Dealing with "problem" property ownersInteresting post on Otis White's Urban Notebook at Governing.com. The Minnesota law sounds like a good idea for Houston too, but I'm not an expert in this area. I do understand that some homeowners associations have gotten out of control, and the state is looking to reign them in - but do cities like Houston have the opposite problem: no ability to effectively go after property owners that are an obvious big problem? I'd love to hear readers' thoughts in the comments section.
Oscar Madison on Steroids
Remember Oscar Madison, the lovable slob in “The Odd Couple”? Well, there are some real Oscar Madisons out there, and most aren’t lovable; some, in fact, are like Oscar Madison on steroids. Their homes are falling in, their yards are overgrown and they toss trash everywhere. Worse, they’ve been threatened with fines and liens so often, they just ignore them. What does a city do then? City officials in Vadnais Heights, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul, have wrestled with just such a “problem property” for three years. The owner keeps an illegal mobile home on the property and has received numerous citations for filling wetlands, cutting trees and what the St. Paul Pioneer Press primly calls “nocturnal activities.” The city has cleaned up the property twice and sent the owner the bills. She won’t pay. She also ignores court injunctions and citations. Finally, the city negotiated a five-page legal agreement with her spelling out exactly what she can and can’t do on her property. (Even so, there’s doubt it will do any good. The agreement forbids her son from visiting, but she told the Pioneer Press she won’t abide by that part. “He provides too much help here,” she said, “and I can’t control another human being.”) So what can cities do when faced with such obdurate scofflaws? St. Paul and Minneapolis have formed special teams of building inspectors, police officers and lawyers that can swoop in when neighbors report problems. These teams monitor nuisance properties and, when they find real problems, haul in the owners. Most of the time the coordinated approach works, but for the truly recalcitrant, the teams use a state law that allows them to remove renters and even owners for up to a year without first going through condemnation proceedings. (To move back in, an owner has to put up a $50,000 bond and agree to stop all nuisances.) The St. Paul team has threatened to use the law more than a dozen times, one city official said, and in every case but one the owners quickly settled. (St. Paul is preparing its first property-expulsion case now.) It’s a harsh but necessary law, the official said, adding, “It makes the difference between a livable neighborhood and one where everybody is putting up for-sale signs.” This isn’t a problem just in Minnesota, of course. There are nightmare properties in every city, including one in suburban Tampa where the owner has piled trash and auto parts in his yard and parked junk cars and an illegal mobile home. Fines don’t sway him. In the past 10 years, courts have assessed $210,000 in penalties, or about three times the property’s value. But since it’s a homestead, the county can’t foreclose under state law. As a result, the county is considering a new strategy: garnisheeing scofflaws’ wages and bank accounts. “This is only going to be used in the worst of the worst cases,” one county official promises.
Posted May 20, 2005