WARREN - Walter and Virginia Stec purchased the lot next to their 321 Washington St. N.E. home two years ago to continue improvements that began almost from the day they purchased the house in 1997.
Although an older home, the large brick two-story structure has for a long time stood out in the neighborhood. Even as the area around them has stagnated, and in some cases deteriorated, the couple continued to improve their property adding screened-in porches, a concrete patio and a new garage.
The addition of the 88-by-198-square-foot side lot enabled them to plant new grass, add 19 arborvitae trees, a portable fire pit, a place for horseshoes and a hammock.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Raymond L. Smith
Walter Stec planted 19 arborvitae trees in front of a lot he purchased next to his home on 321 Washington St. N.E. in Warren through the Trumbull County Land Bank side lot program.
"We found out about the county's side lot program two years ago when the city was tearing down this historic house that was next to us," Virginia Stec said. "While we did not believe the house should have been torn down, we put in a bid to purchase the land."
For the Stecs, the idea of being able to expand their property through the Trumbull County Land Bank was perfect, because they wanted some place for their grandchild to play and their back yard was full.
Besides, they were already keeping the grass cut and bushes trim even before the house that was on the lot was torn down.
It took about a year for the property to transfer.
The side lot program is one of several projects of the Trumbull County Land Bank.
The land bank is looking to sell 22 houses and to have an estimated 51 properties demolished, according to Matt Martin, director of the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership.
In addition to these properties, the county land bank also has another 213 side lots and another 15 acreage lots available for sale.
The land bank, also known as the Trumbull County Land Reutilization Corp., usually obtains its properties through tax foreclosure sales.
"The land bank was created after I saw a speculator purchase a home during an August 2010 sheriff's sale and later that day place a for-rent sign on the property that same evening," Sam Lamancusa, TCLRC board president, said. "He did not do any improvements or repairs on the property. There still were broken windows that could be seen when he put up the for rent sign.
"I knew we had to do something different," Lamancusa said. "Two months later, the Trumbull County Land Bank was started."
Trumbull's land bank is the third one formed in the state. Cuyahoga and Lucas counties formed the first two land banks. Now 16 of Ohio's 88 counties have them.
The Trumbull land bank has an average annual budget of $400,000, earned through the collection of delinquent property taxes. Its budget is used to foreclose on the properties, title searches, cleaning up of the properties and their maintenance.
Trumbull County Land Bank obtains between 20 to 40 properties a month through tax lien foreclosures. Properties brought into the Land Bank are assessed by Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, which formed a partnership with TCLRC in March 2013 to operate the program.
Because TCLRC does not have a staff of its own, TNP is paid $7,500 per month to have six of its employees, including one full-time, to work on its projects.
Many of the properties obtained by the Land Bank are in such poor condition they are immediately recommended for demolition.
"Salvageable houses are assessed and needed repairs identified," Martin said. "These properties receive exterior maintenance, including basic landscaping and, when necessary, are boarded up while they are listed for sale."
While those interested in buying these properties often can get them at below market rates, they are responsible, by contract, to bring them up to all the community codes and to ensure they are safe.
"Purchase agreements call for the TCLRC to hold title to the property while the buyer executes the work plan," Martin said. "Titles are awarded to buyers upon successful completion of the work plans."
While the land bank seeks to sell the majority of its properties to people wanting to occupy them, it will sell to investors. However, investors, like owner-occupants, must bring them up to all area codes, providing a reasonable standard of safety.
Rick Bell earlier this year purchased a long-abandoned property at 1457 Southwest Blvd. from the land bank as a way to protect the neighborhood in which he grew up and where his parents still reside.
"The house has been empty for about 10 years," Bell said. "I've been cutting a portion of the front lawn, shoveling the sidewalks and have been parking my work van in its driveway for several years. I even spoke to a couple banks about buying it, but was not successful."
Bell described the southwest side neighborhood as one that has transformed over the years from 90 percent owner-occupied homes when his parents purchased their home to about 70 percent rentals today.
"There are some landlords that put anyone in their properties and do not take care of them," he said. "Over the years, I and some others neighbors have seen scrappers checking out the house, and have chased them away.
"I live several doors from this house and I did not want that to happen at the entrance of our neighborhood," he said.
Bell is in the process of fixing up the property to either rent out or allow a relative to live.
"I am here to stay so we are trying to keep the neighborhood safe and attractive," he said.
About 80 percent of the properties taken in by the land bank are located in Warren.
In addition to selling properties that need renovation, the Land Bank will now also begin to rehab some portion of its inventory on it's own and make it available for sale to owner occupants move-in ready, beginning with 506 Belvedere.
The property was acquired earlier this year. It was abandoned about three years ago when it previous owners fell into difficult financial times.
Paula Siekkinen, a neighbor, said he is pleased someone has taken interest in the property, which has been empty for about three years.
"Although this is an older neighborhood and we have more empty houses, this is a good neighborhood in which we watch out for one another," Siekkinen said. "We watch what is happening at abandoned properties we want them to remain relatively nice."
The property is expected to cost about $5,000 to rehabilitate, according to Martin.
"Selling some of the properties ourselves is something we are looking to do more often," he said.
Because many of the properties obtained by the land band are in such poor conditions - either because they were not taken care of by previous owners or were vandalized - they were almost immediately recommended for demolition after being assessed.
The Moving Ohio Forward demolition program has favored counties with land banks. Each municipality entered into a sub-recipient agreement to carry out their own demolitions through the land banks.
There have been 25 land bank properties in Trumbull county targeted for demolition using the Moving Ohio Forward grant money. Twenty-three of the properties are located in Warren and two in Warren Township.
Because some vacant properties owned by the land bank are between privately owned properties, it established the side lot program that allows adjacent property owners to purchase them at low costs. This is the program which the Stec's participated.
There have been 79 side lots sold, according to the program's third quarter report. There currently are 12 side lots in the process of being sold and applications of another 60 side lot sales are are being processed.
As an additional incentive to encourage property owners to purchase and improve vacant properties beside their homes, National City Bank awarded TNP $10,000 for the improvement of the lots. TNP used the money to offer purchasers of the side lots $500 Lowe's gift cards for the purchase of tools, materials and supplies needed to make improvements on the properties.
"We gave away all of the gift cards in about a month," Martin said. "This was a very successful program. We are looking for new sponsors."
The gift cards leveraged an additional $39,395 worth of work on the properties.