Minot's effort to address abandoned and neglected properties needs to become more strategic and organized, a city committee decided Wednesday.
The Minot City Council's Public Works and Safety Committee voted to direct city staff to develop a plan and process for taking action against derelict properties, based on criteria set out by the committee. The criteria include classifying houses based on structural defects, weeds, health and safety and determining which houses should be demolished and which should be rehabilitated. Each property would be on a timeline, based on the seriousness of its condition.
Council member and committee chairman Scott Knudsvig proposed the initial criteria. He said city staff has been addressing problems, but the criteria can help direct those efforts.
A former home damaged by the 2011 flood in northwest Minot, shown April 15 near Eighth Street and the Souris River, continues to deteriorate.
Shaun Sipma, spokesman for a citizens group concerned about homes abandoned after the 2011 flood, said the group stands ready to assist in being the eyes in the neighborhoods, ensuring that properties are identified and alerting the city to the status of an owner's progress on a targeted property.
"This isn't a witch hunt. We are not going after a bunch of homeowners who don't have the resources to rebuild these houses to kick someone when they are down," Sipma said. Rather, he said, financial institutions or others with resources to take care of these properties should be reminded of their obligations.
He also urged the city to step up its efforts.
Flooded Iowa city addresses neglected properties
Six years after a devastating flood, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is updating its city ordinances to better regulate vacant buildings.
"We look at properties that have been abandoned or neglected for a variety of reasons, and have not segmented out properties that were impacted by the 2008 floods," said Cedar Rapids building services director Kevin Ciabatti in an email. "Currently, staff has approximately 180 properties in some level of violation of the Property Maintenance Code/Housing Code (flooded or otherwise). Of these 180 properties, this includes properties that have exterior violations, may be placarded for a variety of reasons, as well as may be vacant and abandoned."
Violations of the International Property Maintenance Code, which sets minimum standards for interior and exterior conditions, are municipal infractions in Cedar Rapids. Property owners receive multiple notices, and typically have a month or two to abate violations. The city will work with owners who are making progress, and owners can work out agreements with the city for coming into compliance. But if owners simply fail to act, the cases go before a magistrate judge.
Iowa law allows fines of up to $750 a day per violation for a municipal
infraction. However, Ciabatti said, most judges issue a flat fee typically $500 per count, which can be reduced upon mediation or code compliance.
A focus group that studied possible ordinances addressing vacant and derelict properties recommended the city create a registry.
Ciabatti said the city is in the beginning stages of developing a vacant building registration ordinance. The ordinance will provide a more detailed way to quantify the total number of vacant structures, and the hope is that it also will set parameters, such as how long a structure can remain vacant before corrective action is taken.
Cedar Rapids also launched a smartphone app in December 2011 that enables residents to send in pictures of problem situations, including potholes, downed light fixtures or neglected property. The city developed an online portal where residents can submit city-related requests or file complaints on abandoned properties.
Access to significantly more federal money than has been available to Minot helped Cedar Rapids head off some potential problems with abandoned properties. A city of about 130,000 residents in 2008, Cedar Rapids saw more than 18,000 residents affected, 10,000 residents displaced and 5,390 properties damaged in the flood.
Cedar Rapids demolished or cleared 1,153 flood-impacted properties and rehabilitated 2,300. A reimbursement program assisted homeowners who started rebuilding immediately. Most residents were able to rebuild in the first two years, according to information from the city. Fewer than 10 homeowners still are rehabilitating their flood-damaged homes, said Melissa Kopf, flood recovery coordinator.
Through a voluntary acquisition program, the city bought 1,343 properties. Most were in areas designated for construction of future flood protection, but about 600 were part of neighborhood revitalization projects. Those houses were eligible for the buyouts if they sustained damage of 50 percent or more.
As of March 14, 113 homes had been built and sold to income-qualified homeowners through the Rebuilding Ownership Opportunities Together. ROOTS is a partnership between the City of Cedar Rapids and the Iowa Economic Development Authority to help replace housing lost in the flood. In 2013, ROOTS provided $1.98 million of down payment assistance to buyers, averaging $34,860 per buyer.
"Over the last three years, we have seen the deterioration of these homes continue. Hundreds of these homes really haven't gotten any better. I think the hope of seeing progress is past," he said. "In three years, if nothing has been done, nothing is going to be done."
Information provided in a memo to the committee stated that one resident documented more than 300 properties in various states of disrepair. City engineer Lance Meyer said the city has identified more than 70 properties that need attention and has been refining that list and prioritizing properties to address the most serious issues first.
Council member Dave Lehner said he is concerned that banks have five years to dispose of properties that come into their possession. He presented the scenario of a homeowner who hangs onto a property and does nothing for three years before losing the property to a bank, which has another five years in which it may do nothing.
City attorney Colleen Auer said an owner is accountable to keep a property in compliance with housing code, regardless of who the owner is. The city can take a violator to court to enforce an abatement order.
Auer said the city has authority to declare a health and safety violation if there are structural issues. If there are environmental issues, then First District Health Unit gets involved. Lehner asked about getting into homes to determine whether a health issue exists, and Auer responded that it can be done through an administrative warrant.
The city and First District have been tap-dancing around who should be seeking warrants, she said.
"We need to get past that," she said. "We, the city, will do everything in our power to move that forward."
She said the city would urge First District to stand behind it on any warrant actions, adding, "As long as our interests are aligned and they are and we are motivated to get this done, then we can make it happen."