City mulls new approach on vacant houses

Jan. 06, 2013 @ 07:43 PM

 Mayor Bernita Sims is pushing for a greater role by the city in sprucing up decaying houses.

Sims said she hopes the N.C. General Assembly this year will pass a bill that will give High Point a new tool to address substandard residential structures and abandoned commercial buildings. The proposed legislation would enable the city to bring a civil action in Superior Court asking a judge to appoint a receiver to take over the rehabilitation, management and eventual sale of an abandoned building or residence.
Sims and others say the city’s normal procedures for dealing with dilapidated properties have led to too many boarded-up houses that contribute to neighborhood blight. The idea behind the new strategy is to find investors to rehabilitate properties and then offer them for sale — creating new housing opportunities in the process — rather than tear them down or leave them abandoned.
“It is going to be different and probably a little controversial,” Sims said. “Right now, the issue is either board them up and leave them or, at some point, order demolition, and then it’s gone. That does nothing for revitalization of neighborhoods.”
High Point is plagued by hundreds of properties that don’t meet the city’s minimum housing code. Some property owners choose to board up abandoned structures rather than make fixes, which they are permitted to do as long as the house or building is kept secure.
Officials say some property owners don’t respond to their efforts at code enforcement, leaving the city with few tools to deal with some housing cases other than demolition, which is expensive.
It costs the city about $3,000 to demolish a single-family house, plus an additional $2,500 to remove asbestos, if it’s present. The city budgets about $50,000 per year for demolition, which can take years to bring about because of due process provisions in state law and local ordinances that give property owners time to bring houses up to code.
“These structures in High Point and other places are a tremendous drag on economic recovery, economic activity and an eyesore,” said Fred Baggett, a former High Point city attorney who is involved in drafting the proposed legislation.
Baggett said the city would have to follow its normal enforcement timeline before it could turn to the courts to appoint a receiver, such as a developer, who would take over the property and bring it up to code to be used or resold. The bill would also enable the courts to appoint the property’s owner or mortgage holder to rehabilitate the structure.
He said the strategy is being used in other states, adding that he’s aware of some entities that could fill the role of receiver, but it will take active solicitation of the community to generate interest in the idea.
“I think we’ve got to have some firms that are knowledgeable and know how to do it and know what the financials are on it,” said City Manager Strib Boynton. “In terms of city resources, ours are pretty limited if we’re going to get in the rehab business.”
Sims said the intent of the measure would be for an “outside entity” — and not the city — to assume the risk by funding the repairs to a property. She said the city has no effective way of recovering the money it spends on demolition and other enforcement action. The city can put a lien on a property, but collecting what is owed can be difficult because of other mortgage or tax liens that may exist.
The mayor said the bill could provide another way for the city to encourage property owners to make necessary upgrades. In addition, it offers hope to neighborhoods like Burns Hill, which has heavy concentrations of vacant houses on streets off of E. Green Drive.
“The housing shortage in our community is critical, yet we take action to tear down property,” Sims said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
pkimbrough@hpe.com | 888-3531