Youngstown Jubilee’s Revival Is Saving Houses

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Eric Holm walks up the steps to a vacant house along Goleta Avenue on Youngstown’s North Side.  Attached to the front door is a city citation informing the property owner that the dwelling could potentially be demolished if repairs aren’t made.

Debris is scattered across the porch floor while moss gathers on its roof. Unkempt bushes, weeds and an unruly tree mar the landscaping and any curb appeal the house once had, while the backyard is overrun by discarded trash and rusted recreational equipment.  The first floor windows are boarded.

That’s of no real concern to Holm.  A closer look reveals a house that is incredibly solid – a thick yellow brick structure that was constructed more than a century ago in 1920.

“This house is too good to knock down,” says Holm, the executive director of Youngstown Jubilee Urban Development. “This is a house that once it gets some love, it’ll be  a great house in this neighborhood.”

Holm says the house on Goleta is a textbook case that exemplifies Youngstown Jubilee’s revived mission: identify and redevelop vacant homes across the city that would otherwise be demolished.

These types of houses are perfect candidates for redevelopment, Holm says. In this case, the organization would prefer to work with the property owner to acquire the house and then renovate the structure.

“On a house like this, we might want to start stabilizing without title, because we want the neighbors to feel better,” Holm says.  This would include cosmetic work such as tree removal, grass cutting and routine cleanup, he adds.

Youngstown Jubilee is no stranger to this line of work. The organization found success in renovating and building homes for low- and moderate-income families during the 1990s and 2000s.  With housing across the Mahoning Valley still in great demand, it seemed like the perfect time to rekindle the program, he says.

Youngstown Jubilee plans to tackle new projects on all sides of Youngstown in an effort to restore vacant single-family homes that are targeted for demolition and bring them back to quality standards, Holm says.

“One of the things we’d like to do is take some of the homes that are currently in the demolition stream and put them into the rehab stream,” Holm says. “It’s more cost effective to restore a house than rebuild it from the ground up.”

This strategy enables more houses to come on the rental market much faster and be leased to lower and moderate-income families at affordable rates, Holm says.

“Currently, there’s a shortfall of affordable housing in Youngstown,” Holm says. “This is a way we can bring more houses back to market more quickly.”

Rose Carter, executive director of the community group Action, confirms that affordable housing is among the greatest needs for residents across the Mahoning Valley.

“The rents are ridiculous,” she says.  “You’ve got these out-of-town landlords who are still preying on our people here.”

Demand for housing remains very strong, but many don’t have the appropriate credit to purchase a home and are forced into the rental market, Carter says. Over the last several years, rental rates have skyrocketed in the city.  “A rental that used to go for $650 per month is now like $1,100 per month for the same property,” she says. Home values, meantime, are three times higher than what they were before the pandemic.

“Demand has not stopped,” Carter says.

She supports efforts of groups such as Youngstown Jubilee and Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. to salvage homes that still hold great potential.

“What I was upset with was that we were tearing down too many good houses that could be restored,” she says.

Jubilee has identified approximately 40 houses that it believes can be acquired and rehabilitated, most of them on the city’s South Side, Holm says.  Another 100 houses are candidates for “stabilization.” In this case, Youngstown Jubilee could provide information to property owners that would help them renovate houses and save them from demolition.

Holm says a single property owner renovating a home could have a snowball effect on the entire neighborhood.

“We also want to inform people,” Holm says. “We want the city as a whole to be raised up.”

Holm says the organization is in the process of identifying more homes that it thinks are strong candidates for restoration. “I have about 150 properties where we’re going through the stages of contacting the owners,” he says. His goal is to rehab at least 40.

In some cases, owners that have inherited a property from a deceased relative might have no idea that a structure has been condemned or slated for demolition. Holm says Youngstown Jubilee is taking the initiative to locate these owners and attempt to either acquire their property or direct the owners to code enforcement, where they could file a property appeals board application to salvage the house.

He cites one property owner who had inherited a house and was unaware that the case remained in probate court. Once Jubilee contacted the owner, improvements were done to the house.

“In the end, we’re trying to see these homes restored either by their current owner or potentially by Jubilee,” he says.

So far, Holm says the organization has enough funding to rehab 10 houses. Jubilee has also submitted a proposal for a $500,000 grant from a funding source he declined to disclose. A decision on the grant money should come soon, he says.

Future funding could be secured from community development block grants, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, donations, and banks with community reinvestment act mandates.

While most of the vacant houses on the city demolition list are on the South Side, a sizeable number have also been identified on the North and East Side, too.

Deb Flora, executive director of the Mahoning County Land Bank, says there are at least 470 properties in Youngstown slated for demolition.  However, these are just those structures whose demolition is funded through the Ohio Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program.

Calls to the city seeking precise numbers of houses targeted for demolition were not returned.

Any attempt to stabilize neighborhoods through housing renovations and improvements is welcome on Goleta Avenue, says longtime homeowner Rosemarie Kascher, who lives across the street from the house eyed by Youngstown Jubilee.

“We’re fortunate that we have a good neighborhood,” she says, noting that several Youngstown State University faculty members live on the street. Recently, a house on the block was purchased and completely refurnished and renovated. “Our only eyesore is the house across the street,” she says.

Kascher says the house has been vacant more than two years, and the owner is delinquent on property taxes.  Several tenants, she relates, moved out because the owner refused to invest in any improvements, while the most recent tenants were evicted.

Although the house requires plenty of work, the two-story home “has a lot of potential,” she says.

Kascher relates she’s lived in her North Side home most of her life – a house her father built during the late 1920s.  “At that time, we had all these wonderful craftsmen that worked in the mills,” she says, which is indicative of many of the homes along Goleta.

Restoring properties such as the Goleta Avenue site was the founding principle behind Youngstown Jubilee, an organization established almost by accident in 1990.

Phil Imler, retired pastor at Christian Fellowship Tabernacle along Market Street, and a founding member of what was then Jubilee Urban Renewal, recalls the organization began after a neighborhood house was donated to the church. Imler relates he and his wife, Sylvia, began raising their family in the house.

Soon after, additional homes were donated to the church that the congregation would rehab and then rent to young couples, he says.

“It wasn’t our intention to do this, but it kind of evolved out of our desire to see spiritual revival and physical renewal in the city,” says Imler, today the president of Youngstown Jubilee Urban Development.

Approximately five years later, the late Pastor Jay Alford assumed a leadership role in the organization and embarked on an entirely different strategy.  This was to leverage low-income housing tax credits, Home Program funds and a partnership with a local bank through the Community Reinvestment Act to build new, affordable housing for low-to-moderate income families. The project included partnerships with other nonprofit organizations such as Choice Homes and Common Wealth Inc.

“Several phases of Jubilee homes were built of 35 to 40 at a time,” Holm says. “Altogether, Jubilee built 165-plus homes,” he adds, along with more than 200 rehab projects.

The new houses were rented for 15 years and then sold to first-time homeowners. The renovated properties were rented or sold to primarily minority families. Just about all of those houses are occupied and in good condition.

Approximately $2 million was raised as a result of these development projects, which was then donated by Jubilee to charitable causes supporting efforts such as the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley, enhancing K-12 education, Gleaners Food Bank and Valley Christian Schools.

The organization is also involved with multiple other organizations to help with the revitalization of Belmont Avenue, one of the major corridors leading into the city, Holm says.

Holm says Jubilee’s effort is a “second act” for the nonprofit, as the organization returns to its original concept of acquiring and renovating houses. The goal is to find properties clustered in a single area, where redevelopment could have a concentrated impact. “It becomes an anchor of bringing the entire neighborhood up,” Holm says.

Pictured at top: Eric Holm stands outside a structurally sound vacant house that could be repaired for new occupancy.