Lakewood looks to improve image by targeting neighborhood eyesores

A pile of splintered wood, cement and dirt is all that remained last week of three World War II era homes on Durango Street in Lakewood.

The houses, located on a short residential block in an industrial area just off Steilacoom Boulevard, were demolished through the city’s neighborhood abatement program.

Lakewood officials believe the houses were built nearly 70 years ago by strapping together old military shipping crates. Walls were removed to create rooms, doors and windows. Roofs were added.

Without regular upkeep, they fell into disrepair.

“Two of the houses had been associated with drug activity and were under enforcement,” said Doug Price, Lakewood code enforcement officer.

When a new owner bought and started to restore the houses in 2013, he was stopped by the city. The zoning code supported only industrial use.

Officials said the homes had to go. If the owner refused to do it himself, the city was prepared to use money from its abatement fund to tear them down. The property owner would be on the hook to repay the city, with 12 percent interest.

The abatement program is just one example of how Lakewood leaders are trying to entice development, increase home ownership and ultimately change perceptions about Pierce County’s second-largest city.

“If we had fewer absentee landlords, I think we’d have less of a problem,” said David Bugher, Lakewood’s assistant city manager for community development. “The city is trying to focus on increasing homeowner-occupied properties.”

The city has gone after problem properties since the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it established a dedicated fund for this type of action.

Lakewood keeps $400,000 in the fund. Roughly half is from the city general fund and half is from a federal grant.

Through the abatement process, the city works with property owners to address problems — everything from hoarding issues to vacant properties that turn into neighborhood nuisances after squatters take up residence.

Six rundown motels fronting Interstate 5 have been demolished through the program. Two more will come down this year. The city also has targeted mobile home parks that became hotbeds for criminal activity.

If an owner doesn’t eventually fix problems, the city will. The owner must repay the city for the work, which is often more expensive than if the owner had done it independently, Bugher said.

If the city is not repaid, a lien is placed on the property. The fund is revolving, meaning payments for work done go back into the fund to keep the balance near $400,000.

“We do not do this for minor or even medium-type violations,” Bugher said. “The city is very sensitive about going into private property and taking these kind of actions.”

Demolishing structures, as happened with the Durango Street houses, is a last-ditch scenario, he said.

“Not all our abatements are tear downs,” Price said. “A lot of them, it’s something that either needs garbage cleaned up and the building thoroughly secured, or there are owners that step up and do repairs.”

The city currently has 13 active properties on its abatement list. Another 12 are on a pending list for possible response, and 20 more are on a vacant property watch list, Bugher said.

Most properties are brought to the city’s attention through neighborhood complaints. Owners respond to the city’s request to fix a problem roughly half the time, Bugher said.

“It’s a popular program,” said Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson. “Neighbors get to see hope when blighted properties, particularly ones with absentee owners, are addressed.”

The city hopes by cleaning up problem properties, a sense of pride in ownership ripples through the neighborhood, he said.

“In the big scheme of things, there are relatively few problems,” Anderson said, “but they tend to act like a cancer sometimes.”