No Vacancies

By Stateside Associates

Local Government MonitoringOur state government relations work with local officials often focuses on business issues such as zoning, wage and benefit requirements, taxes or plastic bag restrictions. However, to be effective advocates we must also be aware of the other issues that face elected officials. One issue that has trended on the local level of late and is of great importance to elected officials in many cities is curbing and managing vacant/abandoned properties.

Be it the increase in foreclosures, the state of the economy or the financial crisis some cities face, the presence of vacant properties has always plagued cities. Studies have shown that vacant and abandoned properties put neighborhoods and their residents at risk. These properties are often a magnet for criminal activity and raise the risk of fires and other forms of property damage to nearby structures. Besides reducing the values of adjacent properties and reducing residents’ pride in their neighborhood, vacant and abandoned properties are bad news for neighbors, prospective buyers and localities everywhere. Some cities have implemented measures to prevent vacant buildings from getting to the point of blight and some have come up with creative ways for residents to reuse empty lots.

In Jersey City, New Jersey, the City implemented a “vacant land law” which imposes a registration fee on property owners for having vacant lots. The initial registration fee is $250. If after a year the property is still vacant and not back on the market the fee goes up to $500.

In Westland, Michigan the City Council passed an ordinance that “grass in excess of 8 inches” would not be tolerated. The City, through their general maintenance budget, declared that it has the right to contract with the lowest bidder to cut the grass of the properties that violate the ordinance.

Cincinnati, Ohio lawmakers passed an ordinance that required “owners of vacant buildings to take out a vacant building permit” and renew it each year. A $900 registration fee is required for less than 1-year of vacancy. The annual renewal rate is set at an escalating schedule, so next year’s rate jumps to $2,700. The ordinance requires property owners to “meet minimum maintenance standards” each year. The ordinance, lawmakers concluded, would encourage property owners to demolish or renovate their buildings.

In Oakland, California vacant property owners pay a $568 registration fee annually. In Huntington and Islip, New York, property owners must pay $2,500 annually, which is automatically added to their tax bill, and they must register within 30-days of notice from the City. By contrast in Alameda, a property owner has 90-days to register at a cost of only $632 initially and each year the property stands vacant. Vacaville, California property owners must register their vacant property within 30-days. While there is no fee associated with registration, any time the property is found to be in violation of a city code a fine of $550 is implemented and is applied every month that the violation is outstanding.

For many cities, amending and stepping up city code enforcement, such as nuisance abatement, compliance and property management, has helped keep the number of troublesome vacant properties at bay. But cities must identify the owners and citable conditions of these vacant properties in order to enforce what is currently on the books. Doing so takes time and costs money, but is something cities seem to be increasingly willing to invest in.

However, not all vacant properties are alike. Once buildings have been demolished, some lots have more value than others and some do not stand a chance of staying vacant for long. Others have a greater possibility of creating a valuable community resource.

Many cities have begun programs that call for the reuse of vacant lots that do not necessarily involve enforcement but encourage community based projects. The goal of these programs is to improve the community by allowing nearby residents to reuse and repurpose the space.

In Jersey City, $1 will get you a two-year lease as part of the “Adopt-A-Lot Program” program. As part of the program, lessees will be provided with “the resources and skills, such as plant choice, maintenance, and composting.” Cities in New York, California, Massachusetts, Illinois and Tennessee participate in similar community garden leasing programs.

In Cleveland, Ohio individuals living next door to a vacant property can, in certain cases, purchase the adjoining lot to expand their side yard or split the vacant property with their neighbor. The program can provide space for larger yards, expanded green space, gardens or driveways. Re-Imaging Cleveland: Ideas to Action Resource Book. Cities in Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio participate in similar Side-Yard Programs.

Popular in dense urban areas and often configured in temporary spaces such as a parking spot or an unused trolley car, a number of cities are making parklets a permanent part of their infrastructure. Los Angeles welcomed its first parklet in the northeast section of the city in February and plans to add on to the current space by investing resources in a long-vacant property nearby. In Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, the community plans on turning two vacant city lots into three community gardens know as the “Penn Avenue Parklet.” New York, San Francisco and San Diego boast some of the more interesting temporary parklets.

The goal – to reduce or reuse vacant and abandoned properties – is the same for any city. Certainly a mixture of enforcement along with some creative thinking with the addition of community support have become the trend in many cities and what might be considered soon in a city near you.

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