One of the goals I gave Community Revitalization for 2015 was to bring eight neighborhoods completely back to code compliance. I’m a firm believer that how we look as a city matters. If we want to bring new families to the City, reduce crime and increase property values, our neighborhoods have to look and be inviting to all.
That means the whole neighborhood. Each house, the parks, the sidewalks, the streets. Your part and our part. I can’t go down the street and selectively decide that you have to fix your house but your neighbor who has less money won’t be made to make their repairs.
The problem we always run into is how to do we handle those working poor who are unable to make their repairs? The options are not easy once you’ve let the property get in poor condition.
If you’ve followed Community Revitalization efforts, you know that the City has partnered with many great churches and social service agencies to make repairs to hundreds of houses in the City. This has brought many properties back into code compliance.
We’ve demolished over 400 houses where the cost of repairs simply made no sense given the value of the house.
As we get further down the road of code enforcement, the houses get more challenging. How do we as a city handle a house worth $50,000 that needs over $10,000 in external repairs just to get the outside back into compliance? Should that house be repaired at all if the owner can’t afford the repairs needed?
As a policy matter, what is the difference between a feasible rehab and a demolition candidate? Is it a function of the total value of the house? In other words, you could state a policy that “the City will not get involved in repairs that exceed 25% of the tax assessed value.” Where is the point that rehab does not make sense?
How do we as a city handle a home owned by a 78 year widow with no money who is living in the family home in deplorable condition? What if the homeowner is a single mother with two jobs but not enough time and money to make repairs? How about the disabled?
There are several possible abatement options…
The City can grant the repairs using taxpayer dollars. The concept would be that repairing those houses and improving neighborhood appearance raise property values throughout the city and is a good investment of taxpayer dollars. Not everyone would agree with that logic. And here is the flip side. If you couldn’t afford to make repairs to your house and the City makes the repairs at no cost to the homeowner, there is no reason to believe he or she will then be able to start making repairs and keep the house up once we leave. If their income doesn’t change, their ability to maintain the home does not change. If the house falls back into disrepair, do we come back out and make free repairs again? How many times?
The City can abate the nuisance, make the repairs, and then place a tax lien on the property. The end result is likely that the homeowner will eventually be forced out of their home for nonpayment of taxes. The City then looks like it is targeting poor and minorities households. Not a great result and City Council has been adamant that they do not support pushing people out of their homes.
We have offered 0% long-term loans for the repair costs. When we did this 10-15 years ago, more than two thirds of the homeowners defaulted on their loan. They simply could not afford the additional payments, even at 0% interest over a long term. Bottom line, we write off the loan or foreclose on the house and take it away from them to get our investment back. Not a great option.
The City has the ability to take you to court. There are several issues with this. If you are taken to court for violation of the property maintenance code, you’ll be given a $150.00 fine and be told to fix the property. Lower income people will likely have trouble paying the fine, and if they are paying the fine, they are not using those funds to complete repairs. If you don’t comply with the order to repair, the City can take you back to court for a Contempt of Court Order change. Again, this doesn’t have much meaning if you lacked the ability to make repairs before and nothing has changed.
So that gets us back to abating the nuisance and either granting it out at taxpayer expense or forcing homeowners out of housing that they can’t afford to maintain.
We are going to try a new option for 2016. It may or may not work, but we are trying to find real ways to bring neighborhoods back up without forcing homeowners out. As a homeowner, you always have the existing options when faced with a property code violation. 1.) Fix it yourself, or 2.) We abate it and assess it to your property taxes,
In 2016, we’re going to look at a third option. We abate it, but you can work off the cost by providing community service work reimbursed at $25/hr. As an example, if you had $500 worth of abatement work, you could have the work done by the city and then do 20 hours of community service work to pay off the repairs. This does a few things. Number one, it brings a few more properties into compliance in our neighborhoods. Second, it isn’t being done for free. The homeowner has some investment in the work being done. Third, while the home is now in compliance, the homeowner can provide 20 hours of beautification work in other parts of the city to clean a park, paint a picnic shelter, whatever, in their neighborhood to improve the overall look of the city.
I’m not under any illusion that the community service work done would normally cost the City $25/hr. It is a tool to get compliance and not make homeowners indebted to us indefinitely. This may or may not work, but we believe it is worth a try to help additional homeowners find a way to comply with the property maintenance code.
These are difficult questions with no good answers. The problems above don’t even touch on the City’s responsibility to keep parks and sidewalks and streets in good condition. We have a lot of work ahead of us but we’re working hard to start making changes in how your government operates and how your city looks.