Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cincinnati RoundTable focuses on land banking, housing court

Representatives from community development corporations (CDCs), lenders, and other development stakeholders met yesterday afternoon at the City of Cincinnati Business Development and Permit Center for a discussion on ways in which communities can deal with blighted housing.

The first Home Grown Experts RoundTable of the year, sponsored by the City in partnership with the Community Development Corporations Association of Greater Cincinnati and Huntington Bank, focused mainly on two possible strategies: land banking and a dedicated housing court.

Tax liens, unresponsive banks, and absentee owners make some of these properties difficult – and time-consuming – for CDCs to acquire and rehabilitate.

"If you look at other cities, there are some that are in very bad circumstances," said Ed Cunningham, division manager of the City's Property Maintenance Code Enforcement Division. "I think that Cincinnati is not in as bad a position as some of these other cities. And we can improve by changing a lot of our rules."

Banking on it

Ohio Sub H.B. 313, passed by the Ohio House and Senate and currently awaiting Governor Strickland's signature, would provide an active, regional tool for addressing such properties to counties of more than 60,000 residents.

By creating county land banks, or County Land Reutilization Corporations (CLRC), these counties would gain the capacity to issue bonds, then buy the tax liens and to make the county treasurer whole. The county could then acquire the properties with a clear title.

The program would be self-funded through penalties and interest on delinquent taxes and assessments, resale of properties to qualified buyers, loans, bonds, and grants. Community improvement would then replace profit as the motive.

"A land bank can work with CDCs, cities, and townships to figure out what is the development goal," said Assistant City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething. "It's much more of a challenge to even develop a goal when they can't even figure out the owner."

To form a CLRC, the Hamilton County Commission would need to pass a resolution directing its formation. County Treasurer Robert Goering would then incorporate the CLRC, a board would be appointed, and the rules of operation would be drafted for adoption by the Commission.

But according to Boggs Muething, part of the struggle is convincing Goering that a CLRP is even necessary, despite clear visual evidence in a county ravaged by foreclosures and vacancies.

"The treasurer needs to hear from everyone that the county needs a land bank," she said. "One of the things that we always hear [from people in the communities] is that he just doesn't see what the problem is."

Many in attendance speculated that land banking could become a campaign issue, although the treasurer's seat doesn't become available until 2012.

"Villages and townships in Hamilton County have been devastated," Boggs Muething said. "Look at places like Colerain and Springfield townships. The land bank could be an issue if people make it an issue."

No court support

Cunningham is responsible for the safety and stability of approximately 150,000 buildings.

"We do have a proactive approach, which I believe is the best way to do code enforcement," he said. "Then you make an immediate impact. You're not running all over town, doing spotty enforcement."

Some of the properties Cunningham inspects progress to criminal court due to negligence of severe safety issues. One judge handles this housing docket, instead of the eight or nine judges who used to handle these cases.

"It worked so well that we've been assigning more cases," Cunningham said, noting that an astounding 500 cases reached the docket last year. "It's much more user-friendly."

Further streamlining the process into a county-wide housing court for would require a small change to the Ohio Revised Code. And while State Rep. Denise Driehaus has been working with Cincinnati City Councilmember Jeff Berding – and Cincinnati officials have been generally supportive of such legislation – like the CLRP, there is opposition.

"There's no legislation because there's no local support," Boggs Muething said. "The Courthouse doesn't want to do it."

"I've been doing this for 23 years, and they've been talking about a housing court for at least that long," Cunningham said.

The next RoundTable, scheduled for May, will look at green construction. Tentatively scheduled speakers include City of Cincinnati Director of Environmental Quality Larry Falkin, Local Initiatives Support Corporation Assistant Program Officer Brooke Linkow, and Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance Co-Founder and Executive Director Andy Holzhauser.

Previous reading on BC:
Ohio county land banking passes House committee (12/14/09)
28 Ohio counties could acquire land banking powers (10/29/09)
Dohoney: Most OTRF preservation recommendations 'probably unfeasible' (8/5/09)
Cincinnati code enforcement inspectors handling 53 new cases a month (5/29/08)
Code enforcement seen as ineffecive by Madisonville (4/10/08)