Even in front of a friendly audience, the talk about aggressive new ways to "reclaim" abandoned and neglected property came with some caveats.
"We don't want to come take your property from you, but if you abandon it and leave it, we want to be able to reclaim that," said Dwain Midget, the city's director of community and economic development.
Midget spoke at an Oct. 3 Tulsa City Council committee meeting. He described new approaches taken by the city to deal with run-down, empty buildings -- as well as a push for state legislation that would make it easier for cities to take possession of such properties.
In 2011, the city created a registry with requirements for owners of abandoned and neglected properties.
"We require them to pay a fee of $500 annually until a building is either demolished or rehabilitated," Midget said. He told councilors the city has since dealt with more than 1,100 abandoned property cases.
Along with being eyesores and potential safety hazards, they bring down values of adjacent properties, Midget said. Arson and damage to nearby homes is also a concern, he noted, calling it an issue "that's happening all over the city."
Councilors expressed support for an aggressive approach.
"We want to beautify our city, and then we have boarded up businesses for 20 years," said Councilor Jeannie Cue.
With unkempt properties or lots, the city may step in to provide basic trimming services, charging steep rates for the work.
For vacant properties, the registration requires owners to submit a plan to rehab the structure or "maintain and secure" it.
U.S. Census data analyzed by the Community Service Council shows that unoccupied housing in the city are increasing. In 2000, there were 13,748 vacant housing units (about 8 percent of non-group housing); in 2010, that number had increased to 21,152 -- a bit more than 11 percent of housing.
Midget supports a piece of legislation introduced in 2011 known as the Abandoned and Neglected Properties Rehabilitation Act.
The bill, if passed into law, states that cities could go to court to take "possession and control" of abandoned and neglected property.
Real estate organizations initially opposed the law, but Midget told the council that has changed. In an interview, real estate professional Chuck Patterson said the city approached him in 2011 to talk about getting support for the concept -- and the Oklahoma Association of Realtors now favors the bill.
Real estate professionals recognize that "the property rights of everyone around that person are more important, probably, than the rights of a person who won't maintain and keep that property up," he said.
Text of the bill states: "At least thirty (30) days before filing the complaint, the municipality shall serve a notice of intention to take possession of an abandoned and neglected building." The proposal states a city must explain the criteria that led to that determination.
Sen. Brian Crain, (R-Tulsa), said in an interview he wasn't very familiar with the legislation, authored by Rep. Seneca Scott, (D-Tulsa).
"I think there is a desire to help get rid of blighted property in Tulsa, but I think the legislature is also very concerned about the property rights of each individual property owner," Crain said.
Property owners faced with paying for a city cleanup sometimes appeal to the city council, describing the circumstances that led to properties becoming run down.
"My dad had Alzheimer's ... it's just been difficult to just keep up on some things," one out-of-state property owner, James Parker, told the council in April. They voted to deny his request, citing more than two dozen violations on a few properties owned by the man and his family.
Midget told the council on Oct. 3 that sometimes the properties are in corporate hands.
"We've had mixed success with some of the mortgage companies and banks," Midget said. While some "pay readily" for maintenance, "there are some we've really had to apply some pressure," he said.
In other cases, a deal gets worked out. "We have had 21 houses that were bank-owned. They worked with the city to find seven organizations that wanted to take ownership and find homeowners," Midget said.
Owners also step up. Midget showed photographs of a formerly neglected house on N. 11th Street. "They did a great job rehabbing that property," he said.
But he also stressed that city demolition -- done for unsafe structures -- is an important tool, praising the council for devoting Community Development Block Grant federal funds for this purpose.
However, that takes money. In the last three years "we've only been able to demo 374 structures, and we have thousands out there," Midget said. A demolition can cost roughly $5,000 or more depending on the circumstances, he said.
Share this article: