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Cities are tearing down houses, but does it help? They’re hoping so

Since early 2013, about 420 houses have been demolished in Hamilton, as officials perform a kind of dentistry, removing bad “teeth” while hoping to preserve those nearby. More demolitions are in progress.

The approach of destroying troubled properties to help neighboring ones appears to be working, according to at least one study. A study performed jointly in 2016 by two Miami University entities found such demolitions seem to have had positive impacts in both Hamilton and Middletown.

In Hamilton, the study determined that properties within 500 feet of a removed blighted building saw a 29 percent increase in their property values. In Middletown, properties near blighted buildings that were demolished had a 14 percent decrease in their likelihood of foreclosure, according to the study.

The report was created by Miami’s Center for Public Management and Regional Affairs, which worked with the university’s Center for Analytics & Data Science, the organization whose students and faculty compiled the data used to reach the findings.

On the other hand, given the short period of the study (two years), Miami officials said the results are “inconclusive and, for the most part, statistically insignificant.”

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The land bank and university are discussing performing a follow-up study this year or next that examines the issue further and delves into other, related issues.

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Told how many buildings had been razed, Margo Warminski of the Cincinnati Preservation Association said: “I had no idea it was that many. That’s rather shocking.”

“If you want people to come back to the community, you have to give them something to come back to,” Warminski said. “They’re not going to come back to vacant lots.”

That’s one reason that this year Hamilton will be looking to put some of the now-empty lots back into productive use, perhaps with new houses created by Habitat for Humanity and others, said the city’s planning director, Liz Hayden.

Meanwhile, the Butler County Land Bank, which takes possession of many problem properties before they are razed, has torn down more than 600 properties since it was created. Many of them were abandoned by residents and left to deteriorate by the banks that took possession of them in the fallout from the Great Recession, which caused many foreclosures. That 600 figure overlaps significantly with the 420 torn down in Hamilton.

“We try to take a look at the worst of the worst,” said Mike McNamara, chief administrative officer of the Butler County Land Bank, which takes possession of many of the properties. “These are vacant, abandoned houses that are potential fire hazards or magnets for crime.”

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The idea, he said, is “eliminate those that have no redeeming market value. If it’s not something that the market is addressing on its own, that’s where we start looking at it.”

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Warminski agrees with that approach.

“Not all buildings are equally worthy of preservation, because some may be insignificant, or they may be expensively altered, so they don’t retain a lot of their historic character anymore,” Warminski said. “Or some buildings are simply very expensive or difficult to repair and reinhabit because of their condition, because they’ve been neglected for too long — they have serious structural problems.”

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Those are the ones Kathy Dudley, an attorney on Hamilton’s staff who handles land bank business, calls “zombie properties,” that she said Hamilton has been targeting. Some are so dangerous that firefighters have determined they’re too hazardous to enter.

RELATED: Link between fewer Hamilton vacant buildings, fewer fires

Warminski, whose organization monitors preservation issues across the region, said the city of Cincinnati has been doing a good job lately of trying to preserve buildings that should be, “and we’re very pleased about that.”

“In certain neighborhoods — and not just Over-the-Rhine, because it’s moved into other neighborhoods as well — people are buying, renovating and reoccupying buildings that have been vacant and derelict for some time,” Warminski said. “Not only that, but business districts are being revitalized because people are moving back into these neighborhoods.”

As a result, she said, “Cincinnati Public Schools’ enrollment is going up, because people are moving back to the city.”

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She mentioned Cincinnati’s neighborhoods of College Hill, Westwood and the East Price Hill Incline District, which overlooks the city’s downtown area from the west.

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“Every house is some family’s history,” Dudley said. “I don’t care if it’s in an historic area or somewhere else. And they each tell a different slice of history. But the fact is, sometimes in order to get to the future, you have to close a page of history.”

Some properties are far from complying with building codes. Others are rotting away. It typically costs between $4,000 and $19,000 to raze a structure, with the most costly factor being the presence of asbestos.

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“At some point, a lot of these homes are 100 or more years old, and there hasn’t been maintenance for 20 or 25 years,” Dudley said. “You could technically rehab anything. The problem is there aren’t those resources there. And do we let the rest of the neighborhood go down, or do we try to provide some relief and stabilize the housing market?”

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