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Seattle program to track vacant buildings an effort to bolster neighborhood safety

KOMO-TV Seattle logo KOMO-TV Seattle 2 days ago Joel Moreno, KOMO News reporter
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Seattle's program to track vacant buildings that have a history of trouble is putting new strains on the city's resources even as a monitoring program that works to keep each location sealed up and safe is facing difficulty because some property owners are not pitching in.

Vacant buildings that fall into disrepair can be a magnet for illegal behavior and pose a safety hazards.

“There was a fire in there at one point which puts our property at risk because if this whole thing burns down what are we going to do?” said Daniel Dimas, whose workplace adjoins an empty commercial property now occupied by squatters. “You can smell drugs from this side. I'm sure they've tapped into the electricity somehow because they're listening to TV or radios or whatever."

Seattle launches effort to track abandoned buildings

In 2019, Seattle rolled out a revamped program to catalog and track sites that were generating multiple nuisance complaints.

The effort, known as the Vacant Building Monitoring Program, also broadened its scope to include properties before they became problems, which made it more proactive.

The watch list of vacant buildings now extends into every corner of Seattle. 

About 200 addresses are currently included in the monitoring program, but that number can climb closer to 500 when empty homes and businesses that require numerous responses from Seattle Police or Seattle Fire Department are included. 

But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic followed by widespread lockdowns prompted a pause in on-site inspections until safety measures could be worked out. 

According to Michele Hunter, a Seattle code compliance manager, the suspension has created a backlog even though the challenges posed by vacant buildings are on the rise.

“With the pandemic we are seeing an increase in activities in buildings, along with no longer having the no-trespass program,” Hunter said.

The no-trespass program was a collaboration with Seattle police until calls to defund the police resulted in fewer officers and resources. Now vacant building complaints don't always get top priority, which can make the removal of squatters difficult to address.

“For safety reason, our inspectors cannot remove trespassers,” Hunter said. “We need the police partnership to help us with that."

Abandoned buildings become an eyesore

While the city plays catch-up on enforcement, some neighbors are seeing crime and safety hazards grow in their areas.

“If you go over there now it's just heroin needles,” said Brock Lowry, referring to an abandoned commercial property up the street from where he works in South Lake Union.

Lowry said the vacant building ended up being the site for a group of people who set fires while abusing drugs and generating piles of garbage. 

“I think especially with vacant buildings, especially in this situation, it should be a priority,” Lowry said.

The municipal program aims to get property owner to take responsibility for their buildings by keeping the structure sealed, trash cleared and blight at bay.

Caption: A city program to track vacant buildings and the nuisance problems they cause may have fallen victim to COVID-19.

The city is also encouraging builders to partner with certain non-profit agencies to keep empty buildings temporarily in use, which can help the owner and the neighbors come out ahead.

Non-profits offer assistance

“This house will be demolished sometime in the late spring or early summer," said Patrick Arney, the program director with Weld, referring to a large home on Capitol Hill.

Weld is a non-profit group that has temporarily converted 18 homes around Seattle into recovery centers for especially vulnerable people who are homeless or on the verge of it. 

“We were able to come in and provide the housing and the resources for individuals,” Arney said, “and just become a successful part of the neighborhood hopefully instead of being boarded up."

Seattle is collaborating with organizations like Weld to reduce the number of empty buildings around the city. 

That’s because when left vacant, homes and businesses don't always stay sealed up as the city requires, and the people who break in can cause tremendous problems for the neighborhood.

When complaints pile up, Seattle includes the property in its vacant building monitoring program. Landlords are charged a fee to undergo regular inspections to make sure the site is locked and boarded up so that it doesn't become a safety hazard.

“It's very hard (and) very complex to keep a vacant building secure (and) keep all the safety concerns at bay,” Hunter said. “Keeping it occupied as long as possible is in the best interest of everyone."

Arney and the team at Weld have come up with a plan to help keep the building in use.

Caption: KOMO

Offenders can turn their lives around

Inmates just being released from prison or those who are chronically homeless and struggling with drug abuse are allowed to live in the home to work on recovery, sobriety and re-integration in the community.

Weld has managers live on-site and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for any drug use, a far cry from the free-for-all presented by squatters.

“It's a very creative strategy," Hunter said. "We've been very excited to hear about some of those non-profit organizations that are working with builders to help place some unsheltered people in properties."

Arney hopes that owners of other vacant properties will consider Weld, which served 176 people last year and has helped more than 400 since it began in late 2017. 

Arney said 60 percent of clients who finish the program end up in permanent housing.

Additionally, landlords stand to benefit, too.

 Not only is no one breaking in, but owners can get a property tax exemption while the home is used by Weld. They may also be eligible for a fair market write-off.

“It's a win-win for everyone involved,” Arney said.

Weld uses vacant homes for about nine months to a year, which is typically how long it takes for construction permits to be processed and approved. Then the demolition and rebuilding begin.

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