Persuading city to care about vacant multi family building

Reviewed: June 17, 2024

Visitor Question: I live in a state with a libertarian tradition, and one ugly result of this is my city does nothing to enforce exterior house maintenance or yard care. In my neighborhood there is a 'zombie plex', a multi-unit apartment building that has remained vacant for over 20 years. It lacks siding, paint, windows, and is essentially a ruined shell, that takes up half a block. It is owned by a hoarder who lives next door in a house stacked to the ceiling with debris, with a yard full of ruined cars.

Paradoxically, my neighborhood is now expensive and sought-after. I imagine he bought the 'plex back when it could be had for a couple thousand dollars, and now the land itself is worth close to a million. In the past he has threatened or conned those who have attempted to work with him.

Unfortunately, the City has no real code for exterior appearance, and only is concerned if a property is an obvious and present threat to life or health, i.e., it is actually killing someone. It’s a lawsuit-driven policy, it would seem.

Does anyone know of a well-written set of rules/policy from another city that explains why exterior condition of a property is important, and lists rules? I would like to present this to my city to try to make a change.

I'll keep my city anonymous in this discussion, as I am too embarrassed to name it.

Editors Reply: Apparently this question was asked four years ago. We had seen it once, and then it disappeared—until today! Sometimes there is no accounting for the way all of our technology behaves, but we apologize anyway.

Although the details may be different, the problem is somewhat familiar. Rest assured that you are not the only one who lives in an expensive, sought-after neighborhood that also is suffering from a prominent eyesore of a vacant building.

You say that your city has "no real code." Well, the well-written set of rules/policy from other cities that you seek comes in the form of standardized international codes. (See our page on a code enforcement overview and other code-related pages for more explanation on this.)

We suspect that you are frustrated that the standard codes do in fact emphasize health and safety factors and downplay aesthetic factors to some extent. Health and safety are the legal underpinnings of all types of land use regulation and code enforcement, so try not to be too offended. However, vacant buildings, especially those with missing windows that therefore are unsecured, do present very real threats to public safety. In fact, your police and fire departments might be potential allies in your campaign to get your city to care about this particular building, since costs associated with increased crime and fire fighting that occurs in or is facilitated by vacant buildings are real potential financial costs to your city.

We don’t know that we have seen a good explanation of why exterior condition of a property is important, in particular, since that is a given in the code enforcement field, as well as city planning and community development. Our best advice on this might be to contact local real estate appraisers and have them write a letter or short bulletin of some type on why they find it important in evaluating neighborhood quality in appraisals.

Returning to your language about “no real code,” this phrase causes us to wonder whether your city has adopted one of the international codes and just doesn’t have the guts to enforce it, or whether it has written its own code that is meaningless, which is a much less common situation, but one that we have encountered.

If there is a code but the city is afraid to enforce it, try to figure out who specifically is hesitating. City governments aren’t monolithic. Is this happening because one key staff member is afraid of criticism or even of vengeance? Is your city council spineless? Did your city attorney tell the staff they shouldn’t pursue violations, and if they do, the city attorney won’t help? Or perhaps the municipal judge or judges, who often are pretty remote from the day-to-day rhythms of neighborhoods and a city government, don’t understand code enforcement and just think the whole topic is frivolous. Mostly likely the only way for you to determine this is through personal, friendly, and non-threatening conversations with the relevant parties. A side benefit of having those conversations is that you may learn about attitudes going forward, and you may pick up actual history or information about current issues in other parts of the city.

Once you know where the hesitation lies, you will need to work with the other parties we mentioned in the previous paragraphs to see if you can understand how to get the parties to present a united front to the property owner. For instance, you say your area is libertarian, but you didn’t say anything about your state government. All 50 states in the U.S. have some version of a state fire code, so you could ask your fire department if there is a way to use the state fire marshal’s office to deal with the vacant building, which is fairly likely to become the site of a fire even in an upscale neighborhood.

Now all of this may be more interaction with public officials than you personally have the time or inclination to do. Or perhaps you do all of this, and everyone is indeed behaving like libertarian values are their most important values. What should you do then?

Our strongest recommendation is to organize your neighborhood and apply pressure to the city government as a whole about this specific building. At least some of those people have to be elected, and it is amazing how much an elected official will change his or her approach to certain problems when there appear to be a large number of people taking a particular position against the status quo.

If you do not have your own version of a neighborhood association, work on starting one. We can’t honestly tell you that this is an easy thing to do; in fact, it is a lot more work than some informal conversations with public officials, but many people would find it more fun and less intimidating. What we can say is that in every neighborhood where we have ever worked, there are at least a few people who are interested in forming or re-energizing the neighborhood association and actually enjoy it. So your course of action might be simply to find a small group who want to take on this task, if it isn’t your cup of tea.

Whether you decide to participate actively in this yourself or not, you can point to the resources on our website, including a three-part series of articles on starting a neighborhood association and even an ebook you or others could order.

We hope this gives you a great start on dealing with this problem. If it isn’t enough, original poster, please use the contact us feature on the website, and we can try to offer a little more guidance.

By all means, website visitors, if you have suggestions, please send your comment.

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