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11 Investigates: Blight, delinquent taxes threaten city's economic health

1,500 homes are in need of demolishing and the tax bill swells to $52 million.

TOLEDO, Ohio — For more than 50 years, Ramona Collins has made beautiful music in Toledo.

But the well-known jazz singer and former president of the Toledo Jazz Society has also seen the ugly side of living in the city’s central city.

“When you say the central city, people look at you like, you mean the ghetto? No, I don’t mean the ghetto. I mean the central city. We’re not that far from the art museum. Is that the ghetto? No. But these houses, there’s no reason to have to look at them every day.”

As she talks, she points across the street to a row of rundown houses on Belmont Avenue. They contrast starkly with the row of beautiful, well-kept houses on her side of Belmont.

Directly across the street, a hole is punched in the basement of a home and the roof is collapsing.

Since June, 11 Investigates has looked at records related to blight and delinquent real estate taxes in the city. The home across the street is a prime example of the problem. No one has paid property taxes on the house since 2017. The home is in such poor condition that the owner was charged twice in court for having a nuisance property. And that owner is now dead as the house sits abandoned, generating no revenue for Toledo and dragging down property values.

She is asked how difficult it would be to sell her home if she wanted to move.

“Impossible. It would be impossible.”

It is a problem well understood by James Molnar, the city’s director of building and code compliance.

“Ultimately what’s going to happen is that the buyer has to go and get their appraisal done by the bank," Molnar said. "The bank has to approve that loan. I would say any appraiser is going to set that value lower than it would if it had a perfectly nice house next to it.”

His department has sent out 12,000 letters this year, warning owners to clean up their homes. Some of the owners heed the warning and do what is asked of them. Others, Molnar said, don’t.

Tools to fight blight

Casey Diggins, supervisor of code compliance, said the goal is communication between the owners of blighted homes and the city. Numerous community resources are available to help fix the issue.

“I don’t think anyone knows the totality of the pandemic," Diggins said. "But in terms of considering how families have been affected, we are most definitely working from a viewpoint of having empathy and having the desire to understand what individuals are experiencing in their own private lives.”

Diggins has only been on the job for about six months, but he has been involved in real estate for almost 25 years.

“This is the very first position I’ve held that allows me to be on the front end of real estate,” Diggins said. “When you think about market value and the impact that our division has on market value, this is the opportunity that I really, genuinely love because you can be proactive in terms of changing the market.”

A second tool in the fight against blight is the county’s land bank. It has taken ownership of more than 7,000 vacant or abandoned homes in 10 years,  tearing them down or rehabbing them.

“Good property for the land bank is a bad property for everyone else. A good property for the land bank is a tax delinquent property that no one is living in, no taxes are being paid, that is blighted but doesn’t have to be blighted­,” said David Mann, president and CEO of the county’s land bank. “We step in in order to make something good happen when something bad has been happening for too long.”

Last year, the land bank surveyed the city’s 120,000 properties.

“We found that just under 1,500 needed to be demolished," he said. "They are not all tax delinquent, but demolition may be the only answer for them. We found another 1,500 that are tax delinquent but not so blighted- that demolition is the only answer. Those are the properties where renovation is an opportunity for someone to step in.”

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Mann said the land bank “solves” about 100 problem properties a year.

It’s the type of intervention Collins is looking for on Belmont Avenue.

“We don’t understand why somebody can’t tell us what the future is for these houses,” she said, gesturing to the homes across the street. “How much longer do we have to look at this?”

When asked about the home on Belmont with the large hole in it, Mann said the city has applied for funding to demolish the structure. If that happens, then the land bank could attempt to take ownership of the lot.

As Mann mentioned, delinquent real estate taxes are a secondary problem that often comes along with blighted properties. During a nearly five-month investigation, WTOL 11 discovered that delinquent property taxes are a serious problem impacting city and county budgets. More than $52 million is owed, with the top 3,000 bills accounting for $50 million.

A compounding problem

Lucas County Treasurer Lindsay Webb meets weekly with the prosecutor’s office and land bank on what she called “our top 500 properties that we identify as likely collectible.”

Despite efforts to bring down the amount of money owed in taxes, it’s an uphill battle, she said.

“Through a series of strategic efforts, we try to collect as much money as we can with the resources we have,” Webb said. “But the number grows because it’s compounding.

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Webb said her office is willing to work with residents who have fallen behind and put them on payment plans or point them to resources available, but she also will pursue foreclosure in cases where the county has no other options.

“When they come and talk with us and try to work with us, these are things we can share with them to help lessen the burden," she said. "But there is a substantial number of people who are out there who basically are, you know, using us as a free loan.”

Webb and Mann said the ultimate goal is to strengthen neighborhoods – and the city in the process.

“I think the best way to think about what the land bank is for. We are not necessarily for that abandoned property, that blighted property,” Mann said. “We are for the neighbor next door who is doing the right thing and through no fault of their own, they are challenged by the situation and they need the community to step up and help them solve it.”

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