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Pushing back on vacancy crisis: Solutions from Reclaiming Vacant Properties national conference

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/19/10 @ 10:37am

The Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference kicked off a big second day with a keynote address from author Alex Kotlowitz who revisited Cleveland one year after exposing the damage of the foreclosure crisis in the New York Times article "All Boarded Up." Before he took the stage, Frank Ford of Neighborhood Progress Inc. showed what Cleveland's made of.

(Ford is part of a Foreclosure Response Team with NPI and 14 community development corporations which acquired 27 properties and rehabbed the homes, plus demolished 40 properties, filed receivership suits to eliminate nuisances and offered home repair loans).

"Cleveland was hit hardest and earliest by the foreclosure crisis," Ford said. "It's a reason for us to host the conference. This city has a rich history of organizing. It's not in our genes to sit back. If you ask Deutsche Bank, Wells-Fargo and Countrywide, they learned that the hard way.

"But this is still a city with a major problem. We'll have our fifth year of foreclosure filings of 11,000 or more. That's due to irresponsible lending. We need ideas, and we have you, the experts, to learn from."

Cleveland's ReImagine initiative-a comprehensive plan and coalition pushing for new place-based strategies for vacant land reuse-is already a leading practice on the national scene.

"Cleveland seems to be a city pushing back," Kotlowitz said. "When I came here a year ago, the sheer quantity of boarded up homes knocked me off balance."

As he did with "There Are No Children Here" a firsthand account of two brothers growing up in the projects of Chicago in the '80s, Kotlowitz told the story of Clevelanders facing the crisis with courage. Like Anita Gardner, who left a sign for squatters camping out in her rental property at E. 113th and Union, thanking them for not tearing out the plumbing but asking politely that they not return.

He told the story of Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka who shared that the courts are all Cleveland had left for not letting the lenders and, eventually, the owners of the tangled ball of mortgage portfolios get away with sinking whole neighborhoods.

"Judge Pianka asked, 'how load can this mouse roar?'"

He decided to hold cases in abstentia and then held the lenders and new owners in contempt. He now has 150 liens on places as far flung as Moscow.

No one wanted another story of a dying city, Kotlowitz was warned. "But, the truth is, Cleveland isn't doing well. It's a place that, when I last checked, 1-in-13 homes are vacant. If you spend any time in Slavic Village you'll see the extent of the damage.

"But the very act of telling the story is an act of hope. Cleveland has seen things, has heard things and its incumbent upon you to share that and your ideas to reimagine the city."

During the Q&A, I asked Kotlowitz why more relief and response isn't forthcoming from the federal government?

"I don't think there's a sense of the urgency in Washington. I think what efforts are taking place are local."

The local efforts are the reason for some hope-and were the highlight of this day's conference (more on that below)-even if the trends and larger market forces are still punishing cities (one estimate puts national vacant property at five million acres, the size of a region).

I attended the morning session on "Decision Making for Alternative Site Reuse." John Mack of the Cleveland Metroparks and Laurel Berman of U.S. EPA opened with their rapid screening tool to catalog contaminants and exposure concerns on vacant sites. Berman says it's simple enough for a high school class to use.

Crime prevention is part of the vacant land reuse equation, said Michael Szuberla of Toledo Botanical Garden. The Garden's Greenhouse Project won a Department of Justice Weed-and-Seed grant based on research from Harvard's Felton Earls who found strong interactions between adults and kids reduces crime. Vertical hydroponic grow systems-in the greenhouse, the waste from 2,500 tilapia fertilize hanging pots of tomatoes-reduces exposure concern. Next up: Toledo wants to test Kent State Urban Design Center's idea for reusing a building shell by converting an abandoned house into a "goatshed" or barn (as an aside, Cleveland's urban zoning overlay district designation might make this legal here).

U.S. EPA Region 5 brownfields coordinator Brooke Furio likes Cincinnati's proposal for Lick Run, an historic waterway that today runs through 630 miles of underground pipe. The city wants it as a test site for a restoration project that creates market demand for vacant land as new riverfront property. If it works, it would rank with the wetland park at Philadelphia's Saylor Grove as a multi-lot vacant land scheme that doubles as a water quality solution.

"(Green infrastructure) is more complex and complicated than a pipe," Furio said. "You have to get a lot of people to the table and it's messy. But the pipe comes with a lifespan. It's another liability on the community."

The community in question has depopulated and as a result the city's bond agent, Moody's made it clear it could downgrade the city's rating if it spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an underground storage pipe without the tax base to pay it off.

"The city realized they had to build something beyond a pipe. They began to see this as a way to increase habitat, clean up brownfields and reduce the supply of vacant land."

New federal initiatives were the topic of the morning session, "Place-based Policies: Vacant Properties in the New Federal Policy Agenda.

"With the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative announced (two weeks ago), we have a federal government that wants to fund (these efforts) through small competitive grants, not large scale programs," observed moderator Jeremie Greer of Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

The Sustainable Communities grants, announced during the conference, will provide, perhaps for the first time, millions of dollars for regions to draw up and implement a plan coordinating land-use, transit and affordable housing. A consortium from Northeast Ohio that includes the four regional transportation agencies (including lead agency, NOACA, and AMETS), county and city governments won a $4.25 million Sustainable Communities grant.

In addition, $1 billion for a third round of Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds were announced last week as cities continue to demolish the most blighted properties. NSP III bill sponsors sought $2 billion, but opposition lawmakers cut it in half, questioning its usefulness. It's indicative of the fight ahead for the Livable Communities Act and the Community Regeneration, Sustainability and Innovation Act.

"The new federal programs may overcome the silos, but what's missing is a champion in Congress whose name isn't Chris Dodd," said James Brooks of League of American Cities. "Don't put money on Congress passing Sustainable Communities legislation. I don't see the push from Congress to get this to scale."

Absent a cohesive urban revitalization strategy from Washington, states, regions and metropolitan areas have been left to craft their own solutions. In Memphis, Tennessee the private sector and community development corporations are teaming up. In Michigan, home values declined so precipitously (52%) that 24 cities formed a foreclosure response team to acquire 6,250 properties with a collective $224 million in NSP II funds.

"Coordinated planning with NSP is difficult," said Jane DeMarines, Council of State Community Development Agencies, the pass through for state NSP awards. "There's money, but it's not enough to have a comprehensive development strategy if a city only gets enough to redevelop a few houses."

Plenty of good grassroots efforts are out there, DeMarines said, from the "Creative Core", chambers of commerce from a 12 counties in the Syracuse region working on a place making initiative to Chattanooga, once the most polluted city in the country, now turning around its fortunes with an urban revitalization plan.

"Place making is about tangibles," Brooks agreed. "Chattanooga turned Walnut Street Bridge into a pedestrian bridge, it has an arborist working on reforestation. It happened on the scale of 40 years."

Buffalo's People United for Sustainable Housing has relied on bold gestures (like putting the governor's face on foreclosed properties) and risk taking in the form of purchasing vacant properties to create 24 urban gardens and a 1.5 acre urban farm. The gutsy nonprofit is lead by Aaron Bartley, a former community organizer, and a board president who was a line cook. The group started a small green jobs training center and recently built its first Net Zero house.

If it were not for groups like this, who knows what predicament our cities would be facing?

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