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Cover Story: No One's Home

From speculators to urban revivalists -- the people behind Cincinnati's vacant buildings

By Tony Cook · May 26th, 2004 · Cover Story
No One's Home
Mandy Janes

No One's Home

Walk down Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine and you'll see it immediately: Cincinnati has a vacant-building problem. If you're not convinced, try Vine Street or Race Street. Try Pleasant Street -- an ironic name for a stretch with 25 vacant buildings in four blocks.

The problem extends beyond Over-the-Rhine. Try River Road in Price Hill, Glencoe Place in Mount Auburn or Dayton Street in the West End.

As of April, Cincinnati had 1,491 buildings that have been condemned or ordered vacant because of unsafe or unsanitary conditions -- and that's just residential properties. Altogether there are about 3,000 vacant buildings in the city, according to Ed Cunningham, acting supervisor of housing inspections for the Department of Buildings and Inspections.

Since March 2002, CityBeat has highlighted vacant properties and their owners in a feature called Blight of the Week. Of the 73 properties examined in "Blight of the Week," 15 have been razed, another four condemned and seven have new owners.

But new ownership doesn't always solve the problem. For example, Jerome Emmons purchased 2116 Hatmaker St., but the city cited Emmons for code violations, as it had the previous owner.

Some properties that were once blighted now have new uses. The former Ford factory overlooking Interstate 71 in Walnut Hills at one point was shedding bricks onto the expressway. Today, after a thorough rehab, it houses Fisher Design (see Blight of the Week, issue of March 10-16).

Our building-by-building approach has barely scratched the surface of Cincinnati's abandoned-building problem. But there's a reason behind the approach.

Generalizations about abandoned buildings are difficult. Every building has its own story, and owners range from entrepreneurial urban developers to speculators, from churches to government agencies, from rich to poor.

In fact, most owners of problem buildings -- about 70 percent -- are individuals who hold only one or two vacant properties. Entities that own large chunks of vacant buildings are few.

Until the past few weeks, RCM Cincinnati Estates owned almost 400 vacant buildings at the Huntington Meadows complex in Bond Hill, Cunningham says. Demolition of those buildings is underway to clear land for the Villages of Daybreak, which will include at least 300 houses and townhouses.

After RCM, the city's vacant building list shows the largest owner of blighted properties is the city itself, with 18. The Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority owns 11 blighted buildings in the West End, and the Race Street Tenants Organization (ReStoc) owns 17 vacant buildings, 11 of them on the vacant building or blight list.

Most vacant buildings, however, aren't owned en masse. One blighted property is usually enough to deter buyers from acquiring a stockpile of vacant buildings. Here are the stories of a few.

'A better return'
When asked about Steven Pavelish, the owner of four blighted properties in Price Hill, Bill Langevin, director of the Department of Buildings and Inspections, responds with a dismissive huff.

"He's in the process of suing us because we didn't maintain his vacant building for him," Langevin says. "Now that takes balls. That's the kind of crap we run into."

Langevin has led the department for more than 12 years. He heads a team of 21 inspectors who cover 52 neighborhoods. Cunningham, a building inspector for the past 17 years, is his chief assistant.

"Sometimes it almost verges on urban extortion," Cunningham says. " 'I own this building, it's dangerous, it certainly looks like hell -- and what are you going to do to help me fix it up?' "

The inspectors refer to such owners as "speculators."

"Typically the owners of such properties are speculating that sooner or later the city, the government or economics will reward them for owning these buildings," Cunningham says.

An apologetic man, Pavelish, 54, has been found guilty 11 times for building code violations. He got into the rental business in 1975, buying distressed properties on the cheap because they were problems for their owners.

"The idea was to rent them as an income," Pavelish says.

But the wear his tenants put on his property soon outpaced his resources.

"Having not grown up in a bad part of town, I guess I was a little surprised by how people really are," he says.

Pavelish soon had four vacant properties and not enough money to do much with them.

"In defense of the building department, some of these convictions were my fault," he says. "Maybe all of these were my fault. I've been a headache to them for a long time."

But he holds the city responsible for two of his properties, 2746 and 2748 River Road. Several years ago the city began purchasing houses on River Road, with plans to demolish them and widen the road.

