“It’s exciting. I’ve worked in government my whole career and this is sort of a hybrid: started by government, but it’s a non-profit,” said Ms. Geronimo. “Things move a lot quicker, which is exciting to see. You can quickly make a difference in the community.”
The career move seems a natural fit for Ms. Geronimo, an attorney. She has worked for the county for 16 years, first on the civil side of the court docket dealing with tax foreclosures, then spent time in the Lucas County Recorder’s office, which is responsible for land titles and deeds.
“It really gave me a broad background on how all the processes work,” she explained. “I had a real sense for how tax foreclosures work for the county. This is a much more exciting process and allows me to get things back into productive use.”
Ms. Geronimo also serves as a member of the Toledo-Lucas County plan commissions, which enforce zoning laws in Toledo and the townships. However, she stated she may have to abstain from any vote involving the land bank because it would present a possible conflict of interest. There already have been times when a zoning change was needed to ensure a real estate deal could be completed for property in the land bank’s portfolio.
“I think knowing a lot of community organizations and having worked with them helps,” she said. “I feel comfortable engaging with them about their ideas, look forward to seeing how we can help them in the community, and moving forward with some demolition.”
A partnership between the land bank and city of Toledo officials resulted in a $7 million grant award from Moving Ohio Forward, a state housing demolition fund controlled by the Ohio Attorney General. The two entities have an aggressive plan and will attempt to demolish 900 abandoned homes by the end of 2013. The effort started June 18 in the Old South End, ironically where Ms. Geronimo grew up and still resides.
“With that, we can great a lot more green space. What I see happening is there’s a lot of organizations coming forward and saying, ‘I want to take advantage of having more green space. I want more park-like settings. I want to do urban gardens. I want to be able to have a side lot.’”
While Ms. Geronimo envisions the demolitions creating a lot more open space, especially in the central city, she is careful to keep an open mind about the future uses of those properties. She sees the role of the land bank as a clearinghouse of property for reuse.
“The community needs to be involved in what they want their neighborhoods to look like, so I think we have to be really careful about how we approach this,” she said. “We want them to have buy-in, to be proud of their areas, what’s happening around them.”
The land ban currently holds title to 156 properties in its portfolio, but is in the process of acquiring an additional 589 parcels of land.
Most of the land bank’s work to date has centered on Toledo, but Ms. Geronimo knows it will extend to the townships and suburbs, which also suffered greatly under the recent foreclosure crisis. Preliminary meetings already have been held between land bank leaders and Maumee city administrators. But she anticipates the needs of suburbs will be much different from Toledo’s urban landscape.
“Find out what their needs are, just be real careful about how we approach those communities, neighborhoods to see what it is they want,” said Ms. Geronimo. “We’re really looking to get input from all of the different entities.”
Detroit has adopted a “get small” strategy of home demolition, by tearing down entire rows of abandoned homes in favor of more sparse neighborhoods surrounded by green space. The new land bank director can see a similar strategy playing out in the Old South End, for example, where the houses are tightly-bunched together. Some streets have four or five abandoned homes strung together side-by-side.
“If there’s an opportunity to help people expand their yards, give their children more space to play, I think that would be a really good, productive use,” she said. “There a lot of studies that show by increasing green space, you reduce crime and people feel safer.”
At the same time, Ms. Geronimo doesn’t want to kill the character of what makes Toledo with all that demolition. Historic preservation will be a big component of what the land bank does in the future.
“I’m very passionate about making sure we preserve our history. It’s one of the things the land bank has stayed away from—demolishing in those historic districts,” she said. “We’re being very respectful of those areas, knowing that we do have a lot of rich history and structures that will never be replaced again.”
Ms. Geronimo is, in essence, stepping from the shadows in her professional career where she often worked in the background. This time the mother of two finds it gratifying that she can make a more visible difference in people’s lives and her hometown as land bank director.
“I think it’ll just be really rewarding to be a part of rebuilding our community,” she said. “I am very committed to our city and county. To have the opportunity to be a part of something you can see progress—it’s rewarding.”
Ms. Geronimo has graduated twice from the University of Toledo—first with a business degree, then with a law degree a few years later. She has two children, ages 10 and 12. She spent the first five years of her public service career in the Ohio National Guard.
Ms. Geronimo remains very active in SS. Peter and Paul Catholic parish and recently joined the insurance board at ProMedica Health System.