Vacant building registration

January 16, 2008

Back on September 23, 2007 we posted here about a Virginian-Pilot article which addresses the negative affects of abandoned housing in Norfolk and Portsmouth. We followed that post with another, on November 28, 2007, about how Norfolk was going to lobby the state for tools to combat vacant houses.

Virginia Code currently allows Cities, by ordinance, to require the owners of buildings that have been vacant for a continuous period of 12 months or more to register such buildings on an annual basis and may impose an annual registration fee not to exceed $25. Failure to register results in a $50 civil penalty. Failure to register in conservation and rehabilitation districts or in other areas designated as blighted results in a civil penalty of not more than $250. Norfolk does have a vacant building registry ordinance and it is in line with the above penalties.

SB162 is a proposed bill currently in the Senate Committee on Local Government . Its sister bill in the House, HB1210 (proposed by Delegate Ken Melvin, who represents a part of Norfolk), is in the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee. They propose increasing the $50 penalty to a $500 dollar penalty and increasing the $250 dollar maximum penalty in conservation and rehabilitation areas to a $2500 maximum.

Currently, the cost of maintaining and policing a vacant building registry is prohibitive. The City could spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars chasing down violators with the end result being a $50 or $500 penalty. Hopefully the proposed changes will make having a registry more viable and in turn reduce the number of vacant, blighted buildings.

VP Opinion/Editorial: “Boarded up houses drain old cities”

September 27, 2007

The Virginian-Pilot has an opinion article following up on their September 23 article on the effects of abandoned housing. The article chastises State legislators:

State legislators offer no help.

Lawmakers, in fact, seem more sympathetic to absentee and irresponsible landowners than they are to neighbors left to deal with the vermin and crime that come with empty, blighted buildings.

State law prevents cities from assessing fines on owners, and the annual fee for vacant houses is a laughable $25. Legislators are promising to consider a proposal to double it. But $50 is too small to make a property owner budge and too little to cover the extra municipal expenses a neglected property runs up.

The article also mentions how the change in eminent domain laws has effected the Commonwealth’s older cities.

Legislators were justifiably concerned about the abuse of condemnation powers, but they should also be concerned about leaving urban communities more vulnerable to decay.

The Wards Corner Partnership could not agree more with the following exerpt:

It’s in everyone’s interest to get these properties repaired and back on the market.

Empty properties, whether they be residential or commercial storefronts, are a great concern for the residents and business owners of our Partnership Area. Allowing properties to sit empty and decay will only further exacerbate the crime and decay that is already present. A prime example of this is the Martone property on the northeast side of the Granby Street – Little Creek Road intersection.

Our State legislators need to realize the effects on inner cities of not being able to use eminent domain to further economic development. There needs to be a solution that gives the Cities and Counties the ability to influence those landowners who continue to negatively affect the property and residents around them. That solution needs to not only respect the rights of private land ownership, but also respect the rights of neighboring property owners whose property values are diminished as a result of the increased decay and crime.

VP Article on the Effects Of Abandoned Housing

September 23, 2007

The Virginian-Pilot has a very good article on the effects of abandoned housing on the core cities of Hampton Roads, Portsmouth and Norfolk.

If you live next to a vacant house, your property is worth about $7,500 less.

If a vacant house is on your block, the possibility of crime or fire occurring in your neighborhood doubles.

And if you live in Norfolk or Portsmouth, you’re much more likely to face these problems than anywhere else in Hampton Roads.

The article does mention what successes Wilmington, DE has had with a program they have enacted.

Wilmington, Del., has reduced its stock of 1,400 abandoned houses by 22 percent in the past four years through an aggressive program that fines owners annually, starting at $500 and increasing to more than $5,000 if they leave their houses empty for a decade.

The city has collected about $600,000 since 2003.

The fines reflect the costs associated with an abandoned property, from code inspections to police and fire calls, said Jeffrey Starkey, Wilmington’s commissioner of licenses and inspections.

“When you’re constantly being called out to the same property, it’s a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “The taxpayers are footing the bill for that.”

But because of the Dillon Rule, the best the cities in Virginia can do is charge $25 per year.

In Virginia, a program like Wilmington’s is currently impossible. State law prohibits cities from fining property owners and limits vacant housing registry fees to $25 a year – an amount set in 1993.

According to the article, Virginia First Cities Coalition, the lobbying group for 15 of Virginia’s most fiscally stressed older cities, has attempted to lobby for an increase in the fee.

Legislators don’t realize how much abandoned houses hurt communities, said Rachel Flynn, Richmond’s director of community development.

“Most of these legislators don’t live where there’s blight,” Flynn said. “It’s simple math: The votes aren’t there for the people who actually experience this and live in these neighborhoods.”

Ingram agreed.

“A lot of the legislators are from rural areas or from areas where it’s not a problem,” he said.

Neither Norfolk nor Portsmouth has a delegate on the committee.

Norfolk is trying to do something about the problem:

Norfolk also is restarting its vacant house registry. Over the past two years, employees have assembled a preliminary list, compiled from inspectors’ reports and neighbors’ complaints, of about 400 vacant properties that might qualify, said David Freeman, director of neighborhood preservation. Owners will be asked to register or say why they shouldn’t be on the list.

The city also is giving its worst properties special attention, said James Rogers, assistant to the city manager. Norfolk has demolished 31 nuisance properties and compelled the owners of 54 others to restore them.

Vice Mayor Anthony L. Burfoot supports this more intense approach.

“We’re not going to let communities decay like we have in the past,” he said.

The Wards Corner Partnership area, especially Denby Park, Monticello Village and Oakdale Farms, has and continues to experience problems with abandoned homes. We need to lobby for legislation in the General Assembly that will give municipalities the tools to address the abandoned housing problem.

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