A year after Memorial Day tornadoes, dozens of homes left unrepaired and vacant remain a problem for neighbors and local leaders. Five so-called zombie properties are on a two-block stretch of Maplegrove Avenue in Harrison Twp.

Tornado recovery: How to rid neighborhoods of ‘zombie’ properties

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sixteen tornadoes smashed through our community on Memorial Day 2019. Since that day, the Dayton Daily News has been on the ground reporting on the devastation and the work of recovery. Now, one year later, we are digging into the obstacles that remain, how the coronavirus pandemic has affected rebuilding and how communities have been changed forever. Go here for more of this coverage.


Dozens of homes left unrepaired, vacant — or both — after the Memorial Day 2019 tornadoes remain a festering problem for neighbors and the local leaders left to deal with the so-called zombie properties.

While most insured homeowners eventually rebounded from the Memorial Day 2019 tornadoes, some walked away from severely damaged properties.

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“Some of them decided to move on, they moved out of the area. Some of them have changed their circumstances where they don’t want to be where the disaster occurred, they want to be somewhere else,” said Michael Vanderburgh, chairman of the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group.

“Their recovery doesn’t focus on that particular block or that particular house,” he said.

The record 16 tornadoes tore through communities across the region, destroying or inflicting major damage to 293 structures in Greene County and 42 in Miami County. But it’s in Montgomery County — where 915 structures were initially left uninhabitable — where most of the zombie properties remain a year later.

‘Patient for a long time’

The city of Dayton, like other jurisdictions, remained “very patient for a long time” to allow owners time to figure out what to do next, said Todd Kinskey, the city’s planning director.

“If your house was damaged, you don’t want the city to come out a couple weeks later and order you to repair it. Your life has been changed,” he said. “We took a hands-off approach for several months to see how many of the owners were going to be able to work through their insurance process or FEMA.”

Tornado recovery: Coronavirus postpones large volunteer groups needed to rebuild

But in the late fall, the city conducted a property-by-property review and started the formal housing violation process. In all, court proceedings have started against the owners of 60 unrepaired homes in the tornado damaged neighborhoods of Old North Dayton, McCook Field and Wright View, Kinskey said.

At least five of those deeded homeowners are dead and those houses abandoned, he said. It’s unclear how many of the others might be occupied without another inspection.

Damaged in last year's Memorial Day tornadoes, this house on Maplegrove Avenue in Harrison Twp. is one of five on the street slated to be removed through funds from a FEMA program, according to the township. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

The other challenge for Dayton — especially in Old North Dayton and McCook Field — is that many of the properties showed major neglect before the storm, Kinskey said, making it difficult to determine how much more damage some of them sustained from the tornadoes.

“We had orders against them before the tornado,” he said. “So the tornado just kind of added insult to injury.”

FEMA makes funding available to demolish storm-damaged structures on private property under certain circumstances, but none in Dayton qualified. The city has set aside $490,000 in community development block grant funding for demolitions when it comes to that, Kinskey said.

The cost of tearing down a house can run $12,000 to $20,000, Kinskey said.

‘In need already’

Like in Old North Dayton, the storm barrelled through low-income areas of Harrison Twp. where homeowners often had too little or no insurance — some in families for generations with little updating.

“So many of our neighbors who were in need already before the tornado were affected by the F4 tornado for sure,” Vanderburgh said. “For many of these neighborhoods, the buildings had fully depreciated years ago. And many of them were long overdue for repair and rebuild.”


Nearly 15% of all property parcels in Harrison Twp. sustained damage, 371 either destroyed or with major structural damage, according to the county data.

After a lengthy grace period, the township sent 157 dangerous property notifications to residential owners. Later, it winnowed the list to 33 and now has received funding to demolish 11 properties through the FEMA program, according to Cathi Spaugy, Harrison Twp. development director.

Five of the houses slated for demolition are on a two-block stretch of Maplegrove Avenue just east of North Dixie Drive, where several other homes have already been taken down.

Satellite and drone imagery show the impact of an F4 tornado on an Old North Dayton neighborhood bounded by Troy Street and Kelly and Macready avenues and how the area looked before the twister, just after the tornado and today.

There are another 10 residential properties “hanging out there that didn’t fit into the box” for FEMA demolition assistance, so the township is looking for alternatives to bring those down, Spaugy said.

A dozen or so other homes in Harrison Twp. are in the immediate pipeline to be repaired or rebuilt through volunteer efforts, which are now set back due to the coronavirus pandemic, Spaugy said.

“We’ve been working to get our ducks in a row, so when the green light goes on for all those folks, we’re ready to go,” she said. “The virus has probably allowed us some time to amass not only resources, but a better sense of how this is going to flow.”

Other cities make progress

In Trotwood, 203 structures were left unlivable after the tornado, according to county records.

The city sent out 45 code enforcement letters in December to owners whose properties remained vacant and unrepaired. Now, only a fraction of those tornado-damaged homes sit abandoned, said Stephanie Kellum, deputy city manager.

“We had a significantly higher number, but we are down to eight,” she said. “So we are very pleased with that.”

Trotwood is awaiting word on its application to FEMA requesting funds to bring the remaining structures down, Kellum said.

A new house at right is being built on Galilieo Avenue cul-de-sac in Trotwood next to a house abandoned and unchanged since last May's Memorial Day tornadoes. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

An assessment by Beavercreek in January found that of 139 residential properties and 131 commercial properties that were seriously damaged or destroyed, only six homes and two commercial properties — including one owned by the city — weren’t making progress. Thirteen former homes are now vacant lots.

Brookville City Manager Sonja Keaton described progress as “really good.”

Of the 228 homes damaged in the storm, 39 were left uninhabitable, she said. Of those, 27 have been torn down. Most were rebuilt, some are still under construction and six empty lots are for sale. Only two homes remain in their post-storm state.

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