The “Reclaiming Vacant Properties” conference, organized by the Center for Community Progress, has assembled hundreds of politicians, planners and code enforcement officials, appropriately, in Philadelphia. Yesterday, after a morning of predictably forceful commentary on tackling blight from Mayor Michael Nutter and other politicians at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the afternoon tracked deeper into practical policy.
The lessons a big city like Philadelphia could take from smaller cities coping with blight, in places like West Virginia and California, were striking.
Code enforcement consultant Doug Leeper, speaking on a panel about blight deterrence, said that he had made a point of tying fines to costs his municipality, in Chula Vista, CA, incurs from cleaning up after deadbeat property owners.
“I did some calculations and said, ‘what does it cost us to have an inspector work on a property for an hour?’ Well, there’s his salary, his benefits, he needs a car, and a desk and a computer…We ultimately determined it cost us $128 dollars an hour,” he said. “One man said, ‘You’re giving me a $5,000 fine?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m giving you a $2,000 fine and bill for $3,000 worth of maintenance’.”
Leeper said it was important to underline for lazy property owners just how burdensome it is for taxpayers to have the municipality became the “default property manager”, in instances where no entity has taken responsibility for maintenance, snow clearance, trash or lawn mowing. He said that during his tenure, the code enforcement unit became revenue neutral, thanks to increased fee collections.
However, he stressed that such fees shouldn’t be about revenue collection.
“Ultimately, I don’t want your money, I want you to be in compliance,” he said.
Compliant, tax-paying properties will ultimately generate more money for municipalities, said Leeper and other panelists. Nancy Prager, from Wheeling, WV, noted a study, coincidentally produced in Philadelphia, that noted that vacant properties, on average, caused roughly $7500 declines in property values for all structures within a 75-foot radius. In a dense city like Philadelphia, that can translate into a lot more lost value than could ever be recouped through fees.
There are dozens more events continuing today. Hopefully, Philadelphia is paying attention.
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