GRANOLAPARK: Vacant and blighted – an issue on fire

May 14th Westmoreland vacant home fire. Photo by Bill Brown.

GRANOLAPARK • BY GILBERT

Before the Takoma Park city council left for their August break, they tossed a hot potato to city hall.

To the staff’s mostly-stiffled dismay they have identified yet another priority – vacant and blighted property. They want it cleaned up or gone! The May Westmoreland Avenue fire heated up resident concerns about vacant houses. The Aug. 15 early morning fire at a vacant home on Kansas Avenue will likely bring it to a boil.

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Vacant home on Kansas Avenue damaged by fire this morning, Fri. Aug 15.

To do this, some council members want to jack up offenders’ property taxes. That, they say, will be just the chomp in the butt to get landlords to fix up – or sell – their unsafe, unsightly properties. Or, if the landlords don’t pay, the city can put a lien on those properties, forcing a “tax-sale.”

Not all the council members like this idea. They discussed it July 21.

Punitive tone

Councilmember Terry Seamens said he didn’t like the proposals’ punitive tone. He preferred the city assist property owners to clean up and improve their  buildings. He said he was “pressed to see a case” for raising taxes on vacant and blighted property. He was, he said, “a long way from it.”

He and council member Fred Schultz were concerned that negligent owners are already facing challenges: health, financial, family-crises, and so forth. Blighted areas are not always owned by slum lords, he said. Far more often they are owner- occupied and for complex reasons owners are incapable of upkeep. Threatening them with a tax rate hike could create more anxiety and sense of helplessness.

Schultz said it might not be as effective as advocates thought – attempts to raise and collect the taxes could dragged out by legal actions and non-compliance.

The trickiest part of this, he said, is clearly defining “vacant and blighted, or the city would find itselves in litigation.

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Takoma Park city council meeting, July 21, 2014.

Holistic

A punitive tax hike would not blight problems, agreed the advocates. But, Ward 3 councilmember  Kate Steward justified her support, saying that vacant properties are one of Ward 3’s top three constituent concerns.

“We need a holistic approach,” said Stewart. City staff takes a lot of time and effort to deal with these property owners, she said. A tax-increase penalty would provide staff another useful tool. But, whatever ordinance is developed, she said, should include education about existing assistance programs available to landlords to fix up their properties.

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Councilmember Kate Stewart.

Councilmember Tim Male supported dedicating city funds to home improvement – the carrot to go with the stick.

He was not concerned about crafting a definition of “blighted.” The standard in such laws is “condemned” for being unsafe, he said.

Should the law be applied to “blighted and vacant” buildings, or just “blighted”, Male pondered. If it were just “blighted”, that would include occupied buildings. He seemed to favor including “vacant.” As did Kate Stewart.

Mayor Williams told the tale of his early experience with with a condemned building when he was a mere council-sprout. He and the city worked with the owners and tenants to get it fixed up – using the power of condemnation to force action. That, he said, was good example of what this could be used for.

The E. D. words

Jarret Smith said “why go down this route rather than eminent domain?” Every eye in the room widened and all the moveable chairs scraped the floor as  everyone inched away from Smith.

Smith said that raising and collecting taxes would take to long to bring negligent landowners to reason, threatening to seize property with eminent domain would bring owners “to the table” faster, he said.

Mayor Bruce Williams noted that the city hasn’t used eminent domain for a couple of decades – “a conscious decision” he emphasized. Twice.

City manager Brian Kenner said he’d been involved in a couple of eminent domain cases in his previous Washington, DC job, and “the legal status is still pending” years later. So, it would not be faster, and their would be legal costs.

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Takoma Park councilmember Fred Schultz.

Fred Schultz explained that eminent domain is the inherent government right to to “take” property. Property taken is used – or used to be used  – for public works, to make room for a school, park or road. But, a dozen years ago the Supreme Court allowed a Connecticut city to use eminent domain to seize private property and, rather then use it for a public project, give it to a private company to develop an upscale hotel/condo/retail complex.

People of all political leanings were horrified. Hence the mass shudder that went through the room when Smith uttered the E.D. words.

But, speaking of “taking,” said Schultz, doesn’t doubling or tripling taxes amount to the same thing?

Haircut

So, what about those non-challenged, evil-type slum landlords that still pay no attention? Or properties that are so entangled in multiple, mass mortgage sales that nobody can find the owner – including the owner?

This new law – if it comes about – “won’t be the answer to every problem” said city manager Kenner. However, in all those cases where taxes accrued the city would have a lien against the property. Sort of like eminent domain by slow nibbling. Also, he said, if property owners think the value is high enough to offset the taxes, some will be “willing to take that haircut.”

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Takoma Park City Manager, Brian Kenner.

Pushing harder

When asked at the end if he had the “direction you need,” the city manager said he sensed interest in needing more information, definitions, . .

But, Seth Grimes and Tim Male pushed harder – they want to see proposals, ordinance language, and a timeline, they said.

The city manager’s response was even, but he did mention that this was a new council priority. He’s held a series of meetings since last November on council priorities. With our gin-fueled powers of telepathy Your Gilbert could tell he was thinking  “WHY are you sideswiping me with this new priority? Do you boneheads remember the meetings we had about council priorities? The memos? Hello? This was NOT mentioned!”

“We need another priorities discussion” suggested Seamens.

The city manager resisted burbling his lips.

City manager Kenner said he’d be getting back to them about priorities and a possible timeline on the proposed ordinance. He was probably mentally calculating how many days of summer vacation he was about to lose over this.

Using Gilbert’s Priority Evaluator (see below), we rate this one somewhere around 0. It comes from constituents, including at least one neighborhood association, but it would create new annual costs for enforcement and legal actions. Vacant/blighted buildings are a valid problem, but is the best solution?

The advocates were saying that, yes they want a law that drives property owners to the negotiating table, but they hope they never have to use it, except as incentive.

Sure. A punitive new law, an overworked city bureaucracy, landlords distracted by health and mental challenges. What could go wrong?

 – Gilbert

 

Gilbert’s Priority Evaluator. Calculate a number for proposed legislation.

– 25: the proposed legislation creates a new staff position, department, or annual revenue cost.

– 20: The proposed legislation is written, proposed, sponsored, or promoted by a “professional” interest group – an interest group with paid staff, office, and mostly non-resident membership.

– 15: The public comments and feedback are predominantly from interest-group staff, members, non-residents, residents who have never appeared before the city council on any other issue, and people who are misinformed.

– 10: Pro-legislation public comment comes from invited experts in the field, politicians, and children (other than members of the Young Activists Club).

– 5: the idea for proposed legislation came only from a councilmember or group of councilmembers.

0: the idea for proposed legislation came from one resident or group of residents numbering less than 10.

+ 5: the idea for proposed legislation came from a grassroots city organisation with no paid staff.

+ 10: the idea for proposed legislation came from two or more neighborhood associations.

+ 20. the proposed legislation has wide support from neighborhood associations, involved, informed citizens, and former city-council members. (-20 if the same folks turn up to speak against proposed legislation).

+ 25: the proposed legislation deals with a threat to the city such as loss of revenue, unwelcome development, highway changes, invasion of citizen’s rights, and so forth

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About the Author

Gilbert
Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.