Government Technology

Home Sweet Home

December 4, 2003 By

On Detroit's east side, 539 Custer sits near a church and barbecue joint. One can imagine the former residents eating a plate of ribs after Sunday worship. But if they did, it would have been some time ago. It has been about a decade since the three-family flat was occupied, according to neighbors. They say that the house was abandoned and is sometimes occupied by squatters.

The roof and second floor of the vintage 1900 structure are in disrepair. It appears that vinyl siding has been ripped off the house. The front door is made of plywood. The original fake brick siding is unscathed by the elements.

-- Metro Times

Each Wednesday, the Metro Times lists the "Abandoned Shelter of the Week," and 539 Custer was listed on Oct. 22. The home is valued at $10,600, but Detroit officials said they plan to have the Detroit Buildings and Safety Engineering Department tear it down, according to the Metro Times.

The properties wind up either being sold or demolished, depending on what city agencies decide is most feasible.

In some cities, vacant properties are rare, but in others the scale of abandonment is far greater, with entire streets and neighborhoods resembling urban ghost towns, the National Vacant Properties Campaign (NVPC) states on its Web site.

Besides posing the obvious risk of fire, abandoned properties hurt communities and consumers by decreasing property values, reducing tax revenues and attracting crime.

The NVPC is a project of Smart Growth America (SGA), the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC). The NVPC's mission is to reclaim and redevelop vacant lots and abandoned buildings, and mobilize policy-makers, developers and others to prevent abandonment.

Step One

The ICMA uses two criteria to define abandoned property. First, no one resides at the site, and it would be difficult for anyone to occupy the site without substantial repairs. Second, the property is boarded and secured or the entire lot is completely fenced to deny entry. The common element is the condition of these vacant properties amounts to a public nuisance, according to the ICMA.

Whether anyone owns such properties seems like a simple question, said John Bailey, associate director for SGA, but it's not.

"The problem is, especially in properties that have been abandoned for a long time, several different heirs might own the property, several different people might have an interest in the property, so it's difficult to find the one person who owns a property," he said.

The legal process surrounding vacant property foreclosure is cumbersome and lengthy, Bailey said, and title insurance companies typically won't insure the title unless each person associated with the property has been contacted.

"Before the way you did it was put an ad in the paper saying, '39 Elm Street is going to be foreclosed, come in if you have any interest in the property,'" he said, adding that a Supreme Court ruling in the last decade has changed cities' responsibilities. "Now you actually have to go and contact each person individually. I think part of the reason is an attempt at good government."

Foreclosure is an extreme step, Bailey said, because property rights have strong protection in the U.S. Constitution. As a result, city governments trying to do the right thing by taking responsibility for public nuisance properties can spend five to seven years in legal wrangling over foreclosing on an abandoned property.

"It's kind of the law of unintended consequences," he said. "Like many laws, they were put on the books to prevent bad governance and fraud, but it ends up hurting a city government's ability to regain land."

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