Vacant, boarded-up houses: What must the City Attorney do about it?

January 16, 2020

By Vince Bobot

Over ten years ago as an assistant city attorney, I proposed and developed a strategy to deal with vacant, boarded-up houses in our City. Unfortunately, the need to deal with those vacant homes fell on deaf ears. Now we have a situation where a vacant, boarded-up house may not only destroy an entire block, but a neighborhood as well. For example, in the 2900 block of North 27th Street a heavily traveled street in Milwaukee where tens of thousands of cars travel daily, there are five vacant, boarded-up homes. Not only is that block in danger, but the entire neighborhood is threatened by their existence. The failure to recognize and deal with this problem is long overdue.

Vince Bobot

At the time I proposed an initiative to deal with vacant, boarded-up houses in Milwaukee. The demand for housing was brisk, home values were increasing, and many felt private sector efforts to deal with the problem were adequate. However, I was convinced that those factors were not going to alleviate the problem. More importantly, every vacant house we were able to eliminate was a positive. Not only to save existing houses on the same block and possibly the neighborhood, but providing a clean, safe, affordable house to a Milwaukee resident.

The City Attorney must be at the forefront in removing and restoring a vacant, boarded-up house to a clean, safe and affordable home. First, the owner of the house must be identified. This may sound easy, but oftentimes it presents a real challenge. Many of the vacant, boarded-up houses in Milwaukee have been in that condition for a number of years. The transfer of ownership for many of those properties has not been properly recorded in the Register of Deeds Office. Therefore, finding the true owner of the property can be difficult. Yet, it can be done with persistence and ordinance enforcement.

The next thing that must be done is to assess the value of the vacant house. Many of those homes have fallen prey to scrappers who strip the plumbing and electrical systems out of the house.

Therefore, it may be wiser to raze the vacant house than consider remodeling it. The result is another vacant lot on the block and in the neighborhood. The next City Attorney is in position to go after any scrap yard owner purchasing stolen metals and fixtures from vacant houses. Every scrap dealer is licensed and needs to be put on notice that Milwaukee is no longer going to ignore or tolerate the purchasing of stolen goods.

Prompt attention to the vacant house by the City of Milwaukee can also go a long way in preventing looting of the house. An alarm system can be installed in the vacant home to alert the police of an intrusion by trespassers. A secondary positive feature of the alarm installation in a vacant house is the prevention of drug dealers using them to traffic narcotics in our city. The cost of that alarm system could be born by the owner of the vacant house through city ordinance(s). Additionally, a monthly inspection plan of vacant, boarded-up houses should be instituted by the Department of Neighborhood Services to ensure the vacant home has not been compromised by trespassers. Such reinspection fees are the responsibility of the homeowner and can be placed on the property tax bill.

The final step is to rehabilitate the vacant house or to raze it. The remodeling must be viewed as a neighborhood event. Input from neighbors on the block and in the surrounding area is crucial. Once a cost has been ascertained, the City of Milwaukee must find a way to get it done. Doing nothing is not an option. If the vacant house does not warrant fixing it up, then it should be razed with a plan to replace it with a clean, safe, affordable house in short order. Anything less undermines neighborhood restoration and endangers the overall health of our City. We now have a strong, vibrant downtown in the City of Milwaukee. With that being said, it is now time to take the fight to our neighborhoods. The City Attorney can no longer remain on the sidelines. As your next City Attorney I will be in each and every neighborhood talking with residents and listening to them. The City Attorney is in the unique position to do something about the problems facing Milwaukee. As your next City Attorney, I will do just that!

This op-ed is by paid for by Bobot for City Attorney, Marc

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