Columbia copes with increasing number of vacant houses

This article won the second-place award at the Missouri Press Association Awards 2012 in the Best News category.

This story was first published in the Columbia Missourian on Aug 11, 2011.

COLUMBIA — One house on Moss Street sticks out among the rest. For all the wrong reasons.

Paint has chipped off its white walls in places, and the porch is covered with a thick layer of dust. The grass has grown tall in the front lawn, cobwebs hang from the side walls and flies buzz around the rainwater collected in an overturned lid near the back.

Behind the house, a broken bicycle stands forgotten amid a clutter of metal pipes and wooden planks. An abandoned water heater lies among crumpled leaves and twigs near the shabby back door.

“It’s been empty for two years,” said Jake Heithold, a neighbor who has lived two houses up the street for the past three years. “It would be nice if someone lived there.”

This house on Moss Street is one of the 3,693 vacant houses in Columbia — that’s almost 8 percent of the total housing units in the city, according to the 2010 U.S. Census data. Between 2000 and 2010, the city saw a 66 percent increase in the number of vacant houses.

Just like with occupied houses, it’s up to the owners to take care of their vacant homes, and the city’s Office of Neighborhood Services tries to ensure that owners don’t ignore their responsibilities.

Finding the owners

If a vacant house is in disrepair, the office tries to establish contact with the owners first, director Leigh Britt said. Once the owners are identified, they are given a voluntary period to respond to any city code violations.

In the case of some vacant properties, however, it is difficult to locate the owners.

“The most amount of struggle we face is when there is a foreclosure, and it is not clear who the owner of the vacant house is,” she said. “Sometimes the owners might have died, and the house might have passed to the heir; sometimes the owners might be in prison.”

Often, vacant houses are brought to the attention of the office by concerned neighbors. At other times, proactive visits by the office’s Neighborhood Response Team help identify vacant houses in need of repair, Britt said.

The Neighborhood Response Team inspects at least 3,500 residential properties — occupied and vacant — in the central part of the city to uncover code violations on an annual street-by-street basis, Neighborhood Response Coordinator Bill Cantin said.

“We just go on a walk-around and take note of any houses that might have fallen into disrepair or might have become dilapidated,” he said.

The team consists of a building inspector, an environmental health inspector, a police officer and a neighborhood response coordinator. They look for common code violations such as peeling paint, torn window screens, gutters full of debris and broken windows.

Observing the utility connections and utility reports is one way the team identifies vacant homes: If utilities are disconnected, the house is usually empty.

Vacant means trouble

The house on Moss Street is not completely neglected. Heithold said the owner visits occasionally to take out the trash and mow the lawn. Heithold’s wife, Bonnie, said they have never seen people loitering around that empty house.

Preventing unwanted people from hanging around vacant homes is on the city’s agenda, as well.

“One of our goals is to make sure that if there’s a vacant house, it’s locked and secure, so people cannot just move in and out,” Britt said.

Columbia police officer Tim Thomason, who’s on the Neighborhood Response Team, said open, unsecured vacant homes invite all kinds of possibilities, including trespassing, sleeping, drug dealing and sex offenses.

Having a large number of vacant houses, especially those in disrepair, decreases quality of life in neighborhoods and promotes criminal activity, he said. Drug use is probably the biggest problem the city faces from vacant houses, Thomason said.

Often people illegally take shelter in these unused, vacant properties.

“One of the most common problems is the homeless folks getting into the vacant houses, especially in the winter,” he said. “That is definitely number one.”

Since most vacant houses don’t have utility connections, people who take refuge in them may use alternative sources of heat, causing risk of fire damage. Cantin said he is always worried about kids running into empty houses and getting injured.

If owners fail to comply after notification of a code violation, they could be prosecuted in the Municipal Court, fined or subjected to jail time, Britt said.

There is also a provision in the city code to demolish a structure, but it is not used often. Finding a clear title of the property before the building is torn down is often a challenge, he said.

Among the roughly 3,500 houses monitored by the response team recently, around 100 were vacant, according to data provided by the Office of Neighborhood Services.

That’s just a small chunk of the total houses in the city.

Boone County’s has 69,951 houses, and 7.8 percent — 5,474 houses — are vacant, according to 2010 Census data.

Of those vacant houses, Columbia’s share is  67 percent.

It is difficult to draw a correlation between vacant houses and homes in disrepair.

“Just because it is vacant does not mean it is not well maintained,” Boone County assessor Tom Schauwecker said.

According to Schauwecker’s observations, there is no single neighborhood with a heavy concentration of vacant houses in the city.

Britt agreed. “Compared to other cities, vacant houses are not a big problem in the city,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of streets with many vacant houses.”

Schauwecker’s and Britt’s claims are consistent with the 2010 Census data. According to the statistics, Boone County is No. 7 on the list of Missouri counties with the lowest vacancy rates.

Columbia is among the top 20 percent of more than 1,000 census-designated places in the state with low vacancy rates.

One reason the increase in vacant houses might have gone unnoticed is their location. The most significant increases occurred away from the city center, in the north and northeastern parts of the city — east of U.S. 63 and north and south of Interstate 70.

Effect on neighboring property values

Heithold said he isn’t selling, but if he were, he worries that the vacant house on Moss Street might affect his property value.

Betty Tice, president of the Columbia Board of Realtors, said no general rule covers the impact of a vacant house on property values around it.

If a house is newly vacant and well-maintained, it will have minimal effect on the surrounding properties, she said. If the house has been empty for a long time, has fallen into disrepair or had a foreclosure, it could have a negative impact on the value of neighboring houses.

Schauwecker said the size, location and condition of the house, however, have greater influence on the value of the house than just its vacancy status.

The general consensus is that much of the increase in vacant houses in the city during the past 10 years can be attributed to a downturn in the economy and a rise in foreclosures.

Although the city and county’s housing market has held its own during recent economic jolts, there has been an increase in the number of foreclosures.

According to data from the Boone County Recorder of Deeds office, the number of  recorded foreclosures jumped from 143 in 2006 to 231 in 2007 and 307 in 2008. Last year, 349 foreclosures were recorded.

Assistance for home repairs

The vacant house on Moss Street used to be rental, Heithold said. More than half of the vacant houses in Columbia — 56 percent in all — are rentals, according to census data.

In 2010, of the 3,693 vacant homes in Columbia, 207 were designated for seasonal, recreational or occasional use only, while 102 had been sold but were not occupied.

Another 608 vacant Columbia houses were up for sale.

A house on Pendleton Street in the Douglass Park neighborhood, for example, has been on the market for two years.

Ronald Mitchell, a neighbor, said the owner is in a nursing home, and her son put the house up for sale. The green single-story house has fallen into disrepair since then.

Mitchell said the city often informs owners in the area about code violations, telling them to remodel their properties, but it can be difficult for fixed-income households in the neighborhood.

“The economy is rough right now,” Mitchell said. “The government doesn’t have any money, and they don’t want to give us any loans.”

He said the city should offer more flexible deadlines and better opportunities for loans to help with the remodeling.

The city’s Department of Planning and Development runs a housing rehabilitation program and an emergency repair program.

Both programs are designed for low- and moderate-income property owners and are funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant.


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