Cleaning house a lengthy, costly process for Sandusky

SANDUSKY Wendy Johnson lives in a quaint, well-kept house on Osborne Street. It has t
jasonsinger
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Wendy Johnson lives in a quaint, well-kept house on Osborne Street.

It has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, wood floors and a simple red and brown color scheme, which accentuates its rustic charm.

But Johnson said its value is diminished by the company it keeps.

"The house is worthless," Johnson says. "Who would want to buy a house surrounded by abandoned and condemned buildings? The answer is no one. No one would."

Johnson isn't the only resident staring down urban decay in her neighborhood.

As of September, Sandusky had 250 abandoned, condemned or vacant homes -- one of the highest rates in the state when adjusted for population.

While the Department of Housing and Urban Development keeps statistics only on foreclosures, residents don't need numbers to tell them the seriousness of the problem.

Ben Villarreal of Perry Street said there was drug activity in a nearby vacant house before the city condemned it.

Shelby Street resident JaMychal Butler said he's embarrassed to have family visit him because the neighborhood "has turned into a ghetto" since he moved in.

And Melanie Rogers of Decatur Street knows squatters live in a condemned house across the street because she sees remnants of their lifestyle through the cracked windows.

"You can look inside the windows and see the blankets and beer cans and mattresses," she said. "It's a safety issue."

The city has started to address the problem.

In June 2007, officials created the Land Bank Program, a city entity that acquires tax-delinquent properties with the hopes of transforming them into tax-producing parcels.

But that process takes time. A lot of time. Just last month, the program acquired its first 16 parcels, even though it's been in operation18 months.

"We have to let all the legal processes play out," said Amanda Keegan, a paralegal in the city law department who heads up the program. "And it's hard just to track down the owners."

Tracking down the owners is also costly.

According to the Ohio Revised Code, if the city can't reach the owners through traditional methods, it has to publish ads in the newspaper six consecutive weeks.

Only then, if there's no response, can the city take action.

City commissioner Dan Kaman said although the city's housing staff does a great job of tracking the problem, the abandoned, condemned and vacant houses should be one of the city's top three priorities. He said the city needs to stay aggressive in cleaning up the community.

"Squatters, basically, are in these homes," he said. "(They) are coming in and just making it an unsafe and unfriendly neighborhood. ... It's making Sandusky an undesirable place to live."

City employees like the concept of the land bank, they said. It's just a matter of finding the funding for demolishing homes, tracking down owners and enduring the lengthy legal process.

But help is on the way. Erie County recently received $1.2 million in funding for 2009 from the Ohio Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

Keegan said the majority of that money will likely go to Sandusky.

"We will be more aggressive (in 2009)," Keegan said. "We have 90 more tax-delinquent properties I've charted and we have our eyes on."

If the city can find the funding, city manager Matt Kline said the acquired properties can be used for a variety of purposes. He said if one vacant property is in between two tax-producing properties, the city could split the middle lot between the two other households so those households can expand their yards.

In other instances, the city could transform a tax-delinquent parcel into a neighborhood parking lot.

"That would solve two problems," Kline said. "People would have parking ... and the roads in some of those neighborhoods are tight. It would be like we're widening the roads because there won't be any cars on the street."

In major tax-delinquent areas like Hancock Street and Third Street, the city hopes to acquire enough properties for a larger development, Keegan said.

Meanwhile, residents like Johnson wait in frustration.

"There's nothing I can do," she said. "I'll just try to keep my house nice, and I pray one day the situation changes."