White said she and Blackshear spoke with the Ohio Auditors Association, realtors, real estate investors and the Ohio Municipal League to define the need and refine the bill. She is not aware of any opposition.
Auditors may add a fee of $500 or 1% of the property’s taxable value, whichever is greater, to the tax bill if an owner does not provide full contact information.
Auditors would determine that a property is vacant and could reach out to other government agencies or community organizations to determine this, the bill said. Inspectors would then notify the property owner of this finding.
Properties would not be considered vacant if, according to the draft law, they are used “seasonally”, i.e. at least four weeks but no more than 40 weeks a year.
demand in Dayton
It is clear that there is a community need for an easily accessible database of homeowners, said Montgomery County Auditor Karl Keith. He said the law was not a panacea, but it was a step in the right direction.
The register would be a public record, likely as part of the property database, Keith said. People could access it online or call the chartered accountant’s office for specific information. It would take some initial effort to publicize and inform property owners, but it probably wouldn’t require an additional maintenance staff member.
Currently, the best contact information for many vacant property owners is their tax mailing address, which is often not helpful, he said.
If someone wants to complain to the owner about the condition of a property or is interested in buying and repairing it, the chartered accountant’s office wants to help them get in touch, Keith said.
In that regard, law enforcement has sometimes sought the owners’ contact information, he said.
“There are health issues in some of these properties that are vacant,” Keith said. “Some of these properties are a magnet for crime. Being able to contact the owners would be a big step forward I think.”
According to Keith’s office, there are about 23,000 vacant housing units in Montgomery County, nearly one in ten. More than 11,000 of these are within Dayton’s city limits, meaning about one in six units within the city is vacant.
For comparison: In Ohio as a whole, about every twelfth residential unit is empty.
Those numbers include apartments, not just individual houses, Keith said. However, the number of vacancies is a “moving target” and therefore difficult to pinpoint at any given point in time, he said.
He estimates that 2,600 buildings in the county are in poor condition, of which about 800 are “not intact”.
“We expect a large percentage of that to be vacant,” Keith said.
The foreclosure crisis of 2008 helped, but the main reason is Dayton’s overall population decline: from 260,000 people in 1960 to about 140,000 today.
And after the 2019 Memorial Day tornadoes, some people abandoned their properties, leaving no way to contact them, Keith said.
“There are a number of these structures that are still badly decayed that people have just walked away from,” he said.
Less people, less pressure
Audit offices in counties with more than 200,000 inhabitants would have to collect contact information. That would affect 15 Ohio counties, including Montgomery, Butler and Warren.
Counties with 200,000 residents or fewer could opt for the register.
Warren County CPA Matt Nolan proposed doubling the cutoff population for mandatory attendance to 400,000.
“It’s not necessary for Warren County,” Nolan said. Warren has a population of 235,000 compared to Montgomery’s 532,000.
“The problem with a bill like this is that it creates jobs for employees,” Nolan said. While it’s useful for a county like Montgomery County with a lot of vacant buildings, he said it’s just extra work for places like Warren County with very low tax arrears and vacancy rates.
Currently, Warren County relies on the tax mailing address associated with each property, Nolan said. That has the benefit of putting properties on the foreclosure list “very quickly” if they’re not maintained and property taxes aren’t paid, he said.
Butler County Assistant Auditor David Brown said his office had not commented on the bill. The chartered accountant’s office has no role in dealing with abandoned or derelict properties and therefore does not pursue them itself, he said.
“If an owner fails to pay taxes for a period of time, there is a process between the treasurer, the district attorney and the county sheriff to foreclose and auction off those properties,” Brown said. “The county building and zoning department, as well as cities, towns and communities, deal with zoning issues and lands that are not properly maintained.”
When a local government imposes a clean-up assessment on a property, it’s added to the overall tax bill, he said.
Blackshear worked for the Montgomery County CPA for a year and a half and often took calls from people looking for contact information, he said.
“We’ve had people calling, people who were investors trying to buy real estate in neighborhoods, but they didn’t know how to reach the owner,” Blackshear said.
Residents who live next to abandoned homes often don’t know who to call to clean up the properties, he said. But there was no real process to find these landowners.
“When I was working in the chartered accountant’s office, we had some people who would just file a PO box,” Blackshear said.
Communities that want to increase their populations and create jobs need safe places to live, Blackshear said. Abandoned buildings can become dangerous, and potential investors and renovators need an easier way to reach current owners, he said.
“This is something that should have been addressed years ago, decades ago,” Blackshear said.
The bill was referred to the House State & Local Government Committee. Jessica Gassett, Blackshear’s legislative adviser, said there was no word on when a hearing would be held.