The sheer number of dilapidated, vacant houses on some neighborhood blocks along North Main Street makes recovery a daunting task.
Sledgehammered by the foreclosure crisis, drug dealing and other crimes, some Dayton, Ohio, neighborhoods are too far gone even for the Montgomery County Land Bank to use its limited resources for demolitions.
"If the neighborhood is to a point where our intervention is not going to alter the outcome, we may not be able to operate there," said Mike Grauwelman, executive director of the Land Bank, which was established in 2012 to deal with blight countywide.
Two such neighborhoods — Santa Clara and North Riverdale — are where the bodies of four Dayton women were found within blocks of each other between June and January in yards or alleyways of Hudson, Norman and Ernst avenues. A fifth woman was found shot to death a mile south on Superior Avenue.
Three of the deaths were homicides, one woman showed signs of strangulation but was too decomposed to determine a cause of death and the most recent case was likely an overdose.
Neighbors say that the huge number of vacant homes in those neighborhoods make it less likely for witnesses to see a killing or a body being dumped. They are also magnets for drug activity and prostitution.
On the four streets where the five bodies were found, 94 vacant residential structures are tax-delinquent and presumed abandoned, according to this newspaper's analysis of data complied by Montgomery County Auditor Karl Keith.
"It's just so vacant and blighted it looks as if nobody lives there or cares," said neighborhood activist Lynn LaMance of Dayton. "The people who live here do care. It's just a perception."
LaMance and Victoria McNeal, president of the Riverdale Neighborhood Association, patrol the alleys of streets jutting off North Main Street, picking up trash, calling the city about vacant buildings that need to be boarded up, painting over graffiti and also contacting absentee owners about cleaning up their properties.
Twice during the reporting of this story someone tore open the boarded door of the trash-filled garage at 22 W. Hudson Avenue where homicide victim Krystal Garcia's body was found Sept. 25.
"They just go rip the boards off and nobody sees anything because there's really not a lot of people around here," said McNeal, who, with LaMance, alerted the city that the boards were off, only to find them removed again. "We like it when the police sit on the street. It makes us feel safe. But once they leave (drug dealers and prostitutes) go back to what they normally do."
Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said there is a clear correlation between vacant structures and crime, particularly drug activity.
"I would say that the North Main corridor has been a location of challenge in terms of public safety," said Biehl. "There has been a pattern of violent crime over time there."
Drug and prostitution arrests skyrocketed along the North Main Street corridor, in the stretch of neighborhoods from Neal Avenue to Redder Avenue, according to data compiled by Dayton Police Department. Drug arrests increased 63 percent to 182 in 2017 from 112 in 2016 and prostitution arrests rose 110 percent t0 21 from 10.
Part one violent crimes — a category that includes murder, non-negligent manslaughter forcible rape, armed robbery, unarmed robbery and aggravated assault — declined along the corridor by 22% to 91 in 2017 from 116 in 2016, the data show.
Citywide, Dayton had a 16 percent decline during that period in part one violent crimes.
"So we've had some huge declines in violent crime and gun crime. But with that much said, any level of that crime is really intolerable," Biehl said. "So we continue to work at that and try to drive those trends down."
Residents want the city to do more to stop the crime and to tear down more vacant houses and garages. But some residents, like Gloria White, president of the Santa Clara Neighborhood Association, also understand that the city's money is limited.
"There is no answer in a certain way, unless we're going to hit the great big lotto," White said. "It's discouraging to me that I have an empty house sitting next to me. We'll never get our money back for our homes."
Some of the vacant properties on Ernst, Hudson, Norman and Superior avenues carry back tax bills that come close or even exceed what the houses are worth. Many of the homes are also owned by limited liability companies, making it more difficult to hold individuals responsible for the tax bills. Any potential buyer would face a large tax liability, and expensive repair costs. McNeal said many times homes have also been stripped of copper and whatever else thieves can sell.
No one even applied for a loan to buy a home in the census tract that includes the Santa Clara neighborhood in 2016, according to the most recent available Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data. Across North Main Street in the census tract that includes the North Riverdale neighborhood, there were only seven loan applications, three of which were approved. Together those census tracts were home to 6,318 people in 2016.
Dayton City Manager Shelly Dickstein said the section of Dayton that includes these two neighborhoods is one of the worst in the city, in part because it is so densely residential and was so badly hurt by home foreclosures.
"Clearly and unfortunately this neighborhood was probably a national leader in the foreclosure crisis," Dickstein said.
She said the city has limited resources and must use them in neighborhoods across Dayton, a city that once housed 260,000 people and now has 140,000.
Grauwelman said that declining population is a challenge because it brings in less revenue even as the city's footprint and need for municipal services remains unchanged.
"We've got to reduce inventory," he said. "This didn't happen overnight and it will not be corrected overnight."
Dayton has demolished 839 structures — 144 of them in the North Main area — since 2012 at a cost of $13.8 million, using funding available through the Neighborhood Initiative Program, part of the post-recession-era federal stimulus effort. But none of them were in Santa Clara and just 27 were in North Riverdale.
The city spent another $13.2 million in Community Development Block Grant and General Fund money to tear down other structures in Dayton, mostly fire-damaged or commercial structures. The city could not provide a tally of how many of them were in Santa Clara or North Riverdale.
In total, the city has spent $27 million demolishing structures since 2012, including $4 million for properties in neighborhoods along North Main Street.
"Sometimes you feel like you are chasing your tail," Dickstein acknowledged.
The average cost of a single demolition costs $16,000, meaning it would cost $66.5 million to demolish all 4,159 structures in the city's vacant property land management program.
"It is a collective effort," Dickstein said. "The city cannot come in as the sole investor, driver of this plan, because we won't have enough resources."
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