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Vacant Properties in Kenton Co., Covington Cause Concern for Local Leaders

A group of experts was brought into the Kenton County Fiscal Court caucus meeting to talk about abandoned properties and potential ways to address them.

Planning & Development Services (PDS) Executive Director Dennis Gordon called the growing problem "cancerous" because of how abandoned and vacant properties lead to other problems in the areas such as crime, lowered property values, tax dollar expenses, frustration to property owners, and the inability to develop distressed areas.

A lot of the issue is that so many houses have been in foreclosure thanks to the tumultuous housing market in the previous decade.

Gordon said that while cities like Covington have historically dealt with the challenges of abandoned and vacant properties, nearby cities like Ft. Wright, Crescent Springs, and Edgewood have only recently dealt with similar issues due to the housing boom and subsequent bust.

There are approximately 6000 vacant or abandoned properties in Kenton County out of about 64,000 parcels, which is roughly nine percent. There are 863 vacancies in Covington alone.

Covington's Community Services Manager, Mike Yeager, was brought in to talk about how Covington is dealing with abandoned properties. There are many absentee owners in vacant properties in Covington, many of which have simply walked away from their property. There are over $700,000 in unpaid taxes from these properties. Other challenges regarding vacant properties include an aging population, an aging housing stock, and aging infrastructure in the city.

“We have a whole list of tools that we use to tackle this problem. You can’t take on a problem until you know what it is,” Yeager said.

The city has developed a database and a massive spread sheet to help quantify the properties.

“We can use that to be strategic, we can identify patterns and develop opportunities from the maps based on the database.”

The initiatives Covington has taken to address its housing problem is a more aggressive approach of tracking down property owners, demolishing areas of blight, and moving forward with foreclosures.

Yeager explained that it was not the city's preference to demolish old historic homes but sometimes the buildings had become so dilapidated that it was economically unfeasible to restore them. In 2013, the city commission recognized a need to tear down some of the worst of the structures and committed capital funds to go towards demolition.

City staff found that demolishing in bulk helped to reduce the cost of the tear-downs and saved $6,000-$7,000 in the process.

Dan Petronio of the Center for Great Neighborhoods said that when his organization began to meet with citizens of Covington's Westside to designate areas as historic districts the people there wanted to talk about the crime element instead. He said that neighbors had given up on calling police when they would spot criminal behavior in areas where upwards of a dozen abandoned properties exist within a 500 foot radius.

The Center for Great Neighborhoods has made progress in that area, however, as Petronio showed photos of  Shotgun Row on Orchard Street. The single family shotgun-style homes were fully renovated and sold quickly. The neighborhood now features an off-street parking lot and an art park.

Still, there were and are many challenges.

"As many buildings as we’ve done, we underestimated the structural issues that we were going to find on these buildings,” Petronio said.

Kenton County Police Chief and former Covington Police Chief Spike Jones talked about the human impact that vacant properties has on a community.

“This phenomenon is not just an urban core phenomenon, it’s in the more rural areas of the county. I know from my experience with Covington, we saw areas that before didn’t have blight or abandoned properties—South Covington, Crystal Lake area—there are some empty houses sitting out there and there are some neighbors worried about them and they should be,” Jones said.

He went on to tell the story of Jenny Isles, a 7-year old Covington girl, who, in 1989, was missing for weeks before being found in an abandoned house, sexually assaulted and beaten to death by an unknown suspect.

“After having guarded that crime scene for a number of nights in a row, I can tell you that it is an experience you will never forget and it all has to do with abandoned properties,” Jones said. “I still think that the cover and concealment that the property offered him, allowed him the opportunity to commit that heinous crime.”

Jones also pointed out other frequent crimes that are regularly committed in abandoned properties such as break-ins, copper thefts, and arson.

There were two proposed courses of action that the Fiscal Court may choose to take. One was based on a financial mechanism that Louisville had adopted for similar purposes called a land bank which is a public authority specializing in acquiring tax delinquent properties and converting them into a productive use. Another may require the assistance of the state legislature to address the issue.

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor