Municipal leaders should improve property registries to combat property blight
Hundreds of communities across the country have implemented a “vacant property registration ordinance” (VPRO) with intent to proactively receive contact information of the owner or responsible party for vacant and/or abandoned properties in their jurisdiction. This tool advocated for by community development experts has proven to be a great success. While effective, this tool has remained largely unchanged and paper-driven since the first VRPOs were introduced.
The negative effects abandoned properties and “zombie foreclosures” have on a community are well documented. Though the foreclosure crisis is bygone times, the aftereffects are very prominent today. Now that the foreclosure crisis is in fact in the rear-view mirror, perhaps now is exactly the right time to review the processes and make the changes before the next downturn in the housing market.
Municipal leaders are obligated to consider more efficient processes to expedite results for citizens living next door to blighted properties. When a property is identified as abandoned code or building officials are tasked with identifying the owner and responsible party for upkeep. Typically, notice for required upkeep and safety is given to the responsible party per respective jurisdiction policy. However, the initial step of identifying and properly communicating with the owner or responsible party is often not accomplished due to incomplete or inaccurate contact information on file. In those cases, the municipality must complete the required maintenance at their expense. The maintenance costs are then assessed to the property taxes or as a lien, which may or may not be recouped. Is there a faster and more efficient way to go about these steps?
For communities that don’t have a registry – why not? Regardless of community size or perceived lack of need, implementing a registry program is easy and cost-effective with the many resources and programs that can be used as a starting point.
For communities that have a registry – are you maximizing its reach and effect? Let’s take a closer look:
- The intent is to capture all abandoned properties. Does yours?
- Does your ordinance only capture “foreclosed” properties?
- Are you expending unnecessarily for proper maintenance by not capturing all vacant properties?
- Are you protected against unnecessary liability?
- Do you have adequate language for exemptions?
- Does your language use the word “default”? Very risky.
- Are you asking the right questions on your form?
- Are you asking too many questions on your form?
- Do you have a website for registering properties and collecting payment?
- Is your process still paper driven?
- Do you have appropriate oversight of the registration program?
- Do you have appropriate oversight of collections and fines for non-compliance?
- What resources are available to the staff to “track down” non-compliant parties?
- Do you have quick and reliable reporting on each step of the process?
- Are you sharing the information with police and fire departments?
- Are you sharing the information with foreclosure prevention groups?
- Are using the information to predict future challenges?
On January 29, 2019, SFWeekly wrote in an article discussing vacant properties, “Vacant storefronts have gained attention in recent years as local groups survey their own neighborhoods to counter the mere 25 registered by the Department of Building Inspection in 2016 and 40 in 2017. In April, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer led a crowdsourced count that spotted 156 vacancies in the Richmond.”
In this district, the registry captured less than one-sixth of the vacant properties!
On September 13, 2019 an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun had this quote, “More than a decade ago, the city enacted its current property registration statute. However, the statute appears never to have been fully enforced. Based on my 15 years of experience in this area, when the community complains about a problem rental property or vacant property, the property usually turns out to be unregistered.”
Resources and assistance are readily available to assist municipalities in implementing an ordinance and minimizing non-compliance of unregistered properties. Utilization of a third-party administrator for the program requires no out of pocket expense to the municipality and has proven to increase compliance in many areas across the nation. Third-party administrators also bring focus and oversight to the program while sharing best practices utilized across the nation.
Leveraging the best practices of successful registration programs and adopting new technology to quickly identify and notify responsible parties will increase registration and comfort displeased constituents in your community. Partnering with experts, will result in greater efficiencies, tremendous cost-savings and a better result for your residents.
Michael Halpern is president and founder of MuniReg. Prior to founding MuniReg, Michael spent the past 17 years at Safeguard Properties, the nation’s largest mortgage field services contractor, working on behalf of their loan servicing (“banks”) clients. Most recently Michael was director of the community initiatives department leading the company’s outreach to municipal and state governments assisting them in addressing “zombie foreclosures.” He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org and 216-407-9296.