The Political Dance & Financial Largesse of Addressing Blight in the City of Saginaw

Posted In: Politics, Local,   From Issue 730   By: Mike Thompson

11th August, 2011     234

Cleanup crews in Saginaw this year expect to perform more than 7,000 cutting jobs on abandoned vacant lots and unmowed yards that surround rundown houses, officials say.
   
That number will mark a major increase from the 2,100 tasks that were carried out as recently as four years ago..
   
So with such a large rise  in the workload, why do the tall weeds and grasses still bedevil our neighborhoods?
   
One reason is the uncommon amount of rain that fell in April and May, following a snowy late winter. The main headache, however, is that Saginaw now has 4,000 abandoned properties, nearly triple the 1,400 that existed in 2007, when an economic crisis took root nationwide and communities such as Saginaw were hit the hardest..
 
“Just this year, within the city, we had 500 more properties that became tax-reverted and we had 824 foreclosures.  It’s almost unbelievable how fast this continues to expand,” says Jeff Klopcic, the city’s technical services director.
   
A typical City Hall work crew contains three workers, with one assigned on criminal parole from Tri-CAP, the Tri-County Community Adjudication Program.  Three crews are assigned to Saginaw’s 338 acres of parks and boulevards. This is the same as four years ago.
   
However, Klopcic notes that the number of crews for abandoned properties is increased to six, up from two in 2007.

 More Crews, More Vacant Lots
   
Three of the expanded crews are provided through the Saginaw County Land Bank Authority, formed in 2004 under the guidance of County Treasurer Marv Hare in a quest to have the county take ownership of abandoned properties. The land bank aims to keep these properties out of the hands of negligent land speculators, who often are out-of-towners who have received false hopes from deceptive TV real estate infomercials.  

An example of this problem that readers may remember is a woman from Chicago in 2009 who purchased an East Side property for $1.50 on the internet, only to discover it was virtually worthless. The land bank has taken possession of more than 2,000 of the neighborhood eyesores.
   
Another added work crew comes through President Obama’s controversial American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the so-called federal economic stimulus program. Most of Saginaw’s two-year, $17.4 million grant is going for housing repairs and demolitions. A fraction of the cash is reserved for cleaning and maintaining vacant lots, along with the yard space next two abandoned houses.
   
Primary target areas, required by federal HUD rules, are the neighborhoods that surround Saint Mary’s of Michigan hospital and Covenant Medical Center. City and land bank leaders also are aiming to clear out the abandoned First Ward area on the northeast side.
 
Klopcic says 176 properties controlled through the stimulus effort, the second-year Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), are receiving special attention under the federal rules.
 
“Neighbors will see us mowing a lot that’s only 4 inches high. while there are two other lots that are something like 4 feet high, and they will call and ask why,” Klopcic says.  “It’s because the intent of the NSP is to provide a targeted effort to finally start to turn around some of these areas.”
 
A property becomes in violation of city codes when weeds and grass grow beyond 9 inches high. City Council members during the past decade lowered the limit from the previous 12 inches in what they described as an effort to do something about the problem. However, with limited funds and crews, some properties grow 48 inches and beyond before they are cut.
 
“We cannot start early,” Klopcic says, “because the limit is 9 inches. When we reach the point that a single property is in violation, then all of a sudden they’re all in violation at once.”
 
Critical residents ask why the city fails to keep the grass cut, but Klopcic notes, “We aren’t talking about cutting lawns. By the time we get in there, it’s with hedgehogs and other heavy equipment.”
 
He says crews cannot honor specific complaints and cut entire lots, because they must maintain a geographic sequence in order to maintain maximum efficiency. However, when overgrowth is blocking motorists’ views of intersections, crews will make quick visits to mow near the corner. These complaints should be directed to Edward Medel, crew supervisor, at 759-1661.

Slumlords Evade the Law
 
Klopcic wishes city crews had the resources to mow the remaining 3,800 non-NSP lots more often than once or twice per year. He shares the frustrations of local officials who wish penalties were harsher than special cleanup assessments that often go unpaid. Former Interim Manager Bill Bailey often used to say that abandoning property was perhaps the most reprehensible nonviolent crime that a citizen can commit.
 
“People should be responsible,” Klopcic says. “These are their properties. You may keep up your property and I may keep up mine, but then we have to pay for these people. Citizens get mad at us (for the slow pace of attacking blight), but they should be mad at the people who are abandoning their responsibilities.”
 
Critical residents also ask why penalties are not harsher, especially during times of such severe penalties for failure to pay a home mortgage bill, a car note, a utility payment, a medical fee or even a rent-to-own charge. If debt collectors can enforce these costs so rigidly, why do owners of abandoned properties get off the hook for demolition costs and then the subsequent mowing costs?

 “People will figure the property already is abandoned and worthless, so they often just let it go for taxes,” Klopcic notes.
 
City Attorney Tom Fancher explains the steps that his office is able to take.
 
“There are two common ways to pursue nuisance abatement compliance. They are tickets or special assessments,” Fancher says.  “They have their pluses and minuses.  With tickets (whether Citations or Notices of Violation and whether misdemeanor or municipal civil infraction) you serve the owner and go to court.  There will be a delay before the issue comes up.  This does not work so well with tall grass or garbage left at the curb on a non-garbage day. We don't want the delay. It works better with abandoned vehicles in driveways or junk in the front yard, or some permanent problem.  We can get a fine and a continuing court order.”

“On the other hand, with a special assessment, we do that cutting or clean up and bill the owner.  If they don't pay, we put it on the taxes.  If they don't pay the taxes, they lose the property. If the owner does not care about losing the property, we have less leverage.  We can pursue a civil suit, but the amount at issue is often only about $100.”
   
In a way, this explanation is similar to an automobile being repossessed.
   
“This hypothetical situation would probably involve a bigger debt that was reduced to Judgment,” Fancher says. “A creditor cannot garnish wages or levy against assets until after he gets a Judgment.  That would involve filing in court, and getting service on the person. Then we could locate any assets and recover against them.  All of this is possible, but probably not cost effective. If not out of state, the owner is sometimes deceased or judgment proof.”
   
Marv Hare says the county established the self-funded land bank, which does not receive general fund tax support, in a quest to tackle bad conditions in both the city and in the suburbs. Revenue comes from late tax-payment penalties and sales of properties that the county acquires, he says.
 
“It (blight) is out of control,” Hare says. “It’s all around the city, wherever you want to look. It’s so disheartening, but without the land bank things would be a lot worse. I’m trying to be as positive as I can.”

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