Dayton can’t demolish its way to prosperity

This article was submitted to the Dayton Daily news for publication as an “Other Voices” column. Or should I say, over a month later, a “Anyone other than David Esrati voices” column. Nick Hrkman, the editor, was hurt by my response to his last rejection. It’s ok, because, they don’t buy ink by the barrel anymore, and I have a platform to publish that’s been in operation since 2005, with over 3500 posts and more comments by at least 10x that number. This blog, really doesn’t belong to me- it belongs to the community. Here’s what the Dayton Daily doesn’t want you to read:

The only winners in Dayton’s quest to demolish vacant homes and buildings are the demolition companies, the landfill owners and the previous owners who somehow escape liability for their criminal negligence in letting their properties decompose before our eyes.

While you may be a homeowner next to one of these vacant and decrepit eyesores, the vacant lot you will have next to you, will for the most part, just sit there, underutilized for decades.

There are no advertising campaigns trying to sell Ohio’s most vacant neighborhoods- or incentives to either move there, build there or invest there. You’ve just had the taxpayers fund your homes further devaluation.

That’s why we should be much more strategic with demolition dollars and look at what they could do instead.

Sometimes the first problem is how you frame the question. We know that these blighted homes decrease the value of our neighborhoods, but, the real question is what will increase the value of our neighborhoods?

The first analysis needs to assess which are our most vacant neighborhoods. They are a cost to our community- in terms of streets to pave, street lamps to light, police to patrol, etc. If you are the only occupied home on the block, you may be stuck forever, never being able to sell for enough to get you back into a viable vibrant community. Your insurance premiums (if you can get a policy) will be sky high, banks won’t lend in vacant neighborhoods, and more than likely, you have a few blights on your block. Instead of spending $17K per home to demolish, maybe, we should be buying your home, moving you into a viable neighborhood, and just fencing off the whole mess until we’re ready to address it?

While housing enforcement failed these neighborhoods the first time, let’s not allow more homes in any neighborhood degrade into future tear downs. Let’s invest in making sure roofs don’t leak, gutters work, and occupancy is re-established quickly. Vacant homes are the enemy of a vibrant community and the blights best friend. If we want to raise tax dollars- we should tax vacant properties higher- forcing the owners to sell, fix up, or occupy these community assets.

Sprawl is another factor playing into real estate valuation. The Miami Valley hasn’t really changed in population in the last 40 years, yet, we’ve continued to build new communities farther away from the city- and forcing us all to underwrite infrastructure to support these new communities. If we set a cap on residential square footage, forcing developers to take out blighted square footage in order to build new- we wouldn’t see the negative impact of the blight- because it would be in high demand to allow new construction. While it sounds costly, when you consider the costs of extending sewers, gas lines, water lines, roads, schools, police, fire and the loss of farmland to feed us all, this property swap would be much more affordable.

When I moved into the South Park neighborhood in 1986, I believed I was moving into a blighted neighborhood. I only looked at 2 homes, one had been on the market for 2 years, starting at $22,900 and was currently $17,900. The other, was $14,500. There were no comparisons between the two other than they both cost about the same as a new economy car. I used a bargaining strategy with the Realtor: I’m buying a home, I don’t care which one, and I have $14,500 cash (It had to be cash, because no bank would lend on a home for less than $25K in those days). I bought a 2 story, frame Victorian with a garage, fenced in yard and about 1900 sq feet. It had plenty wrong with it, but it was habitable. The other, was a bunker like brick cottage, cut into a hillside, with no way to get from upstairs to downstairs without going outside. It was half the square footage and was uninhabitable at the time.

I had no idea the neighborhood was a historic district- and promptly got in trouble with the city for installing “The wrong kind of garage door.” The purpose of historic zoning is to preserve the character of the neighborhood. It’s worked, although people still don’t know about the restrictive zoning and run afoul of it- thanks to incompetent leadership in city hall, who refuse to put restrictive covenants in the deeds of these properties so all new owners are informed.

Now, South Park homes are selling like hotcakes from $200K to $400K, while the neighboring Twin Towers neighborhood still has homes selling under $25K. That house I used as a bargaining chip? It just sold for $200K! There is value in protecting neighborhoods from the wrecking ball, proven by the values in Dayton’s Historic Districts.

There are other practices we could initiate that would make investment in our community more desirable. Our current way of assessing property taxes penalizes people for fixing up their home with higher property taxes. It even raises your taxes if your neighbor does the same. This is an unfair policy to the working class, whose largest investment is often their home. If a rich person puts $200K in the stock market, they aren’t taxed on the rise in value until they sell. The same principle, especially for those who invest in risky neighborhoods, should apply.

My elderly neighbor who hadn’t done anything to her home since I moved in back in 1986, when her home was the only one on the block that looked well kept, had her tax value raised from $45,960 in 1999 to $ 157,680 in 2020. She recently died, the house is in foreclosure and back taxes in arrears. Why are we penalizing those who invested early and kept their property up?

Everyone should get the valuation fixed at their purchase price for their primary homestead, no exceptions. Rentals, investments, depending on the strength and vacancy rates of the neighborhood could also be flexed to encourage investment and repairs.

In fact, if your neighborhood is over 50% vacant, we shouldn’t be charging property taxes at all. Not until there are banks willing to finance the sale of your devalued home or your neighbors vacant one. Homes should be for people and families- not just investors and demolition companies.

With work from home becoming a legitimate share of the workforce, our low cost of living and temperate climate should be able to be leveraged to increase our population. If we invested in targeted neighborhoods offering money to rehab homes as primary residences, income tax breaks for high earners willing to help repopulate vacant neighborhoods, free high quality child care for people who live and work in the city, improved schools, neighborhood police officers, we’d be well on our way to stopping the decay- and the costs that have mounted from it.

Spending money on demolition is just a money pit. It gives zero return on investment, while repairing Wayne Avenue, more police, a safe jail, faster courts, housing enforcement, lead free water distribution, and consolidating our community into our viable neighborhoods would be much better investments.

It wouldn’t hurt to also implement some of the creative solutions outlined above. Or we can just smash and crash the houses as well as our communities. The suburbs love Dayton, because we make them look awesome in comparison. But, we all end up paying the price of blight eventually.

note: if you think Hrkman made a mistake, and should have run this- tell him: [email protected]

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