CINCINNATI – The city would need to spend about $2.5 million per year for each of the next five years to get the number of vacated and condemned buildings back down to pre-Great Recession levels, Cincinnati’s top building inspection official says. But the updated city budget for 2016-17, approved Wednesday, falls well short of what he'd requested.
In his Building and Inspections Department’s capital budget request for fiscal year 2017, Director Art Dahlberg wrote to Budget Director Chris Bigham that nearly 1,000 buildings in the city — unless repaired by their owners — will soon be either blighted, condemned, or eligible for demolition. That doesn’t include 302 buildings already slated for demolition by the department.
“The increase in vacant, abandoned buildings during the housing and foreclosure crisis are fire hazards and harborages of crime, which negatively impact property values and harm quality of life and safety in neighborhoods,” Dahlberg wrote in the report.
The city’s approved 2016-17 biennial budget had included $923,000 for the city’s Hazard Abatement/Demolition Program. But Dahlberg asked that that amount be increased to $1.025 million. Instead, however, City Manager Harry Black’s recommended budget updated for the upcoming fiscal year — and approved largely unchanged on Wednesday — reduces the amount budgeted for the program to $775,300.
Nonetheless, that is still a major increase in city funding from the $350,000 that was budgeted for the program in FY 2016, administration spokesman Rocky Merz said. Other needs prevented Dahlberg’s request from being accommodated, Merz said.
Thanks to another $800,000 in federal dollars from a Community Development Block Grant for the demolition program, the city has $1.575 million allotted for demolitions in FY 2017, “which may be the most in city history,” Black said in a statement.
A city-maintained database currently lists more than 2,400 vacant buildings, of which 949 are listed as condemned.
“It is important to note that not all condemned buildings in the database require demolition,” Dahlberg said in another statement. “The order condemning a building gives the option of abating the problems or demolishing the building. The decision is left to the owner; however, if the owner fails to take action, the building would then enter the (demolition) hearing process.”
Dahlberg warned the administration in his budget request that “there are likely many buildings that are vacant, but not yet deteriorated enough to be on the vacant and condemned buildings (database.)” He noted that the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program estimates that Cincinnati could face the need to demolish 6,050 buildings in five years.
“Recent Water Works records indicate there are over 6,000 properties without water service for a period of six months or longer,” he said.
Without the funding to demolish every eligible building — demolitions cost an average of $14,000 apiece — the city prioritizes problem buildings based on several criteria, including proximity to schools, neighborhood priorities, and historic values, Dahlberg said.
“The department also enlists the help of the public, neighbors, and subject-matter experts to determine which properties must be demolished — which is viewed as a last resort,” Dahlberg said.
Though Dahlberg didn’t get the money he requested for the demolition program, the approved budget update increases the Buildings and Inspections Department’s operating budget by $2.29 million. The increase, which will be funded by increases in fees charged by the department, will fund several additional full-time employees to help the city battle blight on multiple fronts, Black said.
Part of the increase in the department’s operating budget will fund a residential rental-inspection program. It will be launched as a pilot program in two or three neighborhoods the city has identified as containing a large number of older rental units. Six new inspector positions will be added to operate the program.
“The goal is to target properties that have high levels of code complaints and violations, as well as those that have been reported as being used as illegal dwellings,” Merz said. “The hope is that this program would also encourage residents and landlords to report when dwellings are being used illegally and not being maintained at safe standards.”
Another full-time inspector will be added to the city’s Code Enforcement Response Team, which will work with the police department’s Place-Based Investigations of Violent Offender Territories, or PIVOT, program. Unveiled in February, PIVOT is an analytics-driven approach to “disrupt criminal activity in persistently violent locations,” the city says.
“With more inspectors, PIVOT, our chronic-nuisance program, and increased demolition funding, we are addressing blight and abandoned properties on every front,” Black said.