Zombie properties haunt neighborhoods after tornadoes
Scores of homes destroyed or badly damaged by Memorial Day tornadoes still sit vacant and abandoned, creating new blight and safety concerns in neighborhoods.
"They look the same today as they looked on May 28. Some of them are in pretty bad shape," said Cathi Spaugy, Harrison Township development director.
A Dayton Daily News investigation found at least 78 houses and condos are under increased scrutiny by cities and townships or already deemed so-called zombie properties. That number is likely larger because the city of Dayton didn't provide information about its abandoned, storm-damaged properties.
The eventual demolition of them likely will cost hundreds of thousands of tax dollars. They also affect neighboring properties and the people who are fixing up their homes.
"These houses are blemishes on the street and when you let blight take hold, it can spread," said Matt Tepper, president of the Old North Dayton neighborhood association.
But local leaders also see the chance for a fresh start, especially in some areas that were already fragile before the storm.
"It's not just about the challenges of zombie properties, it's the opportunity for the communities to change the dynamics of what these neighborhoods look like," said Laura Mercer, director of the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group.
The record 16 Memorial Day tornadoes tore through communities across the region, destroying or inflicting major damage to 293 structures in Greene County and 42 in Miami County. But it's in Montgomery County — with 915 structures initially uninhabitable — where most of the zombie properties are just now being identified.
Dayton, Harrison Township and Trotwood leaders acknowledge a looming problem.
Trotwood has been patient and understanding of the difficulties facing property owners, Deputy City Manager Stephanie Kellum said. But two weeks ago the city sent out 45 code enforcement letters to owners whose properties remain unrepaired.
"This disaster is a little different than our normal process, so we have given more time," she said. "But now at the six-month mark, we are sending letters to those properties where we are not seeing any progress."
The city of Dayton did not respond to a Dayton Daily News request on its efforts to identify zombie properties. But Hilary Ross Browning, a Dayton management and budget analyst, said at a recent tornado recovery meeting that the city is aware of the problem.
"Rest assured we are taking action on properties. We will not let them sit," she said. "We have a lot in Old North Dayton, but we have not been able to put the staff effort behind that at this time. That is a big need."
Tepper is aware of at least three abandoned, storm-damaged properties in his Old North Dayton neighborhood.
"They are nuisances that attract activity. They are open structures. They are sheltered some from the weather, so they could be attracting a homeless population, drug activity or kids ... who could get themselves injured," he said.
Harrison Township is the first to fully account for the zombie properties within its borders and apply for a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that will pay to tear them down. The township's application asks FEMA for funding to demolish 33 abandoned, tornado-damaged dwellings, including seven houses concentrated in the two-block stretch of Maplegrove Avenue where Carr lives.
While jurisdictions might remain on the hook for commercial properties left in disrepair, the FEMA program provides money to remove debris from homes. The program requires either the owner's consent or the local governing authority to declare that debris on private property is a health and safety threat to the public, according to FEMA.
Harrison Township sent out a "very gentle letter" two months after the tornadoes to residential property owners who had done little cleanup or repair asking about their plans, Township Administrator Kris McClintick said.
Starting with 157 properties, the township winnowed the list through the fall. It then sent unresponsive owners a dangerous property notification with a public hearing date and the ability to present evidence or witnesses affirming the property was in the process of being repaired.
Following the hearings, one on Oct. 17 and another on Nov. 4, trustees declared 33 properties structurally damaged and unsecured. That vote allowed the township to apply for FEMA's Debris Removal from Private Property program.
In Harrison Township's Nov. 20 application letter to FEMA, McClintick wrote that the dwellings are "irreversibly damaged," and "pose an immediate threat to life, public health and safety."
"As the buildings continue to deteriorate and the potential threat of severe winter weather, time is of the essence to protect our citizens," the letter continued.
While the township's application doesn't specify a total cost to demolish and remove the homes, Spaugy said it typically runs $10,000 to $15,000 a house.
"Asbestos drives the price up," she said.
If the FEMA demolition funding comes through, Spaugy said it won't be for another six months to a year.
The land would remain with the owner after demolition. Under normal nuisance abatement, the cost of cleanup is assessed to the owner's property taxes, but not if a jurisdiction uses the FEMA funding.
"We are not allowed to assess those property owners. In that case, it's a wash," Spaugy said.
