Apr 23, 2012 Amanda Seef Uncategorized
Nearly 1,7000 buildings within city lines have been left empty, costing city taxpayers nearly $2 million a year in upkeep costs.
The blight of vacant homes is a national problem, only growing worse from the housing bubble burst of the last decade, according to data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Census data shows there has been an uptick in properties being left vacant. In New York alone, there’s been a 30 percent increase in abandoned homes in the last decade. High foreclosure and unemployment rates could be to blame for the growth in empty locations, the GAO said.
What the city budgets each year:
$1M — court-ordered demolitions
$114,000 — board up costs by the DPW
$435,000 — monitoring and upkeep of buildings by code enforcement
$230,000 — contract with landscaping company for additional upkeep
“It pretty much continues to grow, particularly with the recession and the economy — people were hit pretty hard,” said Corey Driscoll, deputy director of code enforcement for the city of Syracuse. “We’ve seen vacant properties gradually grow.”
Between mowing, demolition, trash removal and police services, taxpayers are footing the bill for these homes and commercial properties.
“We spend a lot of money trying to maintain these properties to incredibly minimal standards,” Driscoll said. In fact, at least $1.5 million is allocated in the city budget each year to deal specifically with the upkeep, or demolition, of these buildings.
Driscoll’s department works to identify vacant properties in the city, looking for signs that no one is living in the home — it may have started to deteriorate, the lawns are left unmowed or trash has been left at the property.
“We go out every three to four weeks to look at each one of these properties,” she said.
The department will check to make sure each home is secure, looking to ensure doors are locked and closed and windows are in one piece. If they’re not, Department of Public Works employees are sent to board up the first floor doors and windows, coming at a cost of $114,000 yearly to taxpayers.
Add that to the labor hours spent by the city mowing lawns and the seasonal upkeep on the unoccupied lots is becoming one of the biggest price tags on vacant homes for city taxpayers. City employees can’t do all of the work, Driscoll said, requiring a contract with a local landscaping company to finish the lawn work on the rest of the homes. That comes at a tune of $230,000 a year. City employees mow about 2,100 lawns a year. An additional 6,500 are contracted out, Driscoll said.
“Our city employees can only do so much,” she said.
The city has an additional $1,000,000 earmarked in the annual budget to demolish dangerous homes, as well. If a building is unsafe to enter, or has deteriorated so much so that it is unsafe to continue to stand, the city can get a court order to demolish the home.
The city will step in when the owner either refuses to demolish the building or can’t be located. The cost of that demolition is added to the owner’s property tax bill, recouping some of the costs. Many of the owners of vacant homes are delinquent in taxes, however.
“When the floors are falling in, it’s not the safest place for people to be in, or for police officers to be chasing people through,” said Syracuse Police Lt. Richard Shoff, of the community policing division.
Community Services 4
Multiple Residence 30
Apartment buildings 98
The crime rate surrounding vacant homes is only increasing, too.
“When these properties are abandoned, they become more appealing for criminal activity,” she said.
There are plenty of costs associated with the police department in regards to vacant homes, too.
“That’s man hours, every time we respond to a vacant home,” Shoff said. “It takes us away from something [else] we could be doing.”
Problems surrounding these homes range from annoyances, like loitering, to major felonies being committed in the homes.
“People tend to go into these homes and steal everything out of them,” Shoff said. The biggest items have been appliances, such as hot water heaters and furnaces, and copper piping.
The city recognized burglary as being a main issue last year, working to reduce the overall burglary rate by 23 percent through targeted initiatives. Burglaries relating to copper pipe accounted for a majority of the calls, said Chief Frank Fowler in January regarding crime rates.
Drug users and sellers often use abandoned homes to partake in drug activity, too, Shoff said.
“People are hanging out, doing drug sales and stuff like that,” he said. “If they’re not selling drugs, they’re being a general nuisance.”
With the housing crisis of 2008, foreclosed homes became prime real estate for squatters. Syracuse homes have been no exception, Shoff said. People see the home as empty, and claim it as their own.
“It’s like a sub-culture, people move from one vacant place to another,” he said. “And in commercial properties, it’s the same thing, only on steroids. Instead of having one or two apartments, it’s a whole building.”
Nationally, squatters are taking over homes — turning on utilities, moving their furniture in and living in the home, free of charge. Other cities have reported squatting schemes — con artists will have the locks changed on a home, show it as if he or she were a landlord, and collect first and last month’s rent from prospective tenants before leaving town.
The problem with these homes, Shoff said, is the police have no legal right to tell someone to move from private property, unless they are causing a problem in the neighborhood. New York State Penal Code doesn’t have a specific law that makes squatting illegal. Shoff says sometimes homeowners have to take squatters to eviction court to remove them from their building.
“Because it’s private property, we don’t have a lot of power there,” Shoff said. “Its just shuffling them along.”
That’s why the city created a trespass affidavit, a form that homeowners can sign to give the city police authority to make loitering arrests on private properties.
“It helps us move people along, so they’re not loitering and the places become less of a problem,” Shoff said.
The affidavit is open to all building owners in the city of Syracuse and can be filled out by calling 448-8650.
The city continues to find new ways to combat the vacant home crisis, Driscoll said.
“We are going to need a wide array of tools to address the vacant properties,” she said.
For every three vacant properties in Syracuse, one is tax delinquent. The city could seize more than 500 properties for being severely tax delinquent.
To combat this problem, the county and city are exploring a new option in tandem — a land bank. Approved by the city legislature last month, the county-city deal would allow the municipality to take over tax-delinquent properties, in order to sell the blighted property to a responsible developer. Profits of the sale go back into the land bank, keeping the funds in the city.
“The large number of abandoned and vacant properties is a major issue in upstate cities like Syracuse, adversely affecting property values and hindering economic growth,” said Senator David Valesky. “Land banks are a community-based solution which has shown great benefit in other states, fostering growth and improving the quality of life in our cities and neighborhoods.”
Valesky sponsored legislation that passed unanimously in the state senate and assembly last year. Locally, the land bank passed by the county legislature in February, and by the city common council in March. The state has yet to approve the land bank for the city.
A land bank, or the Greater Syracuse Property Development Corp.,would run as a not-for-profit corporation serving as a “vehicle” to help acquire the blighted homes. In an info sheet produced by Onondaga County, properties are often sold at auction to a person without a commitment to the community. Land banks will help that problem, the pamphlet say.
Ten land banks will be created in the state. Empire State Development, who is sponsoring the land banks, expects to make the first round of approvals in the next two months.