Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Eminent domain and receivership to "cure" habitual nuisances

One of the people that Suzanne works with doesn't live that far from us--about one mile away, but south, much closer to Kennedy Street--which is one of the problem streets in our greater neighborhood, so the quality of life for her family is much different, because they have nuisance properties on the block (one vacant, in another the resident is engaged in prostitution, but she goes over to the vacant house, etc.), nuisance neighbors, and terrible luck--the most recent being a stolen car ran into their sidewall (they live at the end of a block of rowhouses, abutting an alley) doing significant damage to the masonry.

The stories remind me of how f*ing hard it used to be to live north of H Street NE back in the day--the burglaries, muggings, assaults (the car we rented for our honeymoon was stolen), etc. that I experienced, the crime in general, the murders and drug sales in the area, etc.  I stuck it out but my ex-wife didn't and frankly, it takes way too much energy to have to deal with it.  I don't have the energy to live in such conditions now.

It also reminds me of the critical mass of "revitalizers" being necessary to turn around problem areas.  See "Revitalization in stages."

Receivership statutes.  In talking over the latest b.s. that Suzanne's colleague is dealing with, I mentioned receivership as a needed option in DC--because it takes years and years and years to force changes with recalcitrant property owners and how I used to testify a lot recommending that the city enact receivership statutes to facilitate this ("Receivership for housing," ""Why I hate DC" or the appropriate tactical strategy to apply to nuisance properties/ disinvestment is investment, not demolition," and "Pennsylvania passes receivership law with regard to vacant/nuisance properties") comparable to the State of Ohio.

Instead, DC's property abatement laws and regulations are incredibly complicated and put too much responsibility on the city government to act, when typically government agencies aren't supple enough and have a limited number of tools to work with when it comes to individual properties.

As a kind of example, see the article in the Post ("Old home's restoration helps to restore pride in Anacostia") about how the L'Enfant Trust is rehabilitating a property in Anacostia that has been vacant for many years.  That's the kind of action I anticipate if we had the right receivership statutes and procedures in place.

The shotgun-style house at 1229 E St. SE is seen in the Capitol Hill Historic District. (Ileana Najarro/The Washington Post)

Eminent domain.  But earlier this evening we we had been talking about the shotgun house debacle in Capitol Hill ("Pre-Civil War shotgun house in the hands of D.C. preservation board," Washington Post) which has been going on for more than one decade ten years (this City Paper article is from 2002, "Dwelling in the Past: Larry Quillian wants to raze his shotgun shack") ... and I said, the city should have taken the property by eminent domain years ago.

Sure the city would have had to pay for the property, but if they would have exercised that sort of power even just a few times against particularly egregious property owners, word would get around, and negligent property owners would start cleaning up their act, knowing that a property seizure was in the realm of possibility.

(Not unlike how the DC Department of Housing and Community Development seized the Park Southern Apartments, because of financial improprieties mostly, but also poor management.  Although that was by receivership, not eminent domain. See "D.C. housing complex’s decline raises questions about management, politics" from the Washington Post.)

Note that at the National Trust for Historic Preservation national meeting in Portland, Oregon in 2005, eminent domain was suggested as an option, in one of the sessions I attended.   With regard to checks and balances on eminent domain, see "Making eminent domain fair to alL" from the Boston Globe (2005).

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At 7:40 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Absolutely agree that it should be in the toolbox.

ANother issue is the rules need to be more granular; the V st pop up is an example of that. Preserving blocks is important. One one block receivership might be ideal, on another a tear down and a gap easier.

Thoughts on the Detroit water crisis? They are related.

Another big area where market incentives are not working is older apartment buildings. Hundreds of them along Connecticut Avenue in prime areas but in very suboptimal condition. If I could raise 20M to start to buy them out…I mean paying over $1000 for a unit with a window AC unit is not good.

At 9:28 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt the apartment buildings, it's not the same kind of market condition, but Toronto's Tower Renewal program is a good model.

It provides loans for rehab, with a focus in part on energy savings, which can be monetized for investing back in the property.

HUD has a program like that for buildings in the HUD program.

2. wrt your point, my next door neighbor works for DHCD and this would be something to talk with him and Michael Kelly (the director) about, although Mike, sadly, is not likely to be retained when the govt. changes.

In the Gray Administration, DHCD hasn't been allowed to do all that much. The ability to act has been agglomerated into the Deputy Mayor's Office for Planning and Economic Development and the various project managers located there.

But that has been a trend going on for awhile.

At 9:41 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the water issue in Detroit is complicated. I have been thinking about writing about it.

1. as population leaves the city, the infrastructure is too big, but still needs to be maintained.

at the same time it's a key part of the regional water infrastructure in Greater Detroit.

2. With property abandonment and blocks and square miles of vacant land, there are lots more leaks, losing water increases, and rates go up, significantly higher probably for the same amount of water than is paid by a comparable household in the suburbs.

(Note that New Orleans had a similar problem after Katrina.)

This obviously creates a financial burden for the system and for current residents.

3. This has led to big price increases. I haven't checked, I'm surmising... But I saw a mention somewhere that the avg. water bill is about $77/month, we pay about $45 for our single family bungalow.

