City: Battle Creek Neighborhoods are Improving


Battle Creek’s neighborhoods have seen promising progress in recent years, and city officials are hopeful the upward trend will continue into the next decade.

From code violations to property values, local neighborhoods have improved for the third consecutive year, indicating a rise out of the foreclosure crisis and a better environment for investments.

The city uses several indicators to determine neighborhood health: junk and trash citations; housing code violations;  home sales; home sale values; bank and tax foreclosures; long-term vacant properties; and new vacant building enforcements.

Here’s what the data revealed: About 700 vacant residential properties were registered last year, the lowest since 2008; a drop in tax foreclosures to 34 in 2016, from 98 in 2015; and the fifth consecutive year of increases in home sales.

And while the city’s central neighborhoods in 2013 were considered high-risk for decline, none were rated so in 2016.

Battle Creek Community Development Manager Chris Lussier said the improvements could be the result of a combination of the economy and city policies.

“The larger forces that shape what happens in the community are really important and many of them are out of our control,” he said. “The places where you’re trying to understand where we are making the difference in terms of what might be happening locally, in order to understand that — well, that can be challenging.”

Lussier said there are some tangible results from the city’s work. He pointed to the work of the Neighborhood Stabilization Grant, a $12.2 million project that demolished hundreds of homes and rehabilitated or built nearly 50 others. Lussier said where that funding was used to rehab homes, the neighborhoods saw home sales increase in value at a far faster pace than other Battle Creek areas — not just comparable neighborhoods.

Community Services Director Marcie Gillette also pointed to changes to the way city conducts property surveys. Previously done citywide every three years, the surveys are now broken down into sections of Battle Creek during the three-year period, alleviating the strain on community resources and government procedures such as appeal processes and court hearings.

“The change has been tremendous,” Gillette said. “If people can receive assistance, if needed, for home repairs, then those repairs are going to get done. Ultimately, that’s our goal: compliance. We don’t want to write somebody a ticket because they don’t have any money to paint their house.”

City officials also pointed to the ordinance regulating vacant and abandoned buildings, a problem that worsened during the foreclosure crisis.

In place for about a decade, the ordinance initially classified properties that were empty for at least 28 days and met at least one condition — disconnected utilities, unsound structure or outstanding taxes, among others — as vacant and abandoned. Officials loosened the rules last year by extending the period to 60 days and no longer revoking its occupancy certificate. Commercial properties now can be regulated under the ordinance, however.

“What we were finding and really hearing in the community is, we have people who want to invest in our community but the processes and the standards, the state codes, are really burdensome to be able to allow people to invest to get them back into productive use,” Gillette said.

The city has often turned to demolition to address blighted properties, relying heavily on its partnership with the Calhoun County Land Bank Authority to win grant funding. But there seems to be a growing fatigue around demolitions, Lussier said, as residents who were first eager to remove blight are now concerned about more vacant land and fewer people in their neighborhoods.

“I think they have this feeling of loss of vitality. You go to some areas where all the houses have been taken down and it sends a signal that this neighborhood is struggling, whether it is or it isn’t,” he said. “Even if you address the underlying forces that created the vacancy, without filling those spaces it can be challenging for that to feel like a vital neighborhood.”

Land bank Executive Director Krista Trout-Edwards said officials are now trying alternatives to improve its inventory, comprised of tax-foreclosed properties that are often vacant or in poor condition. The land bank has turned to other options: Its Transform This Home program works to find buyers interested in rehabbing properties, and its Neighborhood Mow and Maintenance program pays organizations to care for vacant parcels. It also works with Habitat for Humanity on some home rehabs.

Trout-Edwards said while tearing down properties can make a visual improvement in areas, stabilizing neighborhoods is “a constantly evolving process.”

“Demolition is one tool, but it’s not the only tool,” she said. “We’re trying to find partners and funding, and find other ways to address it.”

Lussier said while city ordinances have made vacant homes “a much more manageable problem,” long-term vacancies continue to be an issue. Fewer properties are getting on the city’s vacant and abandoned list each year, but that number is still greater than the number being put back into use.

“As long as they’re meeting minimum standards, then it can just sit,” Lussier said. “The problem is while they’re sitting, chances of them getting put back into productive use are getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

“It’s almost like a time bomb — at some point, we know that someone’s going to stop maintaining the properties, the taxes aren’t going to be paid, and then we’re going to have a very large problem on our hands.”

Gillette said long-term vacancies will be a focus for the city in coming years. But officials also will have to look beyond monitoring just maintenance of properties, she said.

“The piece that we really have to focus on related to our commercial properties is not just the condition of our properties, but also how are we marketing Battle Creek? And how are we inviting to businesses to get maybe those small storefronts that are along neighborhood corridors to be occupied?

“And what do neighbors want?”

Source: Battle Creek Enquirer