Strategies sought to fight neighborhood blight

Tax-rebate incentive among proposed solutions

Every homeowner fears it. The neighboring house that goes unpainted for decades. The lawn that goes unmowed for months. The property that is more likely to attract rats than tenants.

“It’s always a concern because if you have one house on the block that goes downhill, it drags down the whole block, at least,” said David Geyer with the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods.

In city legal terms, such houses are considered a blight.

City Hall has long made blighted properties illegal, but now city officials are discussing whether they need new strategies to deal with the issue.

And part of their thinking comes down to an age-old question: Should they use a carrot or a stick?

“It is an issue that can be bad for neighbors, bad for additional development, bad for investors who may not want to invest additional money into a neighborhood because of its condition,” said Neighborhood Resources Director Victor Torres.

Torres’ office already stays busy with blight issues.

The department averages about 100 cases per year related to structural blight, another 500 related to blight caused by overgrown grass or weeds, and about 700 cases of environmental blight, which can include problems with trash or illegal dumping on a site.

Torres has sent a report to city commissioners outlining two new strategies for lawmakers to think about.

The “carrot” option, so to speak, is a state law — the Neighborhood Revitalization Act — that gives a property tax rebate to owners who make improvements that increase the value of a home.

If a property owner improved the taxable value of a home from $50,000 to $70,000, the act would allow the owner to continue paying taxes at the $50,000 level.

Cities can set how many years a property is eligible for the rebate. The length is typically five or 10 years, potentially saving the property owners thousands of dollars in taxes on the improved home. The rebate also can be transferred to a new owner of the property.

According to Torres’ report, 32 cities across the state — including Ottawa, Emporia, Leavenworth and Topeka — have implemented the Neighborhood Revitalization Act.

In Ottawa, the program began in 1996 and has attracted a dozen participants per year. The city has received eight applications so far in February.

“We’re seeing a lot of infill development where we probably wouldn’t be seeing it otherwise,” said Charlotte Newkirk, an administrative assistant in Ottawa’s Planning and Codes Department. “We have had a couple of areas in town that have spruced up quite a bit.”

The stick

The second option is a more traditional “stick” approach: hire more inspectors to allow the city to get more aggressive in locating properties that are out of compliance.

Torres has not recommended how many new inspectors would be needed to start a program where the city would begin canvassing the community to search for blighted properties. But he said the city would want to consider increasing the fund it uses to address blighted properties from $5,000 to $25,000.

That fund is used to take care of blight issues when the property owner is unable or unwilling to do so. The city seeks to recoup those funds by the adding the amount onto the owners’ future property tax bills.

The right approach, Torres said, might be a mix of carrot and stick.

“We would like to be able to do both things,” he said, “and really be out in full force.”

City Commissioner Boog Highberger said the Neighborhood Revitalization Act had potential for Lawrence. Not all blighted properties, he said, are the result of uncaring property owners.

“Maintaining a house is expensive, and if all your money goes to making a mortgage payment and buying food, it is easy to understand how they can fall behind,” Highberger said.

Mayor Mike Rundle said he also was interested in exploring the act’s potential for Lawrence. But he said beefing up the city’s inspections staff also was a good idea.

“I feel like that department has been extremely understaffed for years,” Rundle said.