Ideas from other cities for next mayor

I posted the following over two years ago, but the ideas are good ones that the next mayor would do well to look at. They’re concerning how to deal with property owners who allow their business-district buildings to rot and bring down the values of all our properties.
James Street is our main business district. It has a number of really super businesses on it. What happens there affects all of us, as residents, as business owners, as property owners. Those who allow their vacant buildings or lots on James St. to remain in their present ugly condition are affecting your property values. It’s time the Common Council acted more decisively to get owners to fix up these properties or sell them to someone who will develop them within the James Street Overlay District Zoning Standards.

While searching the web for what other cities are doing about vacant buildings , I came across a website simply titled “AMCBO Member Call Summary.” (AMCBO is the Association of Major City/County Building Officials.) It appears to be a summary of a meeting that took place in 2005. It’s worth a thorough read. Below I’ve pasted the ideas I found most appealing:

Several major approaches (are) being used to address what is not only a building department issue but also one that impacts police, fire, historic preservation and social services of a city.

…(S)ome cities register all structures that are vacant on a website (St. Paul, MN) with information on owner and value of the property as a way to potentially attract investors or developers who may be interested in acquiring the property for redevelopment.

Chattanooga, TN for example, tries to shame owners into making corrections by putting up 4’ X 8’ signs noting who owns the derelict building and will put ads in newspapers where the owner lives noting that they hold abandoned run down properties.

Milwaukee is considering a Board and Vacant Resolution. After 6 months, the city has authority to issue a directive to the owner giving him 30 days to make corrections and to take the boards off the abandoned structure.

In that city the owner can either get a rehab permit for their building or, if the building has been designated a historic structure, can get a mothball permit to seal and hold the building as is until it can be rehabilitated under historic preservation guidelines. If owners do not make the minimum repairs mandated by the city, then the city can set the property at fair market value.

Mr. Collins said that his city (Milwaukee) has experimented with SkunkShot (also being used in Los Angeles) as a chemical that is activated inside abandoned buildings and is so nauseous that squatters and others will not try to enter and inhabit the boarded up buildings. The website for this product is

Milwaukee has an ordinance – 25 illegal acts or 3 at a premises within a 30 day period and the building can be declared a chronic nuisance and go after a tax lien. 81% of the owners comply after the first such letter from the city. Get 100% compliance with the city’s tax bill.

Ron Smith from St. Louis noted that abandoned and vacant buildings are a problem in his city as well. He said the city has a new tool – legislation that establishes a nuisance ordinance regarding vacant and abandoned buildings.

The first part of the ordinance involves “behavioral nuisances.” This applies to buildings that house (legally or illegally) people whose behavior generates numerous police calls. The Mayor is having the City Council look at ways of getting the building into the hands of a different owner, one who will fix the building up.

Secondly, the city can issue a fine and after 6 months or more violations the property can be put under notice for sale by the city.

St. Louis follows a program similar to Milwaukee for nuisance buildings. City issues a cease and desist letter and then takes penalties to next level with the city attorney stepping in to get the property to someone else.

St. Louis has 15 designated historic districts in the city. Consideration is being given to put demolitions under the control of a special preservation board.

Chicago has the legal authority to pursue owners who live out of state.

Florencio Pena from San Antonio noted that because of the way his authority is set up his department is not directly involved. A dangerous buildings board handles abandoned and vacant buildings. The city runs an incentive program to get new owners for buildings whose owners can’t or won’t fix them up to code.

Chicago has an exterior facade ordinance and covers porches as well. The city has 178 inspectors for over 1,000,000 buildings.

The city goes after out-of-state owners and works closely with the Department of Housing and Landmarks to encourage housing conversions in once vacant properties. Attached housing is not a problem in Chicago.

The city has day-to-day fines that can get upwards of $300,000 to $500,000 to shift over the property to those who are willing to develop. Chicago has 9 inspectors in its vacant buildings and demolition program. The city has a very tenacious department of revenues that garnishes revenues.

Milwaukee: On vacant buildings in an historic district, our code allows the city to make safety repairs and put those costs on the owner’s taxes.

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