West St. Paul registry aims to track vacant homes

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE
  • Star Tribune
  • September 29, 2012 - 9:56 PM

The house has been foreclosed, the occupants are gone and pretty soon complaints about the property drift in to City Hall: the grass is long, a window is broken, the pipes have burst.

By adopting a proposed ordinance that would require the owners of unoccupied homes and businesses to register their buildings and their contact information with City Hall, West St. Paul hopes to speed its response to problems like these.

"Vacant buildings can often attract trespassers and create neglect, increasing the risk of criminal activity, fire and exterior maintenance issues which negatively affect neighbors and city residents," said Community Development Director Jim Hartshorn in recommending the ordinance to City Council members last week.

The ordinance -- which is similar to those in effect in St. Paul and Brooklyn Center -- will get its first reading before the City Council in October.

It would require the owners of unoccupied dwellings to pay a $100 registration fee in the first 30 days the dwelling is empty and $200 if it will be vacant for 60 days or longer.

Hartshorn expects registration fees to cover the cost of implementing the program, which includes increasing a part-time staff member to three-quarters time.

West St. Paul currently has 288 vacant houses, mostly due to foreclosures. It is the city's responsibility to ensure that property owners properly maintain and secure these buildings, Hartshorn said.

The ordinance would require the owner of a vacant building to keep it secure, mow the lawn, shovel the snow and provide enough heat to avoid frozen pipes. Failure to maintain a building would draw fines.

St. Paul has had an empty dwelling ordinance for at least 20 years. It requires owners to register the buildings and pay a $1,200 registration fee for every year the house is vacant, said Robert Humphrey, spokesman for the St. Paul safety and inspections department. The city pursues registrations if complaints come in about a house or if an empty dwelling is found during city inspections, Humphrey said.

St. Paul currently has 1,354 vacant buildings on register. The primary goal is to get the house fixed up and reoccupied, but in some cases houses that are not cared for are torn down by the city, he said.

Brooklyn Center adopted its vacant building ordinance in 2009 in response to the wave of foreclosures across the city, said Assistant City Manager Vickie Schleuning.

The number of vacancies now is about 302.

"Before we had the ordinance, we had a lot of complaints," Schleuning said. Junk was left in the yard, water lines broke and "there was a lot of apprehension in the neighborhoods.

"After we had the vacant building program, we received very, very few complaints," she said. "We know what is happening to these properties."

There have been about 1,370 buildings registered since the Brooklyn Center program began. If the property is well maintained, the registration fee is $100 and the fee for a reoccupancy certificate is $195. If there are maintenance issues, the cost of the registration and a reoccupancy certificate rises to $595.

Residents and city staff report the vacant homes. If necessary to find the owners, the city goes out and posts a notice of the required registration on the front door, Schleuning said.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287

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