On the other hand, when I lived by myself in a rowhouse, years ago, before the prices went up, I paid less than that for a 3 month period.

4. People need to pay their bills. While I have empathy for people who are priced out, at the same time the water system isn't a charity.

IF we had an infrastructure bank, it could make a loan to the city to back a repayment and collection system, so that people could get water and pay their bills over time, etc.

5. Plus costs have gone up everywhere because of various EPA mandates and the resulting requirement to build additional infrastructure (e.g., that's why rates have increased so much in DC).

6. Baltimore area water is comparable to the Detroit system. The city's infrastructure extends throughout the suburbs. In Detroit, the suburbs, particularly Oakland County, don't want to bail out the city (as they see it). Or you could see having slightly higher rates in the suburbs as a way to pay back Detroit for its initial and long term investment in the infrastructure.

OTOH, jurisdictions aren't good at working with each other. I might be doing a writing project for the Nat. Center for Smart Growth at UMD and we were talking about "bi-county authorities" and I mentioned the problem that MoCo and PGC have over the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, their bi-county water authority.

WSSC has new mandates, plus other infrastructure issues (a lot of substandard pipe) and they need to increase rates, but PGC commissioners won't agree to rate increases. The board has the same number of representatives from each county with no good way to break a deadlock.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The other thing I haven't gotten around to writing about is the Philadelphia Gas Works. While I write suggesting municipally owned utilities can be a good thing, PGW has been poorly run and used by local politicians for patronage and other means.

The city is broke. They got an offer to sell the utility, and the Mayor would then use a big chunk of the money to fix their city pension problem.

But the Council is delaying things...

2. I don't know how I feel about privatized water systems. I suppose it's not different from other utilities.

A municipal utility can do good things, e.g., the "Gig" internet system in Chattanooga, the way Seattle Public Utilities invests in the streetscape, etc.

OTOH, other people call those kinds of things, or the way that SFMTA (MUNI) pays for things other than transit exclusively as merely a way to bail out the regular city budget.

3. Another thing I didn't get around to writing about was a conservative initiative to privatize the water system IN PORTLAND OREGON, as a response to rate increases and a perception that the "city" was using the revenues from the system to pay for other things.

But the rates went up because of the various EPA mandates, not mismanagement. Although clearly there were disagreements about agendas.

The referendum was defeated 3-1.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... oh, and I agree with you about differentiated policies, that one "solution" -- receivership or eminent domain -- is not one size fits all.

at the same time, it's a tough tool to use because as we know it's subject to misuse by the govt. too.

At 10:01 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

+ we were in California around 4th of July and they are in drought conditions. It makes me realize how much we take access to water for granted, and for me personally, how even I "waste water" in how I use it in particular ways.

At 10:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard you are correct about receivership- it would help to prevent these abuses- but I also place a lot of blame on the CHRS for being overly litigious and knee jerking- plus they wield far too much power for a non-elected group of people and they routiniely use intimidation tactics- you are not a long time property owner and thus have no experienced their "under the table" ways of doing business. they are not nice people at all. There is a hidden agenda to their motives. In all respect- i would agree with you - but I also thinik that a fund should be set up to buy andangered properties. This could be done- after all- it would likely be cheaper that constantly incurring court costs and litigation costs. CHRS is an organization made up of lawyers and it is run by lawyers. They are not really concerned with historic preservation and are more concerned with other issues and have also expanded their reach far beyond the historic area of Capitol Hill. A new form of historic preservation should be thought of to replace them. They are old fuddy duddies and obstructionists against anything new that is positive.

At 10:56 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Actually anonymous makes a good point about lawyer dominated groups. the entire process is too legal-like and market solutions have a place.

What I was going to point about on the detroit water crisis and DC is the barry-era "let's take over the city" movement forgot the key tenet of cities -- you need to plan for a larger, richer and more successful generation to pay for your pensions.

I understand that "DC natives" like to keep things junky and cheap -- I'd prefer to live that way myself. Keeps your housing prices down.

But city workers need new people. The DC political establishment knows that now, but it isn't well communicated to the alleged middle class here.

Graham's point seems like politican-speak.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt the points about CHRS as an example, that's a good point.

In Ohio, this happens through a Housing Court system. The group has to have a plan to get the building awarded to it. And they have to rectify the problems in order to be in position of getting title cleared and ownership possession of the building.

That puts necessary checks and balances into the system.

wrt to anon's point about a revolving fund, I didn't mention this specifically but I have over time, and I think it's incredible that it is almost 40 years from the publishing of the ur-work in the field about revolving funds and other than the recent L'Enfant Trust initiative we don't have such a fund in the city.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt your continued "great points", yes, the people who got control in the 1970s didn't understand that it wasn't just about access to the pie, the pie needed to be bigger.

There was a piece by a geographer at Sustainable Cities Collective where he calls JJ stuff on the issue of what attracts people as "pseudoscience," that the real issue is migration.

You're sort of saying that, and you're both right. I just think that he missed the point that if the place isn't worth living in (except for certain other reasons), people with choices aren't going to want to migrate there.


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