by Michele Skalicky
SBJ Contributing Writer
Sixty vacant lots are scattered throughout Springfield, waiting for their owners to claim them. But, for now, the city must pay to keep them mowed.
Houses used to sit on the lots until they were declared dangerous by the city's Building Development Services Department. When the owners failed to make the necessary repairs, the city paid someone to tear the houses down, and liens were placed on the properties.
Owners of houses declared dangerous don't always walk away, said the city's director of Building Development Services, Bob Turner, but that's the case about 50 percent of the time. Often, the property is worth less than the cost of the lien, he said.
A vacant building is declared dangerous when it becomes open to the public, in some cases by vandals breaking windows, according to Turner. People, especially children, might be in danger if they go inside. Several boarded-up houses have been vacant in Springfield for a long time, but aren't deemed dangerous.
For example, the Colonial Hotel sat vacant for 10 years, Turner said, but wasn't labeled dangerous until a portion of the roof collapsed.
A building can be declared dangerous if it has holes in the roof exposing it to the elements and trash and debris around it, Turner said.
Building Development Services usually reacts to complaints by neighbors. Once a building is declared dangerous, a notice is sent to the owner describing the needed repairs. The owner then has 30 days to let the department know his or her plans for fixing the house. If the owner doesn't make the repairs, an administrative hearing is held, which gives the city the legal authority it needs to proceed with demolition, Turner said.
If the owner still refuses to do something about the dangerous building, the city then begins taking bids for demolition, according to Turner.
If that doesn't prompt action by the owner, the building is torn down, at a cost of about $3,000 to $5,000, and a lien is placed against the property. But Turner said the county may take action first. "It's kind of a race to see if the county sells it for back taxes or we tear it down," he said.
The city sets aside $25,000 in each budget for building demolition, but Building Development Services usually spends that early in the year.
Last year, about $142,000 was spent to tear down dangerous buildings in Springfield, according to Turner. The department is currently asking City Council for $91,000 to tear down 12 dangerous houses in Springfield.
"I'm not at all unhappy that we have to go back to council and talk about his," Turner said. "I think it's a good item to be debated before the community."
Turner said he would like to see the problem addressed in a different way. State law allows cities to fine owners of dangerous buildings who refuse to make the needed repairs.
It also allows cities to make owners personally liable. Building Development Services is recommending those changes be added to the city's dangerous buildings ordinance, but first it wants the public's opinion.
City Council's Plans and Policies Committee is planned for noon Feb. 18 on the fourth floor of the Busch Municipal Building.
If the changes eventually are added to the ordinance, Turner said the city would have some recourse to take if a multiple-property owner walks away from a property.
"If they have holdings elsewhere in the city, those could, in effect, be held in order to get the lien paid off," he said. Owners of dangerous buildings who refuse to address the problem could be fined up to $1,000, according to Turner.
But it could be awhile before those changes go before City Council. "This is a process that will evolve slowly," Turner said. "This is the desire of the community, as much as anything else."
Meanwhile, there soon may be more than 70 vacant properties in the city, unclaimed by their owners because of thousands of dollars in liens against them. Turner would like to see those lots put back into use, ideally for single-family homes.
The city has never foreclosed on a lien, forcing a sale of the property on the courthouse steps, even though it can, should it decide to do so. However, Tuner said that's a possibility for the future. "We are looking very hard at doing that on some property because one of the things we really want is to get a vacant lot back into service back onto the market."
One possibility, Turner said, is to negotiate with neighbors next door to the properties to purchase the land. Another is to find a way to transfer the vacant lots to not-for-profit organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity and the Affordable Housing Action Board, Turner said.
Even though the city wouldn't get back the money it paid to tear down the houses, he said, "the city would be better off in the long run by allowing a house to be constructed there and a family move in, join the community and pay taxes than having on the books some amount of money that we couldn't collect."
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