Politics & Government

Owners of derelict properties in Tacoma could face new fees

Tacoma landowners who ignore persistent requests from the city to clean up their derelict buildings could eventually face additional fees of up to $500 per year.

The fees are part of a proposed change to Tacoma’s building and structures code, which the Tacoma City Council could adopt Tuesday (Nov. 4).

Last year the city opened 485 derelict building cases. In most cases, property owners “did the right thing” and took care of problems, said Lisa Wojtanowicz, division manager of the city’s neighborhood and community services department.

A building can become derelict, or unfit for human habitation, for any number of reasons, she said. The most common problem is a lack of working utilities. Other reasons include a damaged roof, hazardous wiring, fire hazards or lack of working toilets.

When the city receives a complaint about a property, staffers investigate. If it’s founded, the city sends a letter to the property owner. If the owner doesn’t respond, the city sends two more letters, each with a $250 civil penalty attached, Wojtanowicz said.

If there is still no response, or a property owner misses an agreed-upon deadline for fixing the property, the city files a “certificate of complaint” with the county assessor on the property.

This was the case for about 80 of the 485 properties last year, Wojtanowicz said. Banks recently have gotten better at trimming the grass and keeping properties otherwise presentable, she said, but not all comply.

“It seems like we always have this group where we don’t have people stepping up and taking responsibility for those properties,” Wojtanowicz said. “… There’s typically a bank involved (and the properties are) in various stages of foreclosure.”

If the city adopts the new code Tuesday, the property owners who don’t address problems will be required to pay a new annual fee, starting at $250, and $500 per year thereafter.

The fees will help defray for police, fire and enforcement calls to the properties, Wojtanowicz said. The city expects to generate $20,000 per year from such fees.

In the proposed new process, the property owner is also required to fill out paperwork that includes a 24-hour point of contact so the city could reach someone if there are problems with the property.

“It’s an opportunity to be more proactive and really understand the scope and issues related to the (properties) that aren’t moving forward,” she said.

As a last resort, the city can haul the owner to what’s called an “unfit building hearing” to have the building ordered demolished. The city can also seize the property under eminent domain, an option the city hasn’t exercised in years, Wojtanowicz said.

“We usually get the attention of an owner” by the time an unfit building hearing comes around, she said. The city has scheduled 18 such hearings this year.

Overall, derelict properties are “not fair to the community, right?,” she said. “You drive around and see these things. It’s an unattractive nuisance.”

The new system won’t be necessary for responsive property owners, Wojtanowicz said, such as the owners of Old City Hall. The owners have an agreement with the city to ensure the historic property doesn’t fall victim to the elements and into further disrepair.