Using a short stretch of Myrtle Avenue in the Linden area as a microcosm for the difficulties government faces in addressing the problem of abandoned and foreclosed houses, City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. last week outlined efforts aimed at making such properties more attractive to the private sector.
Pfeiffer was the guest speaker at the quarterly luncheon of the Northland Area Business Association.
In a presentation entitled "Story of Distress and Despair," the former environmental court judge focused on 22 parcels on Myrtle Avenue between Cleveland Avenue and Greenwich Street. The vast majority are delinquent on property taxes, according to Pfeiffer.
Photos taken last summer show that, with a few exceptions where residents are maintaining their homes as well as a former library and onetime post office that have been converted into churches, the houses are boarded up. Some have become havens for drug users, while prostitutes take clients to others, Pfeiffer said. Still others show evidence of damage from fire.
And in many instances, there is very little city officials can do, he said.
"We can't find the owners," he said. "A lot of these properties are purchased in the name of an LLC, a limited liability corporation, not a human being."
Sometimes, too, the owners have died or gone through bankruptcy and haven't the ability or means to maintain their property, according to Pfeiffer.
Franklin County Auditor's Office records show that one of the properties in Pfeiffer's example was purchased by a Galloway woman on May 15, 2006, for $86,000. A bank took possession of the house and lot for $32,000 on Aug. 7, 2008.
Less than a year later, on March 5, 2009, Start Linden LLC bought the property for $8,000.
In spite of the name, Start Linden is actually based in Tacoma, Wash., Pfeiffer said, and all efforts on the part of his office to contact someone with the limited liability corporation about the nuisance conditions of the house and yard were met with silence.
Pfeiffer said he finally wrote a letter to news media in Tacoma, hoping to shame someone connected with Start Linden into doing something.
"Our goal is to try to abate nuisances," he said.
One of the best means of doing that, he added, is to try to get more foreclosed homes purchased by private individuals, not by the government for land banks or out-of-state investors who don't care what effect neglect has on surrounding property owners.
One of the biggest obstacles to encouraging individuals to buy blighted properties is a state law that currently requires bidding on them at a sheriff's sale to begin at two-thirds of the appraised value.
Pfeiffer said he has turned to state Reps. Cheryl Grossman (R-Grove City) and Michael F. Curtin (D-Marble Cliff) to change the law so nuisance properties can be sold for what the market says they are worth, not some artificially propped-up price.
"Does the private market see value in some of these neighborhoods that used to have value?" Pfeiffer asked his audience. "When your neighborhood starts to decline, where's your private money going to go?"
"It would bring a lot more people to the sheriff's sale," Steve Zehala, president of the Columbus Real Estate Investors Association, told The Columbus Dispatch last week for a story on the proposed to change the law. "This would open up a tremendous amount of activity on the properties."
"We're trying to preserve the old, built-out environment," Pfeiffer said at the luncheon. "It's not easy, but we're doing it."