City wants rate of property demolition to increase in 2013

To City Commission, it’s worth every dime, and it wants the rate of demolition to increase.

“We had a significant housing crisis,” Commissioner Nan Whaley said. “We have to right-size our housing stock. … This is the No. 1 issue for our neighborhoods.”

City officials believe by removing the vacant buildings, it will stabilize property values, reduce crime, improve the quality of life in neighborhoods across the city and save money in the long run.

With the assistance of a state grant and a local match, the city plans to up the rate of demolition in 2013, spending more than $5 million to demolish 475 abandoned structures — slightly less than the total demolished in 2011 and 2012.

A 2008 cost study estimated the city lost $12.4 million in city services and unpaid taxes in 2006 because of abandoned buildings. The study by ReBuild Ohio estimated the city had 3,821 vacant buildings in 2006.

That number has more than doubled in the five years since.

Whaley pointed out the city had housing for 250,000 people. The latest Census has the city’s population at just over 142,000.

“Poor Dayton has the highest vacancy rate in the state,” said Lavea Brachman, executive director of the non-partisan Greater Ohio Policy Center. According to the 2010 Census, the city’s vacancy rate was 21.14 percent. The state vacancy rate was 10.2 percent and the national rate 11.4 percent, according to the policy center.

The city’s fire department is at the forefront when it comes to the drain on city services.

In 2011, 92 vacant buildings burned. In 84 cases, arson was suspected, according to fire department records. That same year, the city demolished 302 vacant structures. Through the first week of December this year, there have been 57 vacant structure fires — a 36 percent decrease — and 50 suspected arsons, a 40 percent drop.

“Part of that reduction can be credited to the city’s demolition program,” Fire Chief Herb Redden told commissioners earlier this month. “With the vacant structures gone, the city’s fire-load is less.”

“Vacant buildings are a city’s Achilles heel,” said Joe Toscano of the International Association of Arson Investigators. “Vacant buildings are something we can do something about.

“It’s a cancer that keeps on spreading. If you don’t do something, it will bite you.”

What is needed is a long-term effort, Brachman said.

“All cities in Ohio are fighting this,” she said. “We hope we’re turning a corner. Dayton was struck particularly hard, but it appears to be taking advantage of the programs available in a positive way.”

The 2013 plan is funded with $3 million from a state Attorney General’s grant — funded through money paid from financial institutions as part of a mortgage fraud settlement — and $2 million comes from money the city has been setting aside over this year to match the grant.

“We spend the money equally and appropriately throughout the city,” said Kevin Powell, the city building services director in charge of demolition. “We do as many as we can as fast as we can while being careful.”

The city faces two challenges in its 2013 push: first, finding enough qualified contractors to do the work and second, spending the money fast enough to meet the City Commission’s end-of-September deadline.

City officials are contacting major construction contractors to see if they would be interested in bidding on demolition. The problem is other Ohio cities also have grant money to spend for demolition and there is a competition for qualified contractors.

“I think we have the contractors we need. There will always be at least five companies on the job. If one falls behind, we’ll move the contract to someone else,” Powell said.

The goal of 475 structures is fluid and subject to change. Powell said in 2011 the city decided to shift resources to a 72-unit apartment building that had gone downhill fast, sucking up fire department resources. “While our housing units demolished went up, our number of structured went down,” he said.

To shepherd the project, the city commissioners agreed to add an accounts clerk and two additional staffers to the payroll. In addition, Powell has assigned two housing inspectors to the project.

The first contracts are expected to be approved before the end of the year.

“The gun’s gone off. Now it’s time for us to start running,” Powell said.

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