Urbana’s Department of Zoning and Compliance launched their Vacant Building Enforcement Program on March 1, which requires the owners of all vacant structures to register their properties. The program is intended to govern the responsibilities of the owners of vacant structures, and provides incentives for structures to be returned to productive use.
At a city council work session on March 26, Zoning Officer Adam Moore said he thinks the program will be a very effective tool, but isn’t sure how long it will take to make significant changes.
“We’ve had our inspector go out and bring back all of the vacant properties that he was aware of, and that (Community Development Manager) Doug (Crabill) was aware of, and that anybody else that we’ve talked to previously was aware of, and compile all those,” said Moore. “We worked with Chris (Boettcher) in the finance office to figure out which properties were actually vacant and which belonged to people who were gone from Ohio – snowbirds. We were able to whittle that list down to about 70-75 residential structures at this point, and we have a pile of the commercial structures that we’re now working on compiling.”
“I talked to the mayor of Bellefontaine, and theirs seems to be going fairly well,” said Urbana Mayor Bill Bean. “They’re getting a lot of movement on their vacant buildings, and they’re only about a year or two ahead of us. Ben Stahler, the mayor, said they’re really glad that they’ve done this. It’s taken them a while to get going, but it’s working for them up there now.”
Moore said he planned to send out letters to owners of vacant buildings on March 27, giving them the option of paying a $200 registration fee or to appeal the decision to the board of nuisance appeals. After one year the fee to renew a vacant building’s registration will double to $400, the second renewal will cost $800, the third $1,600, and every subsequent renewal will cost $3,200.
According to Urbana’s city website, structures which are left vacant for extended periods of time have proven to breed crime, pose public safety risks, reduce property values, and reduce the economic viability of the community. As a result of the program, the cost or burden of the existence of vacant buildings will be redirected from the general citizenry to the owners of vacant buildings.
“When you start to look at the widespread effect that vacant buildings have, just generally they tend to increase the crime rate, the blighting effect, and they tend to bring down the economic viability of the city as a whole,” Moore said. “Blighting is when properties surrounding that property will tend to become vacant because of that property already being vacant, so it’s kind of like a growth, and that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
Moore said that there has not been much new housing built in the city since the 1980s or 1990s, and that enforcing the vacant building program is a good way of attracting new residents to Urbana. City council originally passed this ordinance in 2017, but Moore said there was little progress on getting it enforced in 2018, which is why they made such a big effort in the first quarter of 2019.
“Our housing stock has been pretty flat and has not grown,” he said. “What we think this could do is rejuvenate and bring back to life some houses in the city and kind of promote some residential infill and get these structures back into productive use that can, in turn, be new houses for people coming into the city.”
Between 2011 and 2012, the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program provided Urbana with the money to demolish 13 nuisance properties. Between 2012 and 2014, the Moving Ohio Forward Program provided money to demolish another 723 Champaign County properties that were contributing to neighborhood blight.
“When the recession hit in 2008-2009 you had the mortgage crisis and you had a lot of foreclosures,” Moore said. “You just had a mass exodus, if you will, of people leaving – getting foreclosed on, and then moving out of houses – so you just had a lot of vacant and blighted properties at that time. That’s when the federal government stepped in and tried to give some money for cities to be able to demolish them and stop the blighting effects of those properties.”
In 2018 his department opened 480 nuisance violations and closed 466 of them by the end of the year, which can be a matter as simple as eliminating tall grass, removing accumulated building material, debris, or abandoned vehicles. Moore said his department handles nuisance violations routinely by sending a court notice, followed by a certified letter that the property owner must sign for, followed by a final notice and then court action if they have not gotten a response.
The Champaign Health District sets different criteria for condemned properties, when a residential structure is unsafe or unfit for human habitation. Health Commissioner Gabe Jones said that most often this is due to the water being shut off, at which point residents are given 48 hours to vacate the premises, but that 99 percent of those cases are able to be rehabilitated eventually.
Moore said he considered the Neighborhood Stabilization and Moving Ohio Forward programs a success and said there was no longer a need to demolish any properties, but that a more realistic solution has been realized in systematically targeting vacant buildings through the current program.
He also said that not all vacant buildings were located in the downtown area, and that the problem was more spread out than one might think. To report a vacant structure, citizens are encouraged to contact the Department of Zoning & Compliance or fill out the report form on the city’s website.
Christopher Selmek can be reached at 937-508-2304