Demolitions drastically drop police, fire calls to those areas of Hamilton and Middletown

Removal of blighted properties in Butler County has had tangible positive effects in both Hamilton and Middletown, where crime and fires are down and property values are up where eyesores were erased, officials said.

The Butler County Land Reutilization Corporation, more commonly known as the land bank, was created in 2012 after the state provided $2.7 million in Moving Ohio Forward funds. The land bank acquires foreclosed or blighted properties and pays for demolition. The Butler County land bank is governed by a seven-member board and has one employee.

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The land bank board heard this week about how its efforts have benefited the county’s two largest cities. Vacant house fires in Hamilton have decreased 68 percent and police needing to secure eyesores has reduced 38 percent since 2012, saving at least $76,000, according to Lauren Nelson, the city’s liaison to the land bank.

“As the worst vacant houses are removed, we are reducing safety and fire hazards, saving city resources, improving our neighborhoods,” Nelson said.

Nelson said there are studies showing vacant buildings can drop the value of neighboring homes by 20 percent.

“Anecdotally, we know that demolishing these blighted vacant homes has visually improved many of Hamilton’s urban and traditional neighborhoods,” Nelson said. “We also know that a general trend exists in Hamilton indicating that areas with lower vacancy rates have higher home values.”

Moving Ohio Forward was created by Gov. Mike DeWine when he was the state’s attorney general using Ohio’s share of the National Mortgage Settlement for foreclosure abuse reached in 2012 with the nation’s largest mortgage servicers. The attorney general’s office diverted $75 million from the mortgage settlement to the property demolition grant program to combat blight left by the housing crisis.

A 500 percent leap from about 500 to 3,000 foreclosures between 1999 and 2010 prompted the establishment of the land bank in Butler County. In the beginning only the two largest cities, Hamilton and Middletown, were members because they provided $1.1 million each in order to collect the Moving Ohio Forward monies.

Since then, millions more has come available through the federal Hardest Hit Fund of the Neighborhood Initiative Program (NIP). The county received $4.3 million in NIP money but had to give up $620,839 because the money wasn’t spent by the deadline. The county has recouped $341,118 of that money since then, and more reimbursements may still come in, according to Land Bank Executive Director Kathy Dudley.

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Acting Middletown City Manager Susan Cohen said the NIP grant funds have reaped big benefits in her city. The city downed 103 vacant properties in seven targeted neighborhoods, and in those areas drug overdose calls are down 51 percent on average and police calls dropped 44.7 percent since 2017, according to city data.

Complaints about tall grass, weeds and trash are down about 36 percent. She said the city has 26 letters of intent from neighbors who want to take over empty lots and a number of other possible redevelopment opportunities.

The commissioners agreed to siphon 1 percent of late payment penalties on real estate taxes in 2014, which opened up land bank services to the rest of the county. So far the land bank has received $791,850 in those Delinquent Tax and Assessment Collection funds and has spent $240,489, addressing blight in the big cities and other areas of the county.

The NIP program is closing this year, and land bank board President Nancy Nix, who is also the county treasurer, said officials have convened a sub-committee to consider the future of the land bank. DTAC only brings in about $125,000 per year, and “that really doesn’t go that far” Nix said. Most land banks get 5 percent of DTAC, but Nix said she won’t ask the commissioners for an increase.

“Until there’s another funding source I don’t think there’s much energy towards that,” Nix said. “I just don’t think that the commissioners are on-board with growing the land bank unless there is going to be another influx of cash or grant funding.”

Ohio House Bill 252, which was introduced in May, would provide $100 million over two years for demolitions, including commercial structures, which local officials consider crucial. Federal and state grant funding has previously been restricted to residential demolitions. Some legislative action is expected this year.

“It will be handled in this legislative calendar year,” Dudley said. “I would say it is in a traffic jam of legislation this year. Anybody who drives on I-75 understands a traffic jam, you’ve just got to get passed the exits.”

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