Razing expectations


Two blocks south of the Post Foods plant, in a neighborhood that long ago was known for its pristine upkeep, sit two adjacent homes on Marjorie Street.

They look lifeless.

The one poorly coated in a mint-colored paint is in worse shape. Branches are piled on the porch, almost hiding a taped-up sign notifying that the occupancy permit was revoked. The other looks less disheveled, but still trimmed with two different shades of red. Across the street is a row of three more homes, vacant and abandoned.

There are no cars parked outside. No patio furniture. No sign of movement behind their boarded-up windows.

“This is a really, really big challenge,” said Chris Lussier, the city of Battle Creek’s community development manager. “There’s a reason why we’re talking about it — regardless of whether you’re a (city like) Flint or not, whether GM left your community and suddenly one-third of jobs were all gone or not. What do we do with our old housing stock and how do we manage it?”

According to data compiled at the beginning of this month, there are 803 residential properties considered by the city as vacant and abandoned. Many are in the Post Addition and Washington Heights, but there’s also a large number of vacant homes on the historic North Side and surrounding Columbia Avenue. Some have been registered in the city system’s since 2008, while others have been added as recently as this month.

But as some are demolished and others are approved for occupancy again, the properties and numbers fluctuate, said Battle Creek Code Compliance Administrator Dennis McKinley.

They account for less than 5 percent of total residential properties, a figure city officials say is low partly because of their efforts to put them back on the tax rolls — but still point to challenges Battle Creek faces as it battles blight, fallen property values and the aging neighborhoods.

More and more, amid mounting costs, officials are turning to demolitions.

“The problem is and the thing that’s hardest to come to grips with — I’ve struggled with it for five years now — is I’ve been holding onto this inventory in hopes that the market will turn,” Neighborhoods Inc. President and CEO Bill Phillips said. “Well, yeah, it is turning now, but is it turning fast enough for me to justify hanging onto that inventory, because the costs are so high?”

Homes are empty, but filled with expenses

Officials point to the economic downturn, an oversupply of homes and the cost to rehabilitate as the most common challenges. Many also agree — and it’s echoed in a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — the properties often attract crime because there are fewer residents to monitor the neighborhood.

They fulfill the broken-windows theory: blight spirals into more blight. Vacant and abandoned homes hurt property values and create more bills for taxpayers.

Krista Trout-Edwards, executive director of the Calhoun County Land Bank Authority, said money behind demolitions, boarding up properties and yard work can stack up. Most of its properties were obtained from tax foreclosures and were already in bad shape. They often prove uneconomical to rehabilitate, she said.

“It is very costly, but if those houses were in private ownership, they would be costing government resources,” Trout-Edwards said. “They’d still be costing code officers, public safety. There’s a lot of costs involved in all these unwanted properties.”

Often forgotten, Lussier said, is that when people abandon properties, taxpayers pick up the tab. In some cities, considerable effort is made to hold property owners liable for those costs, he said.

“For people to just walk away from that, people think that’s no big deal. ‘A bummer for them,’ ” Lussier said. “Well, actually, taxpayers are taking on these huge burdens. We estimate with just the obsolete housing stock we have, we have upwards of $10 million of demolitions we can do. And that’s not looking at what’s on our vacant list. It’s just looking at the housing stock that’s going to continue to be non-competitive.

“It’s an unprecedented shift in these liabilities and the costs for managing land.”

Phillips said in some ways, his organization is a contributor to the issue. With 25 boarded-up properties in its name, the group focuses on neighborhoods surrounding the downtown business district — some of the worst-hit by the recession and hosts of many of the vacant and abandoned homes. But it struggles with high renovation costs and can lose as much as $25,000 in each project, Phillips said.

Homes that may have had a better chance at a return on investment have already been “cherrypicked,” Phillips said. Neighborhoods Inc. also doesn’t sell properties to private investors, opting instead to work with homeowners who live in the property in the belief they will better stabilize the neighborhood.

So instead, the group is looking at its budget this year to do some 20 demolitions. It can cost as little as $8,500 to tear down a home, Phillips said, instead of having them sit vacant and remain a “drag on the ability of that neighborhood to recover lost property value.”

“So where is the money better spent?” he said. “When you look at the greater good of the neighborhoods that we work in, is it better spent taking a serious look at demolishing 20 houses and getting them out of the way, removing that blight? Even if some houses don’t look all that blighted?”

‘We’ve got a lot of eyes’

Lussier said much of the response to residential vacancies, including the creation of an ordinance and the land bank, were partly driven by residents.

In 2005, the City Commission passed an ordinance that set guidelines on what qualifies a property to be vacant and abandoned: at least 28 days of being unoccupied and one additional condition from a list that includes disconnected utilities, unpaid taxes exceeding a year-long period or condemnation.

When a property is deemed vacant and abandoned, the city revokes its certificate of occupancy. It must pass a safety inspection, provided by the city free of cost, before the certificate can be re-issued. Owners are required until then to register the homes with the city at a $25, one-time cost and must pay a $40 monthly monitoring fee that is billed quarterly.

McKinley said the ordinance helped the city’s process for dangerous buildings.

