PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

John Carter 2008 HONOREE

Housing Inspector, Dayton, Ohio

John Carter asked why lenders couldn’t do better at keeping foreclosures from turning into blight.

John Carter has always loved old houses. When he was still a teenager, the Dayton Daily News profiled him as a kid who collected lore on historic homes the way other kids collected baseball cards. So when the foreclosure crisis hit Dayton — years before it reached the rest of the country, thanks to woes in the auto industry — nobody was more upset than Carter about the resulting infection of abandoned properties and blight.

John CarterUntil recently, Dayton's response to the problem was to put up "shaming" billboards, encouraging residents to call lending company CEOs and pressure them to take better care of homes to which they held title. That had little effect. Carter thought there had to be a better way. But first, he had to figure out the mortgage industry.

The way mortgages are packaged into securities these days, it can be difficult to find out exactly which company holds title to a certain vacant property. What Carter understood is that the lenders had the same problem: It was tough for them to keep on top of the condition of their own growing inventories of foreclosed homes. His solution was to become a broker of blight information. If the city kept lenders up to date on what shape their homes were in, Carter reasoned, then the companies might do a better job of upkeep.

Carter untangled the webs of the mortgage services industry to put together a database of contacts responsible for many of Dayton's abandoned properties. He regularly blasts e-mails to hundreds of lenders, as well as the contractors who actually take care of properties for them, letting them know which homes are on the city's list of trouble spots. Someone will usually respond within a day or two, to replace broken windows or haul away trash. Private companies now fix and maintain about 250 homes a year that the city otherwise would have boarded up. That hasn't solved Dayton's abandoned-housing problem. But it's saved the city considerable money and shown localities across the country one effective strategy for controlling the foreclosure problem's ripple effects.

People in the mortgage industry call Carter "Grasshopper." It's a reference to a character in the old "Kung Fu" TV series who exhibited extraordinary diligence and patience. Carter spares no effort to learn about the mortgage business and to see what might solve the blight problem from the companies' point of view.

Among city officials, Carter is viewed as the go-to guy when they hear complaints from constituents about empty buildings. Local nonprofits, meanwhile, look to Carter to match them with companies from his contact list who are willing to donate properties to be fixed up and used as affordable housing. "He found a way to deal with huge costs and quality-of-life issues facing the city of Dayton," says Ann Schenking, a city planner. And it "didn't require government to pay money to solve."

— Alan Greenblatt
Photo by Andy Snow