COLUMBIA — Frustrated with their dependence on unresponsive property owners to make repairs to run-down homes around town, the city is investigating the possibility of taking matters into its own hands.
The City Council has received a report from City Attorney Fred Boeckmann on the legality of using receivership to deal with vacant and abandoned housing. Receivership allows the city or a non-profit organization to temporarily take ownership of property to make repairs. Once the property is up to code, owners can repay the receiver’s repair costs and reclaim their property. Otherwise, the receiver can legally sell or keep it, City Manager Bill Watkins said.
“The idea is that if you have an owner who will not keep their property up,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said, “the property is put in the hands of someone who is charged with bringing the property up to standards.”
Problems caused by run-down, or blighted, housing include vermin infestations , crime problems and decreased property values of other houses in the neighborhood, Hindman said.
The mayor said he learned about receivership at a conference. It struck him as more efficient way to repair blighted houses than sending letter after letter to owners who ultimately are unwilling to make the necessary repairs.
Under receivership, “there’s no real requirement for having to be pushing and pushing and pushing on the owners because you’re dealing with someone who is in a place of trust and responsibility,” Hindman said.
Although neither Hindman nor Watkins has an exact number of blighted homes in the city, both say it’s a problem that needs solving.
Bill Cantin, a neighborhood specialist for the city’s Neighborhood Response Team, said that around 20 percent of the 1,800 houses in the team’s primary territory fall short of city building codes.
The Neighborhood Response Team, a coalition of experts from different city departments, works with the city to find the problem housing. It prioritizes the houses, keeping a list of the 10 that are in the worst condition. The team works down the list, sending letters through protective inspection and prosecuting unresponsive owners.
When a house gets up to code, it is taken off the list and replaced by another. Cantin said he expects the team to either fix or condemn the 40 worst houses by the end of the year.
The team focuses primarily on the central-city area bordered by College Avenue, Ash Street, Ridgeway Avenue and Business Loop 70 because it is the part of the city where blight is most concentrated, Cantin said.
Based on what he knows from the team, from complaints and from city departments such as the Division of Protective Inspection, Hindman said, “(the problem is) widespread enough that it’s hurting some neighborhoods.”
For now, the city is simply investigating the options, Watkins said. Despite its effciency, receivership is not without complications. The receiver must front all the money for repairs, some of which might never be recouped. The receiver has to take the condition of the house into consideration when deciding whether to make repairs. For houses in extremely bad condition, the only reasonable option may be to tear them down.
“My preference would be (to fix) all of those houses that are economically suitable to be rehabbed,” Watkins said, “but some of them have gotten to a condition where that’s not an option.”
The receivership option is being considered only for abandoned, vacant or rental housing. Even if it is a legal option for private, occupied homes, the city would be “extraordinarily reluctant” to claim those homes for repair or destruction, Hindman said.
“The better approach for that kind of thing is to try to figure out ways to help those people,” Hindman said. “They probably have good intentions but inability.”