Ms. Geronimo called the effort a “sidewalk survey” that uses a smartphone app or a tablet to quickly record data—including whether a property is a vacant lot or the condition of an existing home. The land bank has purchased 30 tablets to loan to volunteers for the data collection. GPS technology and existing property data are called up on the app and the volunteer only needs to record a few details. 50 homes can be surveyed in an hour.
“We’re looking for three things: occupancy, major problems, and we’re asking the surveyor to give their opinion on the condition of the property,” she explained.
There are five possible property classifications: very good, good, fair, deteriorating, or hazardous. Properties deemed hazardous present a safety issue and will be torn down.
The land bank has a $6 million grant to demolish 600 more houses in Toledo, in addition to more than 850 that were taken down over the past two years with another grant.
“We’re really extracting the ones that should come down—the really unsafe, hazardous ones that are really dangerous to the community,” said Ms. Geronimo. “They’re the ones that people can wander in. They’re infested with crime.”
But even stable neighborhoods eventually will be surveyed by volunteers to ensure they don’t degrade any further and become so-called “tipping point” neighborhoods, where increasing crime and dilapidated homes cause property values to plummet. One such neighborhood is Library Village in West Toledo, where city leaders have focused on home ownership efforts to keep it from falling further into disrepair.
The land bank is using property tax data collected by the Lucas County auditor’s office, as well as nuisance property records from the city of Toledo inspections department as a baseline. But the house-to-house survey will give the land bank an updated condition on every property to determine what homes and commercial buildings can be rehabilitated and which ones are beyond repair and should be demolished.
“We want to collect the whole city of Toledo by the end of the year. That equates to approximately 100,000 parcels,” said Ms. Geronimo. “There is momentum building and people are excited to be working on a project that will lead to change in their neighborhood. I agree with the mayor that (fixing blight) has to be citizen-led. People have to be vigilant about their neighborhood.”
The land bank is even collecting data on vacant lots, because those are properties that easily can be obtained by the land bank and repurposed for other uses, such as an expansion of a neighboring homeowner’s property.
“We want to know if the property is overgrown or if there’s dumping going on,” she said. “Or whether it was demolished a long time ago and there’s still a stairway leading to nowhere. We want to know about that. We want to clean those things up.”
Ms. Geronimo stated one of the more important sections of the Old South End to survey on July 26 will be the neighborhood surrounding the former Libbey High School site. There is no organized group in that area, so volunteers from other groups, such as the Sofia Quintero Art and Cultural Center, will be sent across the Anthony Wayne Trail to gauge the condition of homes in that neighborhood, which has 1,462 parcels of land.
The idea is to take the data gathered and share it with partner agencies at the city of Toledo and elsewhere “to come up with plans that work.” Ms. Geronimo stated that neighborhood groups can look at the data and self-determine the future of their own sections of the city by giving their input at upcoming public meetings.
“Our mission is not demolition, it’s to stabilize neighborhoods—and that’s really to look at our housing stock, securing the ones that we can and finding end users, whether that’s owner-occupied or an investor who wants to provide a really good rental,” she explained.
Staff members at the county land bank are looking at land re-uses in other cities to help come up with good ideas that can be replicated in Toledo. For example, some vacant lots in Baltimore have been turned into passive recreation parks, including horseshoe venues and old trees that were cut into tables and chairs, painted and varnished into outdoor chess boards for players to get fresh air while competing.
“We’ve talked with city council members who have said it can’t just be community gardens,” Ms. Geronimo said. “What else can we offer? You could even add a fruit stand to that community garden to sell what’s grown in that neighborhood.”
Anyone interesting in helping to volunteer or obtain more information on the initiative can call 419.213.4233 or visit the agency’s website at www.LucasCountyLandBank.org.