Thirteen percent of U.S. homes are now vacant according to a new report in the Huffington Post. Prices are dropping but people who have the money to buy are reluctant to enter the housing market fearing prices will drop even more. I think we’d hope that by now things would turn around but I’m not seeing much change in the areas around the country where I do seminars. I’m very concerned about properties that still appear to be owned by individuals but that the lenders actually own. Recently I was researching a property that the former owner told us he turned over to a lender last summer. He was right. We didn’t know though because the lender had never filed the necessary paperwork with the Recorder of Deeds. Consequently, all notices of violation went to him and not the lender. Whether this was an oversight or intentional, I have no idea but it sets us back even further in identifying the responsible party. I’m also seeing a number of judgments for foreclosure where the sheriff”s sale has never taken place. Sometimes this is due to a bankruptcy being filed but in other cases it remains a mystery. This is why ordinances to make lenders responsible for the upkeep of the vacant property prior to a foreclosure judgment are so critical to preserving neighborhoods.
There’s a bill pending in Illinois which would allow local governments to pass ordinances that would make lenders responsible for the upkeep of vacant properties in foreclosure. Needless to say, the lenders are fighting the bill. They’ve proposed a $50 fee per foreclosure that would go into a pool that local governments could draw from to reimburse themselves for their costs. $50 per property, hmmmm, that’ll go really far. Maybe it’ll cover half a lawn being cut, once. They must really think we’re stupid. I’m disheartend that when I contacted my state rep, I received a nice “thanks for your e-mail” message, completely ignoring the expertise on this issue I’ve developed. The banks say that they just wouldn’t be able keep up with all of the municipal ordinances that might be passed; maybe they would then know what it’s like to be an inspector who is desperately trying to reach a live human being at a lender when a property has 6 feet of water in the basement of a vacant home under foreclosure. I wish I wasn’t so cynical about the political process. I wish I believed it was possible that politicians would do the right thing and help local government preserve neighborhoods. I want to believe that if they only knew about the problems we face, they’d give us some meaningful tools. But, if they ignore our attempts to educate them, how can they make an informed decision?
Building officials are dealing with structures that have not been completed within a reasonable amount of time. Many of these situations arise because of the financial problems of the owner or contractor and sometimes these projects are begun by weekend warriors who never have the time to finish the project. Shorewood, Il. building inspector, David Meyers, shared the ordinance his town has used to try and deal with this problem:
1. New Construction Permits; Residential Dwelling Units:
a. All work must commence within six (6) months of the issue date of the permit. If work has not commenced within six (6) months, the general contractor may request that the original permit be extended by ninety (90) days. The request shall be made in writing and include an explanation for the delay. All extension requests should be submitted to the village administrator.
b. The dwelling unit is required to be completed and successfully pass a final inspection by the building inspector within twelve (12) months from the issue date of the permit. If the dwelling unit is not completed within twelve (12) months, then the permit applicant must reapply for a new permit. The reapplication cost will be based on fifteen cents ($0.15) per square foot of the dwelling unit.
Construction of the dwelling unit must be completed within two (2) years from the date the original permit was issued or court proceedings will commence.
2. Other Permitted Construction:
a. Additions to residential dwellings shall be completed within twelve (12) months. If work is not completed at this time, the applicant must reapply and pay a permit fee that is fifty percent (50%) of the original permit cost.
b. All permits, other than those listed in subsections C1 and C2a of this section, shall be completed within six (6) months of the time of issuance of the permit. If the work is not completed at that time, the permit holder must reapply for the permit at fifty percent (50%) of the original permit cost. (Ord. 98-894, 2-24-1998)
The above ordinance at least sets some limits on how long a building permit stays open. When a project has an expired permit, I encourage inspectors to use the International Property Maintenance Code to address problems on the property. This will usually inspire the owner or contractor to renew the permit and complete the project. If this doesn’t work, we may have no choice but to file a demoliton suit so the unfinished structure does not remain an eyesore.
I recently completed a 2 month period of travel all over the Midwest doing trainings for building officials, fire inspectors, property maintenance and housing inspectors and law enforcement officers in Columbus, Ohio, East Liberty, Iowa, South Bend, Indiana, Troy, Michigan, East Peoria, IL and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. All of them are facing challenges because of the foreclosure crisis and are trying to respond with reduced resources. I want to say how much I appreciate the hospitality I received wherever I went and the enthusiasm of the participants. It gives me great hope when I see the number of inspectors who take the time to come to the classes I teach so they can enhance their skills and keep trying to improve their communities. At a time when so many public employees are feeling unappreciated and under attack, I just wanted to extend my thanks to everyone who made my trainings a rewarding experience.
The New York Post is reporting that the compound built in Pakistan that housed Osama Bin Laden deviated from the building plans on file. It was supposed to be a 2 story building but ended up with 3. An extra building not on the plans also was constructed. The Post says Bin Laden never paid property taxes. It also reported that:
The oversights were no surprise to locals, who say Abbottabad’s building inspectors never bother to check whether homes are built in line with their building permits.
I keep saying that strict code enforcement can aid law enforcement. You just never know what you’ll find when you pursue these cases.