Blighting and Taking Private Property Not the Right Fix for Vacancies
The Kansas City Star’s editorial board wrote recently that the city should deal with vacant houses and buildings more aggressively, by putting vacant properties that are deemed a nuisance into new hands (“To protect neighborhoods, KC must enforce law on vacant properties,” Sept. 22). By turning to such extreme measures, the city runs the risk of implementing a policy that will push people out of their homes or deprive them of their property so that others of the government’s choosing can take over. In Montgomery, Ala., a city with a similar policy, property owners found their homes bulldozed. In one instance, a construction site was razed.
The Kansas City ordinance in question is designed to deal with a large number of vacant properties in the city, and it leaves a great deal of discretion in the hands of city’s Neighborhood and Community Services Department. Under this law, the department is responsible for recommending properties to take over, and can even suggest a new city-appointed caretaker. The department effectively has the power to take property from one person and give it to someone else.
Awarding this power to the department will enable special interests to mold the process in their favor. The law could be manipulated in a number of ways, starting with the definition of vacancy. This “vacant” property law specifically notes, for example, that apartment buildings with five or more units can be considered vacant if a majority of the units are unoccupied — meaning that a building may be deemed vacant despite having residents. This strange definition of vacancy means that apartment residents can be caught up in the process and find themselves without a home.
Furthermore, the structure of the ordinance lends itself to selective enforcement. It is inconceivable that the department has the time to file the necessary paperwork to transfer ownership of all vacant properties in Kansas City. Instead, it is likely that the department will start to enforce this ordinance against properties that are particularly desirable to well-connected developers. Despite the requirement that the city notify property owners at least 60 days before beginning the taking process, property owners may not receive notice of the impending confiscation — a common oversight in Montgomery.
Finally, it’s not guaranteed that that the city will be successful in transferring property to owners that are more responsible. The ordinance only guarantees that someone will attempt to match properties with “better” owners. No person is so omniscient that she can predict accurately who will be a better, more successful property owner. Similar attempts to predict future success have resulted in both a vacant property logjam and unused luxury office space in the city of Saint Louis.
There are good ways to fight vacancy. Taking on additional power to seize land from private owners isn’t one of them.
Audrey Spalding is the public information specialist for the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank.