Saving Downtown: Bardstown, Kentucky

As time passes, and we all get greyer, Lorain’s downtown misses out on more opportunities to do something with itself. More and more money gets wasted on surveys that will gather dust in a corner or on the shelf at the local library, rather than time and money being spent to resurrect this town from the grave it continues to dig itself into. While people argue whether downtown or infrastructure should come first, so that the other will follow, absolutely nothing gets done, making the entire argument moot. Our Design Review Board merely gums itself on the statutes they’ve lain out years ago, because none of the guidelines are really adhered to or, dare I say, even evident to anyone today.

This past weekend, I was in Bardstown, Kentucky for the wedding of my cousin Kris and his fiancee, Julia. The ceremony was in the evening, so we had Saturday afternoon to check out the downtown.  I was both thrilled and saddened because I could shoot another downtown, and only dream about what could be back home. According to a friend in the know, some of the stores downtown remain vacant because the owners are looking for $1500 per month rent. That’s JUST rent. A prospective businessperson would still need to shell out for utilities and insurance and everything else. And since there’s so many empty shops along Broadway, there’s less and less draw to the area. (Maybe the City could cut some of these store owners a break on their taxes IF they dropped rent to something that a prospective new business could afford so they could actually try to improve Downtown’s chances again?)

Dreaming aside, as you can see from the photos below, not only was Bardstown a beautiful area, it was also very busy, with numerous restaurants and even a soda counter in a drugstore!! Remember those? Sundaes and sodas and malts and shakes, sandwiches and snacks. Parking was a little scarce, but a drive or two through would find a space just recently vacated.  Very hospitable shopkeepers, friendly faces, and polite people were everywhere. If only…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lorain Lakefront Pride, Take 2

Jack, Stefani and I met at the library Monday afternoon, and talked about Lorain and things for about 2 hours. We wanted to meet again, but at a time where work wouldn’t be a conflict for more people. So, there will be another meeting on

Tuesday, August 19th at 7pm

at

CenturyLink on W. 9th Street

“Make Lorain Attractive Again”

Lorain Lakefront Pride

Do you have pride in Lorain?

Do you want to see Lorain thrive and be counted?

We may have lost most of our thriving Steel and Auto industries, but we have the one resource that can provide many opportunities for Lorain, OH; the one thing that cannot be taken away from us. And that is our LAKEFRONT!

As citizens, we need to come together with our thoughts and ideas; we need to come up with a plan to make the LAKEFRONT into something we can all be proud of! If you agree….

…then please join us for this meeting on Monday August 8th @ the Main Branch of the Lorain Public Library, Conference RM A! Bring your thoughts, ideas, your desires. We need YOU! Most importantly, our city NEEDS US!

Any questions, please contact Jack Kirchner or Stefani Vancs (via Facebook). Hope to see you there!

Lorain Public Library Conf Rm A

351 Sixth Street

Lorain, Ohio

12pm

(Editor’s Note: Thanks to Ree for pointing out I didn’t copy the TIME the meeting was starting. Duh.)

A Huge “Thank You!”

I received an email from Mike Kennedy the other day, letting me know I should check out 383 Broadway, because Peg Asensio had created some new window art. Mrs. Asensio has been very involved with art projects in downtown Lorain. She was featured as one of the Ladies of Lorain on Loraine Ritchey’s blog, and was the driving force behind the window decorations downtown over a year ago. Being familiar with her work, I knew I needed to get on this.

Possibly inspired by a program that is working in Cleveland, it involves using decorative boards on vacant houses and buildings, so that it’s not obvious that there’s nobody home. Here’s hoping this is the start of a similar program here in Lorain.

 

Saving Downtown: A Look at Wellington

I was recently in Wellington visiting a friend, and walked around their downtown. Damn, I wish Lorain’s downtown looked like this. Even as small as Wellington is, their downtown has survived the current recession. The buildings are well taken care of, no garish colors, no crappy signs, none of that.

Unlike Lorain, there are just a few vacant stores along the main street. And VERY unlike Broadway, not only does this vacant store look ready to move into, the interior is GORGEOUS.

Lorain has a Health Dept.- authorized flophouse, many stores that are used for storage, etc. Same as it’s been for the last 4? 5? 10 years?

Like what you see? Tell someone. Bitch to someone. Bitch to LOTS of people. Write your council-person. They can get the ball rolling. Lorain needs money? Income tax from operating downtown businesses would be a tremendous start. Increased property taxes from improved properties would help the schools with their financial situation. The City would have more money to improve the roads and streets.

All that JUST from getting downtown Lorain back on its feet and up and running again.

And I don’t even get paid to to this.

Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka: A Meet the Bloggers Interview – Pt. IV

The last installment of the MTB interview. 

Ray: I think we have more than the flu. I like to view the court as the emergency room. The housing conditions and a number of the patients are DOA as they arrive in court. The property cannot be saved, they cannot go back to that property, and why did this happen? The sub-prime industry came in to lend money in the City of Cleveland at a rate that wasn’t greater. There’s an article today in the Wall Street Journal about Detroit and how Detroit has a problem; Buffalo, urban centers, there’s even rural places where, cheap money, where people are able to obtain sub-prime mortgages, not only a first mortgage; I had a defendant in court today, that had a first mortgage but they also had a piggy-back mortgage which gave them their down payment to get into the property. But, if you talk to Jim Rokakis, of the sub-prime mortgages, only 10% of those are for people that purchase houses. The majority of those mortgages are people who are refinancing their properties and so they are pulling equity out of their properties. And once they’ve pulled the equity out of their properties, something may happen in their life, or adjustable rate mortgage will kick in and their mortgage payment will go up by $500. They can’t afford it.

Ray, you’re saying that 10%, according to the WSJ, only 10% of the loans are for people to get INTO houses. Because the main defense you hear on the sub-prime market is that it makes home-ownership available to people that would otherwise NOT have home ownership. So you’re saying the main thing that sub-prime mortgage has done is to strip equity from people?

Ray: It strips equity out of neighborhoods.

We’ve got neighbors that have been there 30, 40 years. I talked to my 75-year old neighbor the other day. And he’s been approached on a refinance basis; they had no debt before, they took money out and then they’re slammed. You’ve got predatory loan servicing going on here, too. Once they go ahead and make the deal, people send the money in, they say we didn’t get your money, it’s your responsibility to make sure that it gets here. And guess what? Now you have the default rate.

Ray: You have to pay more interest now, because we didn’t get your check.
It ratchets and ratchets and ratchets and all of a sudden, they own the house that was supposed to be inherited by his three kids. And it’s getting in the way of the transfer of wealth that supposed to happen between generations.

Gloria: The ARMs, in our neighborhoods, with the refinancing? There are people that are literally walking out of their houses and saying, you can have it back. I can’t pay it, and that is happening.

Ray: When I see defendants in our court, that are still in their house, I may fine them, but will not execute on the fine, and I caution them, do not leave that house until the Sheriff tells you to get out. Do not walk away from that house, you stay in that house, and that’s a mitigating factor. Because if you leave that house, and it is stripped out, you’re gonna be responsible. And what’s more, I had a woman last week, elderly woman lived in the house for 37 years, refinance a house off of Myers, she couldn’t then afford the payment, filed bankruptcy, she walked away from the house because her attorney told her to walk away. Well, guess what? She’s hauled into Housing Court. She has a house that all the plumbing’s been stripped out of, falling apart and, what’s worse, and I’m seeing this increasingly, the mortgage company is dropping the foreclosure action. They don’t want the house. There’s no equity in the house. But, what do you do with that house, because you still have that lien on it. Even after bankruptcy, you still have that lien, a toxic lien on it. The lien is far in excess of the value of the house. So what do you do…?

So, no one can go in and redevelop that house? That house is now doomed. Because the amount of money owed on it is greater than (the value) of the house.

Ray: Unless you can work with the bank, or mortgage company to negotiate a short sale. Sometimes you can, many times you can’t contact the mortgage company. Sometimes you’ll send them a deed in lieu of foreclosure, they won’t file the deed, keeping you on the hook.

I had a gentleman in court yesterday who was cited for having all his garbage out on his tree lawn, and he had moved out of his house 6 months ago. The mortgage company, they bought it back at Sheriff’s sale, never filed the deed. So, they were flying below the radar. So, they weren’t cited. But what do you do about this? Well, there has to be some accountability for this direct and collateral damage that has descended upon our neighborhoods. Not only here in Cleveland, Ohio, in the inner ring suburbs, in other places throughout the state, but in other urban areas.

Ray, “accountability for direct and collateral damage”, what does that mean?

Ray: I think what it means is all of the profits that have been made we need to document how much has been made by the investment banks, here selling those mortgages on the secondary market, (and writing derivatives on the employees three times?)…even after they’re in foreclosure they’re still selling those mortgages. So, some of those companies make money when you pay your mortgage and some of them make money when you don’t pay your mortgage. But it was a wildly profitable venture. So, what do you do? Well, in order to do a sub-prime mortgage, maybe you should pay into some sort of fund. A municipal court judge doesn’t have the ability to order that fund be set up but maybe a state legislature would order something along those lines to require that there be a fund. In fact, the governor is looking at setting up just such a fund, to help people who have been victims of this. And sometimes they’re willing victims. In the early days of the neighborhoods movement, we couldn’t get a bank loan. It was tough to get a bank loan. Cardinal’s Federal. In fact, you had to prove that you didn’t need the money in order to get the money. So we fought and we filed CRA actions and threatened CRA actions and then, what happens? Some of the banks that do business in our city, they filtered out and didn’t do as many loans and in ’95 you see the swoop of sub-primes coming in and there are areas that are particularly hard hit, harder hit than certain areas in the city, and those are the minority communities, where daily you get phone calls for sub-prime mortgages, refinance a house, and so what do you do? You hold the banks and mortgage companies who are taking these properties accountable for the properties.

Let me push you on this subject: How do we find out who these banks are? And then, how do you do what you said we should do? Which is get the information about how much money they’re making on this stuff?

Ray: Well, some of the information is private between the borrower and the bank.

And that’s why I’m asking.

Ray: So, for defendants before the court, we can get the information if they still have the papers, if they can find’em. Many of them don’t even know what company their mortgage is with, who is foreclosing on them. But if we can get that information and track, who has a mortgage and, in fact, in the (Wall Street)Journal article today the mortgage broker made $5000 on a loan. If you’re making $5000 on a loan, where did that money go? One of the studies that we need to do is follow the money. Where did the money go? Where did all those fees go? Where did the profit from this over-appraised house go? Once we’ve been able to do that, then determine if there’s any way we can get it back.

Oh, I love that sound. I guess the question that I’ve always had with those things is, as a property owner, if you’re in your home, you’re responsible for your home or we go and see you. But ultimately, when it’s not working out for that individual, for whatever reasons, I think, most of the time, they’ve been slammed, they’ve been told it’s one thing, they don’t understand all the writing, they sign it, it looks great. Then all of a sudden, we’ve got this person in court, and then here’s the people that have the title, that’s really the true owner…

Ray: Well, they don’t have the legal title, unless they take it through Sheriff’s sale, and buy it back. Then they have title. And one of the things that I require, and not all of the inspectors who cite, the way the system works, I don’t go out and get the cases, the inspectors have to cite people and get them into court. Some inspectors have felt, if it’s a bank or mortgage company, we’ll give’em time. Some of the banks and mortgage companies say, ‘Well, could ya just hold off on these code violations until we can sell the property to someone?’ Well, no, that’s not the way it works. Every title property owner has certain responsibilities, and the longer they own it, the longer their responsibilities. So I look for every defendant, whether it’s a owner-occupied structure or a corporate-owned structure, investment structure: How long have you owned it? How many days out of compliance? And did you have the resources to put in it, but you chose to use those resources somewhere else?

That’s one thing that I can do, is hold everybody accountable in the same way. That’s what I’m attempting to do. Now, the good news is some of the banks and mortgage companies are working with some of the groups. The Eastside Organizing Project, they’re working on restructuring loans. The formerly Lutheran Housing, Community Housing Solutions working with people to restructure their loans. Because they can’t take back all these properties. We have such a soft real estate market, they’re just gonna sit. And then what happens? They’re going to have to see me, if the property is not up to code.

Do you know the percentage of people, that you see, that have spent their money on everything else, rather than their home, versus those who they really did try, and it’s obvious that they tried…

Ray: I don’t know the percentage, I know there are instances rain water is flowing into the house, and they have a big screen TV, so obviously the big screen TV took priority over repairing the roof.

Except that your housing specialists have your first-time prevention program, selective intervention, you’ve put a lot of programs into place to make the distinction between somebody who’s trying and somebody who can’t versus somebody who is just not complying and buying things elsewhere.

Ray: We do screening of people, we do screen them, we go out to their property, take a look, who is helping you with this property, anyone can step forward to help you? And we try to gleen resources: Fresh Coat Cleveland, Rebuilding Together, Habitat for Humanity, in fact, for our defendants, we set up a voucher system where they get a voucher for Habitat for Humanity, they can go over to the store on Saturdays and get a step kit, or get materials and that’s worked out fairly well.

Ray has a very proactive court, I believe he tries to maintain housing.
When you’re looking for compassion, where does the compassion come in?
What I was trying to figure out is how many of them are really trying and how many of them is it just like every single day, these people do no care. Or no, we’ve got a healthy number of them that DO care, it’s just that they didn’t know what they were getting into, or life threw’em some curves and they just weren’t prepared for it.

Ray: The Housing Court sees cases on an address-by-address basis, and a defendant-by-defendant basis, so each day a person stands before me and I have to make evaluation. I have to do a screening. But that’s a new case unless they’re repeat offenders, then we have a little different road that we go down.

A hat tip to Meet the Bloggers for a great interview with Judge Pianka, and a thanks to George Nemeth for granting me permission to use this interview.

Cleveland Housing Court Judge Ray Pianka: A Meet the Bloggers Interview – Pt. III

Ray: Well, there are things that we look at: do you have development experience, what is your plan for the property, it must be submitted, and it’s all on the public record, open to public scrutiny. Any hearings in our courtroom are open, people can sit and listen to what is being presented and review the documents. So, there is a level of scrutiny on it. Has it been a way to be a profit center for the CVC’s and non-profits? No, it hasn’t. But it is a way to abate a nuisance. And in fact, the house that we’ve used in our newsletter, on South Boulevard, was condemned and due to be torn down and it has owner-occupants in it today, and the turn-around was amazing.

One of the big problems in using receivership is the lack of capital on the part of the people, isn’t it, the people who want to use receivership, including the community development corporations.

Ray: You have to put together how (you are) going to finance the repairs. The Cleveland Restoration Society has different levels, having banks step in, you can obtain a construction loan, groups have done that. There’s some working capital you can obtain through Neighborhood Progress Inc. Those type of things, but yes, it’s a problem because you have to step forward with the money to improve the property. You have a lien, but that’s all you have, a lien, unless you bring it to foreclosure.

Gloria: Since you’re talking about the money, I know that you and I have had this discussion that you have a real concern with the older people, the older residents that we have in the city that you see them come before your court, and I like sometimes that you’ve said that a building inspector is much more likely to see why, if they’re bringing little old ladies, widows, who have fixed income, you’re dilemma is why aren’t you bringing these corporations and banks to me as well?

Ray: The irony of it, and I’d like to talk about one case, somewhat in the abstract. Mayor Jackson has turned this around and he is working with people first, seeing what resources can be brought to bear from the Office on Aging. His objective is not to have any senior citizens come into court. Now, sometimes they do. We’ll make a referral to him, to the Office on Aging, Community Development Department. But, last year I had a case where a woman was brought in and she was in a motorized wheelchair, and she came in with her nurse, and she was cited for having her bushes too high. Across the street was a bank-owned property, boarded up, not repaired; and then another property where the garage door had collapsed, off of the property, sitting there, from an investment owner. I don’t think the court was set up for that purpose. We emphasize, and it was and is to this day, a complaint-driven system. So you turn in the complaint on the woman with high bushes, and she’s cited, and these other people aren’t. And I think the Building/Housing Dept is trying to move away from that. But that’s why there’s a judge to see, hopefully making decisions.

How much hope do we have in a complaint-driven system being more transparent because people in the past have gone ahead and used this politically, just out of spite, for many reasons. You don’t know who the accuser is, it’s wrong, it’s an informant society, and you won’t get people to move into an informant society and work there, if, in fact they’re going to be harassed and harassed and harassed. I’ve been caught up in court a few times because of that. I’m just wondering if we can go ahead and strip away the protections of the informant.

Ray: I think the system has to be reformed, and it is being reformed. The Mayor and City Council put in place a firm called “The Lien Firm” that is looking at objective standards for the measurement of inspectors work, for measurement of the type of work that they do, and accountability. I know that the outline will work because I use The Lien Firm for the deputy bailiffs in the Housing Court and I use The Lien Firm for the Housing Court Specialists to improve outcomes and to develop ways that we can account for what our work is. Are they at the point that they need to be? No, they certainly aren’t. But, they’re working on rebuilding the department because it seems as though the department collapsed in the last year, or year and a half.

Gloria: So, are you telling us that you have been involved in that…

Ray: No, I haven’t been involved in that. We’ve used The Lien Firm…

What is that?

Ray: It’s an industrial engineer, who lives out in North Collinwood and he develops systems for governments and businesses to assess productivity, wasted effort, using ??? methods, and in fact…our bailiffs were enthused about the methods used in restructuring their work so they were more productive.

I want to go back to the whole blighting effect on neighborhoods when we do a lot of board-ups. Can you expand on that idea?

Ray: The problem with board-ups is that it sends a signal that there’s trouble in the neighborhood. Every boarded-up property sends a signal that the value of that property is less than what the mortgage is on that property. Therefore, it shows that there’s some stress in the market. The more boarded-up properties, the more stress in that market, the softer real estate market. It sends a signal to anyone that drives through that neighborhood, to anyone that wants to invest in that neighborhood, and importantly, anyone who lives in that neighborhood that investing in that neighborhood may not be a productive thing to do. And, in fact, in Philadelphia, they did a study of neighborhoods and what is the effect of boarded-up property in Philadelphia. It takes, within 500 feet, value away from the adjoining properties, around $6500, lessens their value.

What should you do?

I need to interject here, because my significant other just told me a story of one of her friends, the parents have a board-up across the street and she went over there and painted the plywood on the door to make it less of like a board-up. Because they think that there is that sort of, like when you drive down the street and you see that, you do, you make that calculation. You know, what’s going on here, there’s zero-per cent financing signs all over the place.

Ray: Any property that is before the court, that is boarded, I order that the boards be painted, the defendant paint the boards. I understand you filed bankruptcy, you’re in foreclosure, there’s no way that you’re going to be able to get back into that house, it’s been stripped out, keep it clean, secure, graffiti-free, AND you paint the boards. Now the city ordinance on board-ups requires the boards be painted a color to harmonize with the neighborhood. But, in fact, they are not. But, if they are painted, there’s been some community groups that have stepped forward, for instance, in Slavic Village, on East 52nd and 53rd, between Hamm and Blanch where they not only painted the boards to reduce the effect, they’ve painted curtains on the houses, and fish tanks in the windows. We find that in Chicago they have a board-up program that is less obtrusive to the neighborhood, it doesn’t impact the neighborhood in quite a negative way. And we have examples of those.

Let me go back to what you said a minute ago: there’s a city ordinance that isn’t being enforced?

Ray: It outlines how properties are to be boarded and the last clause states that the boards must be painted a color to harmonize with the neighborhood. So I always tell people to paint the boards a neutral color. I don’t want them Day-Glo Pink; a neutral color to help that house blend in more to the neighborhood. Yes it is, and in Chicago, they have a great system there, there are some neighborhood groups that are doing it there…

Explain that a little bit, how is their board-up different? If you don’t slap sheets of plywood on…?

Ray: They secure the openings, but then they paint windows in the openings, so it looks like there are windows on the properties. There was a large industrial building where the windows were boarded and they had an artist paint gears in all of the windows to give it an industrial flair. These are all things that can be done to reduce that negative impact, to some degree. It’s still going to be a boarded-up property.

Talking about ordinances that aren’t enforced, tell them about the requirement to put utilities underground. The wires.

Ray: Well, what do you want to know? It’s still part of our code. The codified ordinances of the City of Cleveland. Newton Debaker was our Mayor, sponsored by Councilman Kalina, they required that all utilities within certain areas, and they had a Schedule A and a Schedule B and it’s still part of the public service code, be put underground every year and 10%, from 1914…

So, they must be done!! Did they ever start?

Ray: They did. Newton Debaker vetoed the ordinance because it didn’t have penalties strong enough. So Newton Debaker while is in there, the railroads and the utilities were quite an organized group around the turn of the century…

So that’s the public/private partnership that we talk about?
We’re talking about a lot of cosmetic things here, we’re not painting it to look like an aquarium….but still a cosmetic feel to it. The thing that struck is that you said that for 27 years in your court, you’ve never seen this many foreclosures and things like that. How are we getting to that point because I think that you have access to financial records they’ve got to divulge. Truly, I don’t have anything to be able to keep up with this. The question is this: we can paint a lot and do some of those things but we’re treating some symptoms, which we’ve gotta do some of that. But at the same time in the inner core, we’ve got the flu.

Tune in next edition when Judge Pianka discusses what sub-prime mortgages have done.