Pace of vacant house demolition picks up in Omaha -
Published Monday, September 30, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 8:51 pm
Only in The World-Herald
Pace of vacant house demolition picks up in Omaha

More than double the money, more than double the demolitions.

That's what has happened in 2013 since the City of Omaha budgeted additional money to knock down dangerous eyesores whose owners were unwilling or unable to repair or raze them.

The City Council and then-Mayor Jim Suttle decided last fall to pump an additional $500,000-plus in local money into Omaha's 2013 demolition budget.

Combined with more than $200,000 in federal grant money and $100,000 in donations for Habitat for Humanity redevelopment, the city's Planning Department had more than $850,000 to spend this year on knocking down problem properties.

That was nearly three times the previous year's demolition budget.

By Friday, as a contractor knocked down a burned-out house in northeast Omaha, the city had demolished nearly 100 condemned structures in 2013. That's nearly three times the number the city razed in all of 2012.

Mayor Jean Stothert and the council have allotted more city money for demolition in the 2014 budget. The city plans to spend a combined total of $957,000 for that purpose next year.

Most structures razed this year were dangerous damaged houses on residential streets, although some were houses that the city acquired with federal money for specific neighborhood redevelopment projects.

Most demolitions were east of 42nd Street, although the city has demolished structures in four of Omaha's seven City Council districts.

City Planning Director James Thele said demolition is part of the city's larger effort to revitalize neighborhoods. The additional money has helped remove some of the most seriously damaged structures, he said.

City Councilman Ben Gray said he has received positive feedback about the 2013 pace of demolitions.

“That seems to be going well,” he said. “But the problem is there are more coming on the list. There have got to be other programs besides just demolishing homes.”

The nonprofit advocacy group Omaha Together One Community had pushed for the increased demolition funding, and OTOC volunteers and its paid organizer have been monitoring the city's actions.

It's going well, they said.

“The feedback we get from neighbors is they are thrilled when the construction equipment comes in to take down the (condemned) house they've been walking by for months,” said Kim Dunovan, a volunteer on OTOC's housing and neighborhood revitalization team.

OTOC volunteers cited a house in the 3300 block of Burt Street as an example. It had been abandoned for several years. Neighbors had seen people, including squatters, going in and out of it at all hours. It attracted graffiti and trash.

“Nobody liked it,” said OTOC's paid organizer, Joe Higgs. “Everybody was afraid of it. But it was a fact of life. People had called about it. But nobody could get anything done about it.”

This year, it was finally torn down.

The increased pace of demolitions may be giving neighbors hope that they don't have to simply put up with problem properties, Higgs said.

That may be one reason for an increase in complaints to city housing code inspectors and for the growth in the city's demolition list.

That's right: Despite the increased demolition budget, the city's list of structures slated to be demolished has grown from about 700 in 2012 to about 775 last week.

That seems like treading water, Dunovan said, but there's progress in the mere removal of problem properties. OTOC is among those pushing for further measures, such as a city land bank for redeveloping vacant properties.

Kevin Denker, Omaha's chief housing code inspector, said housing condition complaints went up this summer. More dilapidated structures have come on the list as others have been knocked down or repaired.

“Even with the extra money,” Denker said, “we're only able to take care of 20 percent of the houses on the list.”

Contact the writer: Christopher Burbach    |   402-444-1057    |  

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