So much of public skepticism about government efficiency stems from policies that aggravate rather than make it easier to solve the problems at hand. A recent change in asbestos regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is throwing a monkey wrench into efforts that are giving local governments and land banks across Ohio a handle on the aftershocks of the housing market collapse and the deep recession.
Foreclosures have left thousands of vacant and abandoned properties in various stages of dilapidation. The structures present all kinds of problems: They invite vandalism and criminal activities; they attract vermin and pose health and safety hazards. They drive down neighborhood property values and cost local governments extra expense. Summit County has identified nearly 5,000 vacant residential properties. Across Ohio an estimated 100,000 vacant houses need to be demolished.
Several counties are addressing the problem through land banks, which acquire and demolish problem properties. EPA regulations exempted small, isolated residential buildings of fewer than four units from the national standards for locating and removing materials containing asbestos before demolition. Under the exemption, the Cuyahoga County land bank, for instance, has demolished some 900 buildings, properly removing asbestos.
But in November, the EPA reinterpreted the guidelines to require all buildings for demolition to first go through time consuming and costly asbestos surveys. The Cleveland agency notes that less than 5 percent of its demolitions have involved dangerous asbestos material. Meanwhile, the new requirement has added $2,000 to $3,000 to the cost of each demolition.
Ohioís local governments are stretched for funds. As it is, they can ill afford the losses in property values, the health and safety risks or the expense of pulling down large numbers of vacant houses. A $75 million demolition fund now available through the state attorney generalís office would be invaluable in increasing the number and pace of demolitions. But land bank officials estimate the EPA policy has increased costs by 20 percent to 40 percent, dramatically reducing the bang for their bucks. Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown and Rep. Steve LaTourette do well in their efforts to persuade the EPA, and the Ohio EPA, which has adopted the new policy, to reverse it.