The result was a "ghost town" of buildings boarded up by the city, Pavelish says.

"It attracted all the hobos in town," he says. "They were breaking in and taking things and having beer parties and all that."

He says he complained to the police, the building department and the mayor's office.

"The only response I got was, 'Board up the building better,' " he says.

Pavelish says he did as he was told. Then on the night of July 2, 2003, his buildings caught fire, causing $75,000 worth of damage.

"Some hobo couldn't get in, so he decided to have a barbecue on the front porch and to use the porch as charcoal," he says.

Soon after, Pavelish got a letter from the building department condemning the property.

"They give you like 30 days to fix something with threats of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine," he says. "I'm being treated like a criminal for having this building boarded up well."

Pavelish says he plans to take legal action against the city. Meanwhile, his capacity for speculation seems unchecked.

"At this time I have very little desire to rent them because of all these problems," he says. "My plan in the next few years is to fix them up and sell them. I'm trying to get a better return on them."

'The little I can afford'
Many landlords have taken the same route as Pavelish, buying property and only later realizing what a financial burden it can be.

One veteran speculator agreed to talk only if a pseudonym were used. We'll call him Jack Warsaw, and he owns several vacant buildings on Vine Street.

"The city had me scattered all over," he says. "They say, 'Fix this' and 'Fix that,' and my money was all spread out and I went into debt. You can't work on that many buildings at one time. You got to take one of them and stick with it. That's where I got in a jam."

Warsaw, a former General Motors employee, lives on a pension and social security. He says he can't afford to fix his buildings. Yet he either can't or won't sell them.

Perhaps part of the reason is bitterness. He suggests the building department has a vendetta against him.

He certainly seems to have one against the building department. Warsaw's defiance of the building department began in the 1950s, when non-compliance with building orders landed him in the Cincinnati Workhouse for 10 days. His vacant building had two functional bathrooms in it, he says. But for not keeping it up to code, a judge put him in a cell with no toilet.

"Why should they condemn my house that had two baths in it and throw me in a prison where you shit in a bucket?" he asks. "I figured I had a lawsuit right there, but I didn't have no money to get a lawyer. That's one of my beefs right there. That's one example of what the city will do for you."

Warsaw is quick to pull out the conspiracy card. Greedy neighbors are looking to buy up the whole street, he says, and he suspects building inspectors take bribes and target him unfairly.

Cunningham says inspectors don't take bribes, although landlords sometimes offer them.

"There have been foolhardy attempts by individuals," he says. "Once a guy put two gallons of wine in the back seat of the inspector's car. The inspector called the cops and had them removed. If they keep it up, I threaten to have them arrested."

Warsaw seems unlikely to make many improvements on his blighted property. He's sticking with the same philosophy that got him in trouble in the first place.

"I'm just putting the little I can afford in there now," he says.

He's hoping the city might pitch in some money, though after nearly half a century he has doubts. He remains opposed to the city demolishing his buildings but says if the buildings get bad enough he'd be willing to sell them to the city.

Jail for a light bulb?
Clarence Jones wheels and deals in houses with an enthusiasm that could spark admiration among Wall Street brokers. A 76-year-old Texan with bushy eyebrows, he sits in an armchair in his Mount Lookout home/office as renters/workers cross the living room with a stepladder.

A stout young man with a raspy voice enters from the back of the house.

"All you got to do, man, is call my materialist at Home Depot," the man says. "I can wait on the other $200, Clarence, you know? In fact, hell, I'll even do it for $600 and I'll drop a hundred bucks y'all got to pay."

"Well, let me call you, because I've got to find out how much money I've got," Jones says.

"I can get the job done by the end of the week," the man says.

He exits as quickly as he entered.

"He's one of those people fixing up his own house," Jones says.

Jones, who owns more than 90 properties, runs a complicated operation. He says he'll buy a house for cash from an elderly woman trying to look poor enough to get government assistance for a nursing home stay or from a man living out of state who wants to get rid of his recently deceased mother's home. Paying cash allows Jones to purchase property for 70 percent of its list price.

A former master plumber, he rehabs the properties, increasing the value, and refinances to borrow more money. He usually rents his houses on a lease-to-own basis, furnishing materials for tenants to repair the property. Jones argues he helps people who couldn't afford a down-payment to own a home.

