Friday, February 20, 2004

Day of reckoning for slumlords


Cincinnati's new receivership program shows promise of learning from past failures and Camp Washington's successes in rescuing abandoned buildings from absentee owners.

There's almost nothing as poisonous as a blighted, vacant building to bring down an otherwise healthy residential street, and Cincinnati is plagued with more than 1,400 such abandoned houses. Receivership can bring such properties back to life - one by one. Receivership can be an excruciatingly slow process, but it beats sitting back and watching Cincinnati's blighted housing stock grow or just slapping fines on owners, assuming they can be found. But receivership isn't for amateurs - among receivers, contractors or buyers. City officials, judges and receivers need to be hard-nosed, selective and strategic every step of the way.

Ohio's 1984 public nuisance law allows neighborhood groups to take over blighted properties through receivership. Cincinnati plans to put $1 million in seed money into its program and limit the city's subsidy to no more than $50,000 per property. Only community organizations or nonprofit corporations can qualify as receivers. The Ohio statute allows nonprofits, financial institutions with liens on the building or "a qualified property manager." City officials and judges will need to make sure the guidelines aren't abused.

A receiver's goal isn't to be the final owner. If hauling a slumlord into court on a public nuisance lawsuit energizes him to rehab his blighted building, that's great. But if not, the receiver's objective should be to stabilize the building, make it marketable and get it sold to a responsible new owner. The Camp Washington Community Board has been doing exactly that for 10 years without help from the city. The neighborhood raises more that $500,000 a year through bingo games and other means to pay for legal fees and building repairs. The city's new fund isn't bottomless, so there will still be a need for threatened neighborhoods to act entrepreneurially and raise money on their own for such projects. In some cases, demolition may be the best option.

Councilman David Pepper has been pushing the administration since 2002 to roll out a receivership program to all the city's neighborhoods. An earlier, overambitious experiment with receivership foundered in the late 1990s, although it did shock some building owners into taking action on their own. Abandoned Buildings Corp. choked on its first bite - a huge building at 1725 Elm St., which ironically is now absentee-owned by David and Brenda Scheer, who defaulted on a city contract to stabilize eight buildings near Findlay Market.

Camp Washington goes for owner-occupied deals, and the city should, too. The city's guidelines say applicants "must demonstrate" experience in successfully rehabbing buildings. They need to submit doable plans. Do-gooder motives such as saving historic structures aren't enough. Camp Washington targeted strategic buildings that could inspire other rehabs, and slowly and steadily, it's working.

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