Additional funding awarded to Jefferson County land bank

STEUBENVILLE — The Jefferson County land bank has been awarded an additional $1.5 million in funding to demolish houses throughout the county.

Martin Sohovich, land bank administrator, said the land bank in the past couple of years was awarded $1.43 million by the Ohio Housing Finance Administration for demolitions.

The Ohio Housing Finance Administration had $3.35 million in funds recouped from other land banks throughout the state. Sohovich said state agency officials asked him how much money, with Sohovich asking for $1.5 million, slightly less than one-half of the recouped money.

Sohovich said the county’s land bank has been recognized by the state for its efforts and efficiency.

The land bank, which was formed in May 2014, demolished 20 houses and buildings in 2016 and 41 this year.

Sohovich said the land bank now has to demolish 90 houses and buildings by the end of October and another 52 in 2019.

“This will be one crazy office next year,” he noted.

The land bank’s mission is to end neighborhood blight, restore abandoned properties to productive use and provide the community planning and legal authority to promote the revitalization of neighborhoods and commercial centers. As a countywide resource, the land bank can assist in regionwide redevelopment efforts.

Funding for land banks around the state came through the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, but Sohovich said the money will be disappearing because of a change in federal policy.

There are targeted areas in the county with high foreclosure rates, according to Sohovich, and the land bank focuses its efforts in those areas to prevent and eliminate blight from empty houses, he said. He said efforts are focused on “good neighborhoods.”

All of Toronto and Mingo Junction are in the targeted areas but only 20 percent of Steubenville, mainly the downtown and hilltop areas, are included, he said. The southern and northern areas of the county have few foreclosures because of housing needs for the gas and oil industry, he noted.

Sohovich said the land bank will acquire the property, complete an environmental assessment and abatement, tear down the structure and grade and seed lots. Also, the grass will be cut for three years.

The lots, in most cases, are transferred to a neighbor, he said.

The land bank has the legal authority to remove liens on properties, but the increase in demolitions during the next two years will require additional legal resources.

The land bank also has the authority to initiate a tax foreclosures before the property is put up for sale at a treasurer’s or auditor’s sale, he said.

Sohovich said the land bank also will accept donated properties. The program works with local governments in identifying properties that have become dilapidated, and a property owner is contacted about donating the land and building to the land bank.

“We will be more proactive as we move forward. That is the only way we will meet our goals,” he said.

Sohovich said the land bank is working to spread the number of demolitions throughout the county.

Mingo Junction tops the list with 15 proposed demolitions through 2019. Also on the list are 12 for Cross Creek and Mount Pleasant townships; nine in Wells Township; eight in Wintersville; and seven each in Steubenville, Toronto and Steubenville Township.

“We are spreading the help around the county. Small communities don’t have the resources. We are helping communities stabilize property values and reduce arsons. Empty properties are a target,” Sohovich said.