While the housing bust has brought the unfamiliar problem of home foreclosure to communities around the country, it has only compounded headaches in the already-troubled city of Youngstown, Ohio. With the housing situation deteriorating, Mayor Jay Williams is counting on an innovative, but controversial, initiative to turn things around. Mayor Williams recently spoke with U.S. News about the effort. Excerpts:
How hard has the housing crisis hit Youngstown?
It's interesting because while we certainly have suffered, Youngstown's devastation as it relates to housing happened and has been happening over the past 25 to 30 years. So, whatever communities are experiencing now as it relates to the foreclosure crisis we have already experienced with the collapse of our steel industry. The city at its height had a population of about 175,000 people—that was probably back in the mid-1960s. And the city's population is currently around 83,000, so there is far too much infrastructure for the number of people living here. The right thing to do is to try to right-size and make the best use of our assets, the resources we have. How does your plan—known as Youngstown 2010—attempt to "right size" the city?
We're just focusing on some aggressive demolition and selective development. Over the past two years, we have razed over 1,000 units, primarily single-family residential but also old commercial buildings and old school buildings. These are vacant, abandoned, dilapidated structures. We don't own them, but the city ordinances allow us to raze them because they are a blight and a threat to safety. How does this benefit the community?
It has really helped to clean up many of the neighborhoods. It's also helped from a crime standpoint. Police officers are telling us that there are certainly less targets for the arsonists and fewer places for drug transaction and all sorts of other illicit things to go on. Also, we can save some costs by reducing the utility infrastructure. Finally, the supply of housing far outweighs the demand because of the precipitous population decline, so it's also helping to bring the housing stock back into balance. How widespread has the demolition been? Are you razing entire blocks?
We haven't necessarily had streets that have been fully abandoned. But there is an individual who owns a large company that manufactures specialty excavators that is asking the city for permission to buy the streets surrounding his property as they become vacant. He is actually buying the houses and tearing them down. That would probably be the first instance where we actually have eliminated what was formerly a residential neighborhood through attrition. We would vacate the streets, and he would then ultimately have an entire section of the neighborhood to himself to expand his manufacturing operation. How has the initiative affected home values?
The effect on home values is difficult to measure. But what we have seen is that the neighbors are absolutely becoming more engaged. It serves as a source of inspiration where the homeowners have started to take care of their areas and clean and invest in their own properties. And some of these houses and buildings have looked like they should have been razed years ago. So coming in and taking these houses out really excited the community, and they begin to take charge of their neighborhood. That's just an immediate benefit, because the neighborhoods look better. What's another key component of the plan?
We are retooling our development incentives. In the past, we incentivized development all across the city, and to a certain extent that became detrimental because there was some development going on in parts of the city where it is just not sustainable. So we've gotten away from that and moved to a more focused development plan. What we are also doing is—when appropriate—instead of offering our traditional rehabilitation program, we would be willing to offer citizens that same amount of money to relocate to more densely populated areas, instead of using it to rehabilitate a particular home. Ten years ago or five years ago, we might have invested in the individual units, but we are trying to make smarter use of the funds.