cuyahoga county now the 'gold standard' for abandoned property reclamation

Some of the most significant strides in Cleveland's renaissance come from the quietest corners, where people with rolled sleeves toil behind desks, taking on daunting challenges. While their accomplishments aren't often regaled with flashy grand openings and popping champagne corks, their impact is unmistakable.

Hence, when the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corp (or more commonly, the Cuyahoga Land Bank) quietly celebrated the passage of Senate Bill 172 earlier this month, few noticed. The legislation, which was authored by Douglas Sawyer, special projects and policy counsel for the Cuyahoga Land Bank and Gus Frangos, the organization's president and general council, is an important link in an ongoing effort that has catapulted Cuyahoga County from the infamous "ground zero" of the foreclosure crisis to a nationally recognized pioneer in expediting and processing vacant and abandoned property.

"Cuyahoga County is considered the gold standard," says Sawyer of the county's reputation as a leader in the area of abandoned property reclamation. "It's really a credit to the city and county. All of the different players realized how big the problem was here and have come together to try and tackle these problems."

SB 172 improves and streamlines processes previously established in House Bill 294 (2006). That legislation included a nationally groundbreaking alternative to the traditional judicial tax foreclosure process for abandoned properties: the administrative tax foreclosure hearing. The administrative process, performed by the Cuyahoga County Board of Revision, takes between six and 12 months, whereas the customary judicial process can go on for one or two years. Once a property is foreclosed, it is essentially cleansed of delinquent taxes and other financial encumbrances, and can make its way into "someone's hands that can do some thing good with it" by way of the land bank, says Sawyer.

The original 2006 legislation, however, allowed for any number of entities such as lien holders or banks to "move to dismiss"—essentially putting the kibosh on an administrative foreclosure—and sending the case back to the judicial system completely anew.

"That's not good," says Sawyer, noting that the county invests much preparation, due diligence and funding (approximately $1,500) into each administrative foreclosure case. SB 172 saves all of that, allowing the case to remain intact and simply transfer into the court system along with all the associated documentation.

Sawyer describes another thing he likes about SB 172. The legislation removes the obligation for a local municipality, county or county land bank to obtain permission from owners of properties that have been forfeited to the state--who are often difficult (if not impossible) to find--in order to assess those properties. He cites the tiny Village of Glenwillow.

"Glenwillow is getting onto a property that was forfeited to the state," says Sawyer. "They're doing some environmental testing and as long as there's not something really really bad on it, they'll pull it from the forfeiture list through our land bank and they're going to do some good things on the property." Without SB 172, he adds, "they wouldn't have any ability to do that."

Since its inception in 2009, the Cuyahoga Lank Bank has transacted 4,600 properties, demolished 2,960 and facilitated the renovations of 980. It currently holds title to 1,330 properties. A founder of the land bank, former County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, went on to create the Thriving Communities Institute, a region-wide effort to help revitalize urban centers by transforming vacant properties.

"We are really one of the leaders," says Sawyer. "If you want to be doing this kind of work, this is a great place to be doing it. This is the cutting edge."

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.