Foreclosed properties are hot topic at neighborhood meeting
A boarded-up house in Cleveland Heights.
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The intensity stirred by the issue of foreclosed properties, bank walk-aways, vacant, poorly maintained and otherwise troubled properties in our neighborhoods was evident at the Neighbor-2-Neighbor Autumn meeting held on Nov. 27. The date coincided with the first anniversary of the Grant Deming Forest Hill Historic District, which, in sponsoring the event, invited the participation of the Cain Park Neighborhood Association. Both of these newly formed neighborhood groups have been responsive to problem properties on our streets.
A discussion on the topic of Housing and Neighborhood Stability was led by Zach Germaniuk. Will Dugar, host of the meeting, described Germaniuk as having "confronted some of the worst remnants of the housing crisis, which formed the basis for his paper ‘Stalled Foreclosures and the Need for Positive Action.’"
Germaniuk’s experience with property problems in his hometown of Warren, Ohio, with the Detroit-Shoreway Community Development Corporation, and his education at Cleveland Marshall College of Law give him a unique perspective and a passion for the subject.
Germaniuk described the problems neighborhoods are experiencing as fallout from the recession of 2008 that began with the bursting of the housing bubble. Deregulation, combined with the government’s policy of pushing home ownership through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, encouraged “funny practices” in the real estate and banking sectors with minimum safeguards. When the bubble burst, all the flaws in the real estate/finance system that allowed over-valued homes to be purchased by under-qualified buyers were stressed to the point of collapse.
Homeowners were unable to keep up payments, and many saw the value of their homes drop beneath the balance of their mortgages. Banks, too, when forced to build up an inventory of foreclosed homes, found that they could not fetch, at sheriffs’ sales, the amount needed to cover the remaining balances on the loans that they were holding.
The rising number of foreclosed and abandoned properties began to challenge neighborhood stability. When the rights of property ownership evaporated due to market changes, and legal and personal circumstances, the responsibilities connected with real estate ownership fell and became a burden on the lifeblood of a neighborhood—its remaining and viable property owners.
Germaniuk suggested neighborhood strategies to proactively deal with the issue, to prevent wider and deeper damage to the community.
He explained the seven situations indicative of troubled real estate—exterior maintenance issues, demolished homes and vacant lots, landlord-tenant relationships, probate status, foreclosure, property tax overview and tax lien certificates. Each must be overcome when trying to remedy any given property.
Germaniuk emphasized that neighborhoods should not expect quick results. Each piece of real estate must be viewed on a case-by-case basis. Communities need to identify and leverage local resources and coordinate action to achieve success.
It is necessary to develop a neighborhood plan. This should begin by establishing a goal to guide the process, and following through to see that the plan is carried out.
Germaniuk stressed that “the initiative needs to come from the grassroots level, and not be imposed externally.” From a legal and ownership sense, neighborhood groups are not directly involved participants in any given property in the way that other “vectors of influence” are, such as city government, private developers, landlords, speculators, various public and private institutions, and lien-holding banks. They are, however, the ones most affected.
Concerned residents and neighborhood groups should be proactive and join together to remedy each situation. In doing so, they may “serve as a bridge to major players and to other concerned parties. Individuals with knowledge and technical expertise brainstorm and experiment with different approaches to form an appropriate level of organization.”
In order to create a plan, facts are needed. These are generally a matter of public record, and can be gathered by personal interview or by direct observation.
In describing tactics and strategies, Germaniuk suggested that local resources, such as local government, courts and universities, should be tapped. Noting that much can be accomplished by grassroots volunteer groups, he added that there are various methods and modes of organization available to private citizens seeking to counter the harmful effects of troubled properties—by utilizing neighborhood resources effectively and by focusing on preventative measures, which may not necessarily be a top priority of public officials.
Anyone interested in becoming involved with the issue of troubled properties in the Heights should contact either the Grant Deming Forest Hills Historic District (Sarah Wean at firstname.lastname@example.org) or the Cain Park Neighborhood Association (Peter Titas at email@example.com).
Harvey Zvi Ofer
Harvey Zvi Ofer, a lifelong resident of Cleveland Heights, is a member of the Cain Park Neighborhood Association, an architect and owner of HZO Architects.