HARDWICK: What to do about abandoned, rundown properties in your town

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Published: September 13,2013

Tags: Business, Mississippi, Phil Hardwick

Hardwick, Phil BWBy Phil Hardwick

Abandoned, rundown properties are a challenge to neighbors, the local government and the community at large. Dealing with them is a complicated issue, but there are strategies that can be employed to deal with the situation.

Detroit’s current housing situation is certainly the poster city for urban blight. A picture of an overgrown lot with a burned-out house has replaced the photo of the gleaming downtown skyline as the image of “The Motor City.” With over 80,000 vacant houses and some streets overgrown with vines Detroit is representative of what can happen when extreme urban blight occurs. The City of Detroit is employing a variety of strategies to raze abandoned properties. Some are successful; others not so.

Although Detroit represents a worst-case scenario, it is important that every neighborhood and local government deal as soon as possible with abandoned properties. For the neighborhood itself, the main reason is very simple: Abandoned, rundown properties contribute to a decline in surrounding property values. As every real estate appraiser knows, the most important influence on the value of a parcel of real estate is the property next to it. So what can be done?

The residents of the neighborhood where a property becomes abandoned are typically the first to notice that something is wrong. The house is vacant, the yard is unkept and overgrown and lack of maintenance is becoming evident. The first step the neighbors might want to do is check with the local recorder of deeds – the chancery clerk in Mississippi – and find out who owns the property. Most abandoned residential properties go through the stages of owners, then renters and then abandonment. Understanding who owns the property and why the owner allowed it to become vacant is the first step.

Owners of abandoned properties come in all shapes and sizes. Some are absentee owners who have moved away and simply abandoned the property. Some are lenders who have foreclosed on the property or are waiting to foreclose on the property because the borrower has stopped making payments and cannot be located. Others are heirs of the previous owner and may not even know that they own the property. Sometimes the owner dies without any heirs, and the property eventually escheats to the state. All of these situations, and more, result in a property that is setting vacant and deteriorating as time passes by.

Once the owner has been determined, a representative of the neighborhood should contact the owner to learn the intention of the owner. If the owner is interested in refurbishing the property or tearing down the property the neighborhood should offer whatever assistance might be available. Ideally, the owner will follow through so that all live in peace and harmony ever after as property values rise in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, that seldom happens.

If the owner can be found, but is not responsive to working with the neighborhood to solve the problem, the next step is to meet with the local governing authority’s code enforcement office for the purpose of bringing it to the attention of the local government. The appropriate authorities can then begin their process of notices, cleanup and billing the owner. Because of legal notice requirements this can become a lengthy process as the property continues its increasingly rapid morphing into even greater deterioration. Sly owners, aka slumlords, are adept at using legal notice requirements to delay the process. One common method is to deed the property to someone else so that the legal process will have to begin all over again. The new owner will then deed it back to the first owner as the cycle goes on.

If the above actions do not result in positive action then a second sometimes effective strategy is to bring public attention to the matter by contacting the local media. Television stations, in particular, seem to be interested in showcasing abandoned, overgrown properties and letting the public know who owns them. Such cases make for good “before and after” stories. Along the same lines, one frustrated neighborhood finally began putting up signs in front of such properties stating, “This property is owned by …” That strategy can be effective if the property owner is local and is influenced by shame.

The real problem with dealing with abandoned, overgrown properties seems to be procedural. Property rights are a fundamental part of society in the United States. Government intervention in property ownership is anathema to many, if not most, people. The U.S. Constitution and that of most states provides that private property may not be taken by the government except for a public purpose and not without adequate compensation to the owner. That authority is the basis for public notices and procedures. Unfortunately, owners of abandoned, overgrown properties can use these legal safeguards to their advantage, and to the frustration of local authorities and neighborhoods.

As efforts continue to balance private property rights with neighborhood improvement it remains that the property itself continues to deteriorate. It seems that the best strategy for a neighborhood and for local authorities is to catch the abandonment in the early stages and deal vigorously with the situation.

» Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Pease contact Hardwick at phil@philhardwick.com.

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