January 29, 2013
City eyes tougher vacancy law
The city is taking steps, such as developing a list that would keep track of the properties registered and unregistered, to make the vacant building registry more effective by giving property owners an incentive to register.
In 2010, the city passed a local law that requires property owners to register their vacant properties with the city and pay a fee that starts at $250 and rises to $2,000 over five years.
The current fee structure is: $250 for the first year, $500 for the second, $1,000 for the third, $1,500 for the fourth and $2,500 for the fifth year and beyond.
The vacant property registry is part of the city’s fight against blighted properties, something Mayor Brian Tobin acknowledged as “a problem.”
Bill Knickerbocker, city director of code enforcement and assistant fire chief, said Monday that progress has been made recently but that there needs to be more of an incentive to get property owners to register their properties.
“We need to convince the owners of these properties to either reuse, occupy, demolish or develop these buildings,” Knickerbocker said. “I feel that if we give them an incentive, we may get what we want, which is less blight in the city.”
Knickerbocker said an incentive would be to return some or all of the fees paid by the property owner if he or she occupies the property, develops or demolishes it.
“It would make it so some of the owners have a reason to do something positive with the property rather than just letting it sit there,” Knickerbocker said.
Mack Cook, city director of administration and finance, said he wants the city to require a $300,000 liability insurance policy for any vacant property, which he said would protect those who have to enter the house for whatever reason.
“That’s normal,” he said. “It’s the standard amount.”
Cook also said the city would like the owner of any vacant property to have a local contact, be it a local rental agency or real estate firm. That way, he said, the city would not have to track down owners who may be all over the country.
As far as a new fee structure, Cook said he is not yet sure what it would look like. He would like the fee to coincide with the property’s value.
There are 74 vacant buildings, of which 28 are not registered, according to the city.
The city wants to track down the responsible parties, which Knickerbocker and Alderman Tom Michales (R-8th Ward) said is difficult because many just ignore the city’s requests.
There have been improvements since the inception of the law. In 2011, 45 properties were registered, Knickerbocker said.
Knickerbocker been asked by the Common Council to give a presentation on the law at a council meeting. Knickerbocker said he does not know when that will happen.
He said the codes office does not have the time to track down many of the people who are breaking the law. The presentation will also talk about how banks that own the houses in the city, due to foreclosure, will not take any responsibility for the property until the foreclosure is completed.
“I feel there are a lot of loopholes in this law, and we need to fix them,” Michales said. “Too many people are just ignoring us, or they’re not acting in a timely manner. We need to change the law, then we need to really start enforcing it.”
To rectify the problem, Knickerbocker is proposing certain changes. He wants to start a Vacant Watch List, which will be a directory of sorts of the vacant properties.
There also would be stiffer penalties if the law is amended. Buildings will be added to the watch list if the water is shut off, if a notice of foreclosure is filed with the county, if there are multiple complaints and if the power is disconnected.
To put all of this in place, the city will need the ability to bill property owners who have not registered, or have not paid fines. Knickerbocker likened it to fines doled out for not mowing the lawn or shoveling the sidewalk.
“Everyone has to comply with the rules, and it is not fair for these people to get away with it,” he said.
Knickerbocker said the codes office should be able to secure a building’s doors with an approved locking device. As of now, it is illegal for them to do this, as the current law does not allow codes officers to lock up vacant buildings.
Knickerbocker said he got permission, because of “serious” safety concerns, to lock up the former Buckbee-Mears site.
Future improvements in the program could be better managed by a law that empowers the codes office to develop and manage the program rather than a law that just defines every action and detail, Knickerbocker said.
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