Our Towns

With 100th Renovation, YNDC Examines Impact

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio –  In the nine years that Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. has been renovating abandoned houses, the end result has largely been the same. But as employees and supporters celebrated the 100th house to be finished, the process has certainly been refined.

“I can’t say I’ve really thought about it but the short answer is no, I never imagined a hundred houses and definitely not this quickly,” said Ian Beniston, executive director of YNDC. “The bulk of these have been renovated in the past four or five years. We started with two or three a year. It’s much faster than I ever thought.”

When the community improvement organization started renovating houses shortly after its inception in 2010, YNDC was reliant on government subsidies to get work done, including hiring contractors for construction work.

“It was really expensive,” said YNDC housing director Tiffany Sokol. “Now, we’ve been able to hire an in-house construction team made up primarily of residents of the communities we serve. We have a lot more control of the projects. It certainly saves us on the overhead because we’re writing specs ourselves and doing the work ourselves.”

In 2018, YNDC acquired and rehabilitated 22 blighted properties across the city. 

“With each project, it gets a bit easier because we have systems in place that we’re constantly revising to improve and streamline things. Even the time it takes from start to finish is much smaller,” Sokol added.

In many respects, the renovation of 4202 Rush was like most of the other projects undertaken over the years. It had been owned by someone out of state – New York, in this case – and had the occasional tenant here and there but was largely unoccupied and fell into disrepair. Over time, the owner fell behind on taxes, setting the stage for Mahoning County Land Bank to acquire the property.

4202 Rush Blvd. before Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp. began work.

“The land bank is certainly to be commended on this because this property was a priority for us to acquire,” Sokol said. “Without the partnership of the land bank, a lot of these houses wouldn’t be viable because the acquisition costs would make it prohibitive to do the project.”

 Once the house was in their hands, work could begin. Through a combination of neglect and water damage, the living room ceiling had fallen to the floor. The roof needed repairs. Windows had to be replaced. Painting the outside needed to be finished.

“We didn’t choose that color,” Beniston said before giving a tour of the house. “Whoever was here had started painting that color and didn’t finish it. It was easier to finish what they started.”

And work went beyond just fixing up a house. YNDC’s approach to such projects, the director continued, is “market rate, market ready.” That means not just making a house livable, but attractive to buyers.

“It’s modern while we try to retain some of that historic character and charm. We don’t want a tiny little kitchen and we’re updating the finishes and cabinets, as well as some new tile in the bathrooms and kitchen,” he said. 

A high-efficiency furnace and water heater were installed, LEDs installed in all the fixtures and electrical wiring was updated to the latest standards.

“While this is a house that’s going on 90 or 100 years old, it has modern systems. That’s important in making it marketable,” Beniston said.

With work completed, the house is listed at $75,000.

Getting once-blighted houses rehabilitated is just part of YNDC’s process of improving neighborhoods. Neighborhood action plans, developed with input from smaller community groups, lay out exactly what needs to be done and priorities for each area. 

Through the action plan effort, the number of vacant houses in Youngstown has fallen to 2,226 as of the end of 2018, down from 3,927 in 2014. Crime has decreased in areas with a neighborhood action plan, with the majority of neighborhoods seeing rates outpacing citywide declines. Property values have increased, as well, with the average sale price in action plan communities coming in at $50,544 in 2018, up more than $15,000 from 2014.

Then, there’s the help YNDC offers to the neighborhood groups themselves. For a long time, said Boulevard Park Block Watch grant writer and YNDC board member Mary Danus, it was a struggle to get the city to even cut the overgrown grass. Partnering with YNDC amplified the community association’s voice in working to address problems.

“That was the key, getting one done,” Danus said. “We could point to each problem and tell [YNDC] about it.”

Today, YNDC serves as the fiscal agent for Boulevard Park Block Watch. The partnership allows the group to apply for grants, many of which require the organization receiving funds to be a 501(c)3, which the block watch is not.

“We’re not in a position to deal with all that stuff. They have all the people,” she said. “I struggle with the accounting as it is and I can’t imagine doing it as a 501(c)3. I can put all the pieces together, send it off and [YNDC] keeps track of it.”

Most recently, she added, the group was awarded $17,900 from the Western Reserve Health Foundation to install a blueberry patch in the neighborhood.

“We could never have managed it with them,” Danus said. “The fact that they’re accepting of their role to support small groups, that’s important.” 

Pictured: YNDC Executive Director Ian Beniston, board members Marguerite Douglas, Dollaine Holmes and Mary Danus, Mahoning County Land Bank director Deb Flora and YNDC housing director Tiffany Sokol speak in front 4202 Rush Blvd. The house is the 100th renovated by YNDC.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.