“Those buildings are seriously damaged, damaged by fire or something else, and could potentially be torn down,” McKinley said. “But until it got to that stage, we didn’t have anything to capture that. So what we wanted to do with the vacant and abandoned process was, we wanted to get to a point that we could nudge the property owner to take responsible action before it got to be a dangerous building.”

Officials admit that because of the ordinance’s specific guidelines, the city’s registry likely doesn’t include all vacant and abandoned homes. But McKinley said the ones already in the system — and even those not yet considered vacant and abandoned — are monitored daily.

“We’ve got a lot of eyes,” he said. “Somebody’s turning them in. The code officers are in the area everyday. Residents are in the area everyday, so we can receive an issue everyday.

“We have to investigate that to verify that it, in fact, meets the criteria.”

An analysis conducted by the city’s Community Development Department found that of buildings that have been vacant between 2008 and 2013, 40 percent of them were empty for less than a year. Only 10 percent had been vacant for three or more years.

During that same period, 34 percent were rehabilitated after losing its occupancy permit and 25 percent were re-occupied within eight months.

It also found the longer a building sits vacant, the more likely it is to stay empty. Fifty-five percent of buildings that have been vacant for three or more years were still empty this month. That number drops more than 20 percentage points for buildings vacant for two years. Only 8 percent of buildings that were vacant for less than year are still empty today.

Lussier said while the long-vacant homes are often a sign that the property owner has walked away and is less likely to invest in the outward appearance, short-term vacancies speak more to a depressed housing market or a surplus of homes.

The longer it’s vacant, McKinley said, the more prone a property is to additional challenges.

“Because when a house goes vacant, a lot of times, they start to urban-mine those properties,” he said. “And a house might not be so bad, but take a furnace out of it, it’s a major expense.”

Lussier said the city is in a good position to understand the problem, as many, especially those in the private market, aren’t researching how a large number of vacant buildings affect the Battle Creek community. And to him, “throwing everything at the problem in the kitchen sink makes sense,” he said — from demolitions and different levels of renovations to alternative uses for vacant land such as community gardens, there is usually more than one solution.

“You can’t just garden your way out of the problem,” Lussier said. “But gardens are a little piece of it.”

Moving past the NSP

Those involved say the work has paid off but is far from done.

There was the success of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, a two-phase $12.2 million project that demolished hundreds of homes and the rehabilitation or construction of 45 others. It helped provide assistance for first-time home buyers and was a “once-in-a-generation expenditure” that aimed to make homes extremely competitive in the market.

Lussier said surveys have shown that neighbors within 300 feet of some of the program’s projects are more than twice as likely to feel like the neighborhood has improved.

Because of their work, city and county officials were invited to participate in the Community Progress Leadership Institute. Battle Creek was one of eight cities chosen out of some 25 applicants, allowing officials to attend a three-day conference and learn more about tackling blight.

Trout-Edwards said she sees differences in neighborhoods where the land bank has demolished homes, like the urban Bright Star Farms on North Kendall Street. They’re now exploring the possibility of partnering with Neighborhood Planning Councils and other groups to start a mow-and-maintenance program for land bank-owned properties.

Other organizations could also help the land bank with its “learning curve” in rehabs or other types of projects, she said, because their forte has been focused on blight demolition.

“We’re definitely looking for other ideas,” Trout-Edwards said. “We have the time right now to do a strategic planning process, so we know there’s some interest in partnership.”

Phillips said now, after the spike in foreclosures, Neighborhoods Inc. has tweaked its programs to better educate homeowners on buying from private investors and other issues such as land contracts.

“We’re not passive anymore,” he said. “I’m not sure we ever were totally, but we’re much more aggressive in the way we coach and advocate for our customers. I mean, it’s almost on weekly basis, we have families for whatever reason get into, and we get families that get offered buyouts on their mortgages.”

They’re also still seeking grants, even if the amount is not as large as what was awarded for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority announced Friday that the city and land bank had won a $264,990 grant to demolished 24 blighted homes.

At City Hall, officials say departments have improved their collaboration. McKinley said last year, amid a sluggish time for construction, 141 certificates of occupancy were issued.

All have said the work requires partnerships and strategic planning.

“Of course, there’s more work to do,” Trout-Edwards said. “But I do think now we’re now in a place where we can be more strategic and think about what we have learned and based on what’s the best choice moving forward. And those are conversations we need to have, we are having, and I think are going to assist in making the right choices going forward.”

City’s definition of ‘vacant and abandoned’

According to an ordinance passed by the City Commission in September 2005, a residential property can be considered vacant and abandoned if it has been unoccupied for at least 28 days and meets at least one of the following conditions:

  • Is open to casual entry or trespass
  • Is fire-damaged to an extent which prohibits safe human occupancy
  • Is the site of loitering or vagrancy
  • Demonstrates a lack of property maintenance and upkeep as evidenced by one or more violations of the city housing code or state construction code
  • Is under notice for being in violation of city ordinances
  • Has been secured or boarded up for at least 28 days
  • Has taxes in arrears to the city for a period of time exceeding 365 days
  • Has utilities disconnected or not in use
  • Is under a condemnation notice or legal order to vacate
  • Is structurally unsound
  • Is a potential hazard or danger to persons

, Battle Creek Enquirer August 19, 2014, 6:14 p.m. EDT

Call Jennifer Bowman at 966-0589.

Source: Battle Creek Enquirer