Jones owns four blighted buildings in Cincinnati. A stack of 13 building orders from the city of Norwood sits in his lap. If he doesn't comply with the orders within 90 days, he faces a $1,000 fine and up to 10 days in jail for each one. One order cites uncovered receptacles; another cites a missing light bulb.

"Now that's an absolutely sure way to get the house fixed up, but it's also an absolutely sure way to run every investor out of Norwood," Jones says.

Jones says he has a vacancy rate of 5 to 6 percent.

"That's true of all rental-type properties," he says.

All four of his vacant properties are for sale, Jones says. In the meantime, he's working on improvements to some of them.

"We give the highest priority to the one we think we can get people in the quickest," he says.

One of his blighted properties, on Yoast Street in Fairmount, doesn't make the priority list.

"I haven't figured out how to keep kids from throwing bricks through the window," he says. "I'd rather fix up two houses that are almost ready to sell than put all my time and money into one that's going to take a month to fix."

With more than 90 properties, the bottom of Jones' priority list is quite low.

'Committed to the renaissance'
Not all owners of vacant building are speculators. Pauline Van der Haar and Ralph Bawtenheimer are partners in Dorian Development, which owns several vacant buildings. Two are on Glencoe Place in Mount Auburn, a street lined by historic buildings formerly owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The boarded-up buildings sit secluded behind Inwood Park. Dorian Development bought the buildings, which contained 106 subsidized rental units, two years ago. The company plans to create 68 condominiums ranging in price from $185,000 to $295,000.

During an open house in April, Van der Haar and Bawtenheimer gave tours of gutted flats and townhouses to potential buyers.

"You have every kind of people in real estate, from shysters to the most wonderful people in the world," Bawtenheimer says.

"You have to extrapolate out speculators, people who buy buildings just to hold them hostage," says Van der Haar, an energetic woman with an accent carried over from her hometown of Liverpool, England. "People like us who buy buildings because they're committed to the renaissance of our community -- there's totally different attempts there."

The two partners say Dorian Development doesn't purchase a building without planning to develop it.

The city plans to spend about $3.9 million to improve parking, streets, lighting and several small pockets of parks in the development on Glencoe, Van der Haar says. The projected cost of the project is about $18 million.

"It takes a special breed of developer to do urban development, and they are typically smaller companies that are entrepreneurial, because you really have to put a lot into it and the financial returns are not that great," Van der Haar says.

Construction on the first part of the three-phase project is expected to begin this summer and to take about eight months.

Making a list
City Councilman David Pepper wants to require registration of landlords to make it easier for the city to track owners of vacant property. The city depends on the Hamilton County Auditor for information about owners; Pepper says it's often outdated and incomplete.

Hamilton County Municipal Court's creation of a housing docket in 2003 has helped in the prosecution of irresponsible landlords, but sometimes the city doesn't even know who they are, Pepper says.

But even with a list of owners, addresses and phone numbers, landlords can be extremely hard to contact. Navneet Sachdev, for example, owns four properties on the city's problem-vacant building list. Judge Guy Guckenberger, who handles the housing docket, says Sachdev has probably spent more time in jail for housing code violations than any other owner in the city.

Numerous calls by a reporter over the course of two weeks resulted only in conversations with Sachdev's mother, who said her son has been jailed four times for building code violations.

Pepper's proposal would create pointless paperwork and bureaucracy, according to Charles Tassell, director for government affairs for the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Apartment Association.

"You can go through this whole registration process, create a bureaucracy that is basically going to end up tracking people who are doing it right, or you can focus your law department on supporting the building inspectors and going after the people who are chronically non-compliant," Tassell says. "Treating property owners like sexual predators is not the way to solve the problem."

He suggests hiring more building inspectors and getting lawyers to go after chronically non-compliant landlords.

Langevin admits the philosophy of the Department of Building and Inspections is reactionary, especially in neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine, where many buildings are protected by historic status.

"We tend to be reactive rather than proactive," he says. "We don't really have a choice. We've caught a lot of buildings before they've collapsed. There's been three or four buildings that we didn't catch before they collapsed. Fortunately, no one's been injured that I know of." ©



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