Vacant Properties Part of City Blight Equation
Land Bank Update
September 12, 2015
A handful of fires across St. Joseph in recent months has highlighted a contributing factor to the city’s issues with blight: vacant buildings.
Steve Hofferber, property maintenance manager for the city, said there’s no one entity that tracks the number of vacant properties in the city. He added that the properties in themselves are not illegal.
“A building being vacant by itself is not a code violation,” he said. “There are hundreds, maybe thousands of buildings at any given point in time that are vacant. People move out, they might be going through foreclosure. A business might close and sometimes it takes years for another business to move in there.”
He said when a building’s exterior or the building itself becomes a code violation, that’s when the city can get involved. Most commonly, the city responds to unsecured vacant buildings.
“The city at that point would try to contact the owner and give them the opportunity to secure it,” he said. “If they don’t, then we would go in and secure it and bill the property owner.”
Issues of trespassing or other crimes taking place in vacant buildings are under the purview of the Police Department, but the city may follow up to secure the building if that’s the issue.
He said the time it takes to remedy problem properties can be extended by the lengthy process of finding out who owns a property, as well as the process to notice and for the city to abate the property or levy administrative penalties.
Mr. Hofferber said the problem of a surplus of vacant properties is not uncommon for older cities like St. Joseph.
“In our case, we have a housing stock that probably exceeds the number of people we have in town,” he said. “Other cities, maybe younger or growing cities, may not have that problem, but we do.”
He added when it comes to these properties, it’s important for the public to realize that they’re privately owned, in many cases.
“There are expectations that people maintain them according to code, so in addition to being unsecured, we run into problems where they don’t have protective treatment, the gutters are falling off, the roofs have issues,” he said. “We can’t demolish a building just for those reasons, but we can send a notice to the property owner. If they don’t comply, we can issue them citations to Municipal Court or administrative penalties and try to get them to comply that way.”
Land bank legislation
The question of how to solve the issue led state Rep. Delus Johnson, R-St. Joseph, to introduce a bill in the prior legislative session that would establish a land bank agency in St. Joseph.
The law was modeled off of a similar program in Kansas City. It would allow the agency to handle the management, sale, transfer and other disposition of interests in real estate. The purpose of a land bank would be “to foster the public purpose of returning land, including land that is in a nonrevenue-generating, nontax-producing status to use in private ownership,” according to the legislation, House Bill 652.
It ultimately was referred to the Economic Development and Business Attraction and Retention committee and did not proceed out of committee. Mr. Johnson said after submitting the bill, he learned there were similar programs existing in local government and said he would not further pursue the issue.
Ron Martin, Buchanan County’s trustee of county deeds, said the county doesn’t have a land bank, but he works to sell properties that remain unsold following the annual tax sale. Properties are placed on the tax sale list after a property owner fails to pay property taxes for two consecutive years.
Each year, the unsold properties are placed into a trust. Mr. Martin said this year, there were 47 houses and 60 vacant lots went unsold.
‘A land bank can only do so much’
The Center for Community Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, is focused on turning vacant, abandoned and problem properties into vibrant places. The group provides education, research, policy development and technical assistance to communities across the country and has expertise in the area of land banks.
When it comes to tackling the issue of vacant buildings, Kim Graziani, the center’s vice president and director of technical assistance, said there’s no one-size-fits-all fix, but cities that address them well typically have systems in place to handle them proactively.
She said those systems allow city officials to identify who owns the vacant properties, how long they’ve been vacant, if there have been any code enforcement actions on the property, if there have been any fire or police response to a property, and if a property’s owners have been delinquent on taxes.
“In our experience, tax delinquency is almost always the first red flag,” she said. “(Properties) slowly become substandard and eventually vacant. Usually our first point is to figure out whether (owners are) current on taxes.”
She said land banks can stabilize properties and give communities more flexibility on maintaining and transferring properties. They also can allow greater patience in terms of holding properties to match them with the right new and responsible owners.
“A land bank is a great tool, but if you don’t have all these other systems that are identifying and preventing properties from going into decline, then a land bank can only do so much,” she said. “You kind of have to tackle it from the front.”
Ms. Graziani said cities need a combination of transparent, proactive leaders, good property owners, government and nonprofit partnerships and different city departments working together.
“Those kind of things are very consistent regardless of the specifics,” she said.
Source: St. Joseph News-Press