Most Oklahomans pay little attention to vacant buildings and abandoned property unless, of course, that property is located next door. Whether it’s a boarded-up school, an empty warehouse or an abandoned apartment complex, vacant property becomes a real worry only when it becomes an eyesore in the neighborhood.
Officials from state and local agencies see it differently. They see the problem of abandoned properties as a financial hardship and an emergency services nightmare. They’re pushing hard for legislation that would make it easier for municipalities to deal with the growing blight of vacant and abandoned properties. From decreased property values and increased criminal activity to the enormous cost of emergency services, the problem of abandoned and neglected property has become one enormous financial black hole.
According to one Oklahoma City official, the issue is costing state and local governments millions of dollars in emergency services and other expenses, and could be costing the state billions in lost property values.
“I know people might hear that and think, ‘That’s ridiculous. How could some empty buildings be that big a problem?’” says Russell Claus, director of the Oklahoma City Planning Department. “I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate the cost of abandoned and vacant property, when you consider the overall picture. It was a terrible and expensive problem before the housing collapse, and it’s gotten even worse the past few years. When you start to add up the numbers, it’s shocking how much money it’s costing Oklahomans in so many ways.”
There are no statistics on how many properties in Oklahoma fall into the categories of abandoned, neglected or vacant. Some reports estimate as many as 20,000 structures – maybe more – are currently vacant or abandoned in Oklahoma. Many of those are in economically depressed and/or low-income neighborhoods. According to Claus and others who deal with the issue, virtually every neighborhood in Oklahoma City and Tulsa has felt the impact in recent years.
A litany of city codes designed to help keep neighborhoods from appearing neglected are already on the books. But city code violations are seldom enforced, mostly because police and other city officials are already overwhelmed with more serious, criminal issues.
“Yes, those codes are on the books, but in almost every neighborhood you have people who either don’t know the laws or don’t care what the laws are,” says Bruce Hall, a member of the Miller Neighborhood Association in north-central Oklahoma City.
The Miller neighborhood and the Mesta Park neighborhood – also in Oklahoma City – are two areas where residents have battled back against vacant, abandoned and neglected properties the past 20 years. Both neighborhoods are now shining examples of how homeowners can save neighborhoods.
“A lot of the time it’s renters who don’t take pride in the property because it’s not their property,” Hall says.
The problem costs taxpayers and property owners in several ways. First, there is the simple issue of how unattractive the properties are.
“Nothing ruins a neighborhood faster than abandoned and neglected properties,” says Georgie Rasco, executive director of Central Oklahoma Neighborhood Alliance. “It’s very difficult and extremely frustrating to property owners who pour their entire livelihood into their homes, only to have their property values destroyed by vacant houses and abandoned buildings.”
In addition, Oklahoma’s cities are spending millions each year providing police and fire services to these buildings, and none of those costs are being recouped because owners many times are not paying taxes.
The issue isn’t just money and the unattractive nature of these properties. Crime has become a tremendous issue in and around these properties, according to Claus.
“We speak with law enforcement officials about this issue all the time,” Claus said. “These properties – such as abandoned apartment complexes and empty warehouses – quickly become a haven for illegal activities. It’s very common today for people to set up temporary meth labs in these structures, which often lead to fires and/or explosions.”
Claus says school officials in Oklahoma City and Tulsa deal with the criminal aspect of abandoned properties on a regular basis. He relays the story of one Tulsa school official who says troubles at home and gangs aren’t as scary to students as the crime-ridden, abandoned apartment buildings in their neighborhoods.
“These kids go miles out of their way to avoid these places because of the drug activity and the crime that is associated with these kinds of structures,” he adds. “That’s a real problem that has nothing to do with money. How do you measure that cost?”
There are ways state and local governments can attack the problem by “going after” the properties and the property owners. State and local laws provide municipalities with the legal right to condemn a property if the abandoned and vacant situation persists, but, for obvious reasons, a property cannot be seized easily.
“Yes, it is a lengthy process, and it’s designed that way to ensure that the state or the city doesn’t have the freedom to just go around snatching property away from owners who simply don’t act quickly enough,” says State Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Oklahoma City. “There will most likely be legislation coming in the next session that will make it easier for cities to condemn properties, but we have to walk a fine line between public safety and the rights of property owners.”
Rasco says one ordinance allows a city to condemn a property that has not had utility services for three years.
“But the property owners know this, so often they will come along just as that three-year window is about to expire and they’ll have the water turned on for two or three months,” she says. “That not only stops the process, but it also forces us to begin waiting through another three-year period.”
Claus and officials with other Oklahoma cities are well aware of their rights when it comes to assuming control of abandoned and neglected properties. And, whenever that action becomes necessary, they will take those steps, but they do so very carefully.
“It’s certainly not a step we take lightly, no matter what people think,” Claus says. “It’s not something we want to do, and we do everything possible within our power to rectify these situations without having to resort to that. Taking someone’s property and terminating their property rights is and should be the last resort in a desperate situation.”
As much as city officials like Claus understand the need to protect the rights of property owners, he is quick to point out that the situation as it stands currently simply cannot be allowed to continue. The cost is just too high.
“In Oklahoma City alone we estimate there are more than 8,000 abandoned pieces of property,” he says. “And, on average, it costs us more than $1,500 per year to provide police and fire responses to each and every one of those. If you use those numbers, which I believe are actually conservative, that means in police and fire protection alone those properties are costing Oklahoma City $12 million every year.”
Claus says the U.S. Postal Service estimates the number of vacant properties in Oklahoma City as high as 16,000.
Both Claus and Rasco say the impact on property owners across Oklahoma is immediate and devastating when it comes to home values.
“When someone drives into a neighborhood to potentially look for a house to purchase, they don’t just consider the house,” Rasco says. “A lot of their decision for where to locate their family is based on the neighborhood. It focuses on the houses and the buildings around the property they are considering buying. And, especially in today’s housing market – with so many houses on the market – if you drive into a neighborhood and see abandoned and vacant houses, you don’t stick around to look any further.”
Studies across the United States have shown that abandoned and vacant properties have a direct impact on the prices being paid for new homes. One such study in Philadelphia estimated the average homeowner’s cost at $7,500.
Michelle Allen, spokesperson for the City of Tulsa, says Mayor Dewey Bartlett put additional funding in the current fiscal year budget to help offset the increased cost of dealing with vacant and abandoned properties. Claus adds that Oklahoma City officials are currently seeking a consulting company to study the issue.
“What we need are numbers,” Claus says. “We need to know exactly how many of these properties there are, exactly how much they’re costing every year, and we need someone to bring us information on how other cities are dealing with the issue.
“I understand that people are somewhat hesitant to ever give the city more authority to condemn property and take away the owner’s rights,” Claus continues. “This is by no means what we with the city of Oklahoma City want to do and not what we intend to do. We are simply trying to find some way to deal with this problem. It simply has to be dealt with and it has to be done quickly.”