The Northridge neighborhood in Harrison Township "got hammered," said Heather Weikert, whose family home was heavily damaged and detached garage destroyed.
More than six months after the storm, a large tree remains through the roof of an abandoned Maplegrove Avenue house. One resident on the street died since the storm, putting that unrepaired property into jeopardy, Weikert said.
"The storm is one problem. It's all the problems that come after that," she said.
The EF4 tornado largely skipped Jim Carr's house, though a tree landed on his roof and tore nearly a dozen more from his yard. Carr lives at the bottom of the hill he credits for saving his home, but now he sees little but devastation atop the rise on Maplegrove Avenue.
"It's really bad, this whole neighborhood," he said. "They've knocked down two, maybe three houses already," he said. "And there's more to be knocked down."
Harrison Township is ahead of other jurisdictions in identifying properties abandoned after the tornadoes — and it's also the first to receive push back from property owners who say its approach is heavy handed.
James Adkins can't fathom how his family's former home got on the township's list for possible demolition. A blue tarp covers part of the story-and-a-half frame house's roof at 2024 Maplegrove Ave. Siding is ripped away and the windows are boarded up. The front door is covered by plywood with a spray-painted message: "NO trespassing. Stay out." An American flag flies from a two-by-four where a neat white column once graced the front porch.
"I don't understand why they are calling it an abandoned property," he said. "They cannot define that to me."
Adkins and his wife, Nicole, now live in New Lebanon with their two youngest children, who still attend Northridge schools.
Adkins said he secured the Maplegrove property himself, but has been dogged by insurance problems.
"If they are trying to claim it's abandoned property — I still have vehicles there; I go there every day to check my property and make sure it's still boarded up," he said. "I'm in limbo with my insurance company. What am I supposed to do?"
The township asked the Adkins to supply information about the property, which hadn't been delivered as of last week, Spaugy said.
"Nicole and James told us at the hearing that we would be receiving documentation from their private adjuster about their house. We told them was once we received that documentation, then the house will come off the list," Spaugy said. "They have plenty of time. We're not taking down any of these houses until if and when we get the funds to do it."
Despite the high number of homes destroyed and damaged in Brookville, City Manager Sonja Keaton said only two resulted in maintenance violations this fall. Both properties have since been sold, she said, and the new owners are in the process of demolishing the homes.
Just a handful of structures in Riverside sustained major or moderate damage. None are in jeopardy of becoming zombie properties, according to officials there.
Beavercreek City Manager Pete Landrum said the city's lone housing inspector is just beginning to check the status of about 200 properties there that were destroyed or had major damage.
While abandoned properties have been a thorn in Dayton and other areas for years — especially during the fallout of the 2008 recession and housing crisis — it's a rare problem in Beavercreek and should remain that way following the tornadoes, Landrum said.
"We just don't have that issue," he said.
Foreclosures typically sail through the normal process and resell quickly, he said.
If Beavercreek homeowners are slow to rebuild, Landrum said it's a near certainty they are waiting on insurance or construction workers.
"If you go throughout the neighborhoods, you see the tearing down. You see the rebuilding. A lot has happened. We are just trying to identify the homes that appear nothing is going on," he said. "But every time you think nothing is happening with a property and it still looks bad, the next day you literally drive by and you see action."
Even in the hardest-hit area of Beavercreek along Rushton Drive, where many homes have already been torn down, Landrum sees more opportunities than problems.
"A vacant piece of property in the right location where somebody can build their home that can go through zoning and get approved, that's highly desirable," he said. "So I don't expect the vacant lots to be vacant very long either."
The hardest-hit areas also should find promise through fixing the problem, said residents, local officials and those working on long-term recovery efforts.
Just before the tornado, Harrison Township was planning an update to its zoning code and a land use plan. The township will do that now with fresh eyes, McClintick said.
"I'm glad we didn't do that before the tornado, because this will give us an opportunity to really look at some of those areas that were damaged and look at the best use and reuse of those," he said. "We wouldn't have chosen this way, but I think we have a lot of opportunities."
Localities will also look at other ways to rejuvenate zombie properties in the future, Mercer said, including using community block grant money and working with the Montgomery County Land Bank.
"If those can come down and we, as a community, had the ability to reuse that property — swap it around with the land bank — we could do some really cool stuff, put some brand new affordable housing up, single units or duplexes and get blighted properties out and get new quality living spaces in," she said.