Cities Fight Blight Sown by Recession
City workers are taking a hands-on approach, literally, to fight the blight caused by vacant foreclosed houses.
They are mowing lawns, trimming shrubs, boarding up windows and doors, replacing stolen fences and clearing out trash, then charging property owners for the work.
The work stems from city ordinances in nearly every state to stop foreclosed properties from turning into eyesores that drag down property values and endanger neighborhoods, says James Brooks, program director for community development at the National League of Cities.
"Cities are trying to get financial institutions to do this, but does that mean that the public works director also goes in with a lawn mower? Yes," Brooks says.
In Cape Coral, Fla., the city's code-enforcement officers have become property managers, says Frank Cassidy, code compliance division manager. Since June 2007, when Cape Coral started tracking foreclosed properties, city workers have mowed 5,234 lawns on vacant homes. Last year, the southwestern Florida city collected $414,000 in liens imposed on foreclosed properties.
Nearly 350 cities have passed ordinances that include requiring banks and other property owners to do more maintenance and fining them if they don't, says Diane Roman Fusco, spokeswoman for Safeguard Properties, a private company that inspects foreclosed properties.
Chula Vista, Calif., was one of the first cities two years ago to pass such rules and impose fines up to $1,000, says Doug Leeper, the city's code enforcement division manager. The city charges the owner for the work, plus an average $128 an hour for the code enforcement officer's time. Chula Vista has imposed $1.5 million in fines and collected $600,000 since the program started.
So far this year, South Bend, Ind., has boarded up nearly 900 properties that had broken or missing windows and doors, about half of them foreclosures, Catherine Toppel, director of code enforcement, says. Houses often remain empty after an owner leaves and before the bank takes over, she says. It's not always easy for cities to figure out who is responsible - and who should pay.
"If you don't address this," Cassidy says, "it produces more blight and you can lose control quickly."