in their homes and reclaim their neighborhoods.
I met families who had acquired vacant lots next to their properties and planted vegetable gardens. A couple of the homeowners had converted once empty tracts into elaborate outdoor living spaces.
Then there was this remarkable elderly couple who not only returned to their home after the storm but, also, encouraged their grandson and his young family to acquire the abandoned house next door. The grandson, a New Orleans police officer, took a break from the work he was doing inside to show off the new backyard patio he had installed to his grandmother’s obvious delight.
During the past five years, more than 1,000New Orleans homeowners have acquired vacant lots through that city’s “Lot Next Door” program. Similar to the City of Dayton’s “Lot Links” program, assistance is provided to encourage owners of neighboring lots to purchase these blighted and abandoned properties and return them to productive use.
The degree of devastation may not compare to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the pain and anguish associated with abandoned property is just as crippling in many neighborhoods throughout MontgomeryCounty. My office has classified more than 6,000 properties as abandoned, meaning they have been tax delinquent for two years or longer, the water service has been turned off, and they have been slapped with a nuisance assessment to cover the cost of boarding up broken windows and doors, mowing grass or removing trash.
These properties represent the worst examples of how the housing crisis has tarnished this area while the total number of vacant housing units in the region is estimated to be around 30,000. The homeowners living in the neighborhoods where these vacant structures are located are forced to contend with the eyesores and the various health and safety hazards that accompany these structures – not to mention the subsequent drain on their property values.
Officials are attempting to address this dilemma, but their efforts are proving to be slow, tedious and costly. More and more jurisdictions are beginning to take advantage of the expedited foreclosure process that allows the acquisition of abandoned properties in a matter of months rather than years so that they may be redeveloped sooner. Dayton and West Carrollton have filed a number of cases using this approach, and Trotwood, Miamisburg and Harrison Township are expected to file cases later this year.
Dayton has become more aggressive in its blight removal efforts through demolition, razing more than 300 vacant structures in 2011.
And, the Montgomery County Land Bank has applied for a $4 million grant available through the Ohio Attorney General’s office to fund additional demolition. Thirteen jurisdictions, including Dayton, Kettering, Trotwood, Jefferson Township, Harrison Township, Butler Township, Riverside and Moraine, have agreed to kick in an additional $3 million dollars toward this effort, a real example of regional collaboration to tackle a county-wide concern.
Still, given the extent of the problem, additional resources and commitments are needed. To battle the widespread blight and abandonment that plagues our county, officials will be forced to make some difficult decisions. Resources are scarce and the competing demands on these resources are great.
In The Chamber of Secrets, Professor Dumbledore told Harry Potter, “It’s our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.”
Tough choices are required to find and direct the dollars needed to do what must be done in the abandoned property fight. It will take courage and vision. But, the choices we make now to address this problem will define Montgomery Countyand express what we truly are for generations to come.