Sandusky set to demolish vacant homes

The city demolished his Madison Street home years ago. But Jack Huber, the homeowner, still owed $27,000 in back taxes. So the city offered him a deal: Give the property to the city's land bank program, and in return, his taxes will be forgiven. Huber seemed interested. He signed a document giving Sandusky workers permission to survey his property.
Sandusky Register Staff
May 23, 2010

 

The city demolished his Madison Street home years ago.

But Jack Huber, the homeowner, still owed $27,000 in back taxes.

So the city offered him a deal: Give the property to the city's land bank program, and in return, his taxes will be forgiven.

Huber seemed interested. He signed a document giving Sandusky workers permission to survey his property.

But one day in 2008, Huber skipped town. He left no forwarding address and no phone number.

Now the city must wait out the multi-year foreclosure process before it can acquire the property.

"I thought it would help raise the value of my property," said Josephine McCormick, 77, a next-door neighbor who wanted to buy half the vacant lot. "But I haven't gotten an update in years. ... I just hope it happens before I die."

The city began the land bank program several years ago with hopes of turning tax-delinquent parcels into tax-producing properties.

It hoped to acquire tax-delinquent homes and give it to neighbors or Habitat for Humanity, who could quickly improve the parcels.

But the elongated foreclosure process has frustrated and slowed the city's land bank program, which since 2008, has acquired only two out of 60 targeted properties.

When homeowners skip town -- or die and their heirs don't claim the property-- completing the foreclosure process can take years.

Other times, the homes just get lost in the shuffle.

In one case, said Amanda Meyers, a paralegal for the city, the foreclosure process began in 2002. But the assistant Erie County prosecutor working on the case left her position, and the case never got finished.

Trevor Hayberger, an assistant Erie County prosecutor, said finding the owner is generally what causes the delay.

"That's always the hardest part," he said. "Many of (the property owners) have died decades ago. You're talking people who died in the 30s, 50s or 60s. Maybe an aunt or a niece has been paying taxes, and now they've died. ... In many cases, the owners have died and didn't have a probate estate open, so no one has a claim to it."

Hayberger said the prosecutor's office initially sends mail to notify the property owner of a foreclosure case. But it's like suing someone -- if you don't serve the defendant with the lawsuit, the case can't begin.

So if the mail comes back to the prosecutor's office, Hayberger has to use Google searches or somehow track down family members. The last step, if he's exhausted other options, is to publish three notices in the newspaper.

Each notice tells the homeowner or heirs they have 28 days to respond. If everything goes smoothly, a foreclosure case can be closed in eight months, Hayberger said. But it often takes much longer.

Carrie Handy, the city's chief planner, said the home must also go to sheriff's sale at least twice after the county has foreclosed upon it, which lengthens the timetable.

"The foreclosure process is not something that's real fast," Carrie Handy, the city's chief planner, said with a laugh, recognizing her understatement.

In fact, the only two properties the land bank acquired since 2008 both bypassed the foreclosure process. The city found the owners, and offered them a similar deal to Huber.

The owners accepted, "gifting" the property deed to Sandusky in exchange for having their taxes forgiven.

Meyers said the property owners the city targets haven't paid taxes in many years, and will likely never pay taxes.

"So for us, it's a chance to take a tax-delinquent parcel and turn it into something that will produce money for us," she said.

The city commission approved of the land bank operators trying to acquire 16 more properties this month, including three demolitions at 1008 and 1010 Hancock, as well as 410 Fulton Street. Erie County won about $1.3 million in federal neighborhood stabilization funds this year, and $800,000 of that goes to Sandusky for projects like this.

Handy said the city will give the Hancock Street lots to Habitat for Humanity, which can build new, tax-producing homes on them.

In other cases, like Huber's vacant lot, the city hopes to sell the property to neighbors like McCormick, who can maintain the lots and increase their property values while also paying taxes.

Still others remain stuck in the system for years like a fly in amber, with no end in sight.

In 2008, a neighbor asked about a property near the corner of Third and Widman Street. The Erie County Auditor's website states Mariah Keys owned the property and owed $5,408.

The city sent a letter to Keys' mailing address and it bounced back. The neighbor said she spoke with Keys' church, and her fellow churchgoers thought Keys had passed away.

The city couldn't find a death notice, however, and couldn't track down any of Keys' heirs. And the prosecutor's office has a lot of priorities that come before foreclosing on these homes, Meyers said.

"We just have to be patient," Handy said. "There's just not much we can do."