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Feb 06

A Bit Of Clarification

Comments (0) 12:00 AM posted by admin |

If my post gave you the impression that I am in favor of blight and slumlords like David Kircher, or that the community should accept vacant and dangerous buildings, then I did not effectively get my point across. Allow me the chance to correct that.

Within the City Code for Buildings and Building Regulations is the provision to force owners of buildings with broken windows and back doors ripped off to correct these problems. This proposed amendment does not add to that. With the passage of this amendment, an owner of a building with boarded up windows will not be forced to replace them, but must only subject the building to periodic inspections that will result in minimal fees ($65 / inspection and $50 to $300/ month in escrow depending on C of O status). While it is entirely possible that these fees will force some slumlords to replace the windows in question, it will not deter the City’s biggest offenders like Mr. Kircher, a man who is willing to lose his properties in the courts rather than rehabilitate them (and it should be noted that measures like this did not help in removing Mr. Kircher as owner of the Thompson block and 510 West Cross Street). The point of any revision to the City Code should be to prevent and correct problems like 107 East Cross Street; unfortunately this amendment will not do that.

If the citations and fines currently in place are not enough of a deterrent, they should be increased. I would argue that a significant reason that buildings stay unsafe for long periods of time until corrections are made is not the cost of enforcement but the lack of inspection staff. This proposed amendment does not increase staff to inspect buildings and enforce ordinances. Charles Boulard clearly stated that to be the case when questioned by Council Member Swanson at Tuesday’s meeting.

I firmly believe that we need to do something about properties like 107 East Cross, 12 North River, 14 North River, and the Thompson Block. But I believe this ordinance is a source of great micromanaging because included in this amendment is the requirement for the inspection of buildings that have been vacant for more than twelve months but are well maintained and in good condition. What part of the health and safety of the community is jeopardized by a well-maintained yet vacant building? I believe 212 North Grove Street has been vacant for almost two years as the result of a foreclosure. The building looks to be in excellent condition and is worthy of a plaque from the Heritage Foundation. Is the community best served by requiring routine inspections of this property? Could the time required for such inspections by the Building Official be better-spent resolving real issues? Will this help the property sell more quickly? Any building that was previously not considered an issue but becomes an issue because the clause involving being vacant for twelve months is triggered, is now guilty until proven innocent.

It is entirely possible that when faced with the inconvenience and aggravation of inspections, upstanding landlords will rent their properties to less than desirable tenants. A case in point is Joe Lawrence and his building at 126 West Michigan Avenue. He chose to keep this building vacant for years rather than rent to businesses that would not contribute to the community. While this is a bit extreme, the end result was the fabulous Henrietta Fahrenheit store occupying the space. Its proprietor was critical in helping the City secure a $100K “Cool Cities” grant. Had Mr. Lawrence not had the opportunity to wait for the right tenant, there might be another tax service chain-store or cell phone shop in its place. What serves the greater good of the community?

I believe houses should be defined by condition regardless of their occupancy. Is the Thompson block more of an eyesore now that Fantasee Lighting is gone and the building is vacant than it was when they occupied space there? It was clear that Mr. Kircher had no intentions of restoring or rehabilitating the building. He went so far in his neglect to accumulate nearly $200K in debts to Barnes & Barnes only to lose the property to them via the courts. If this ordinance were to go into effect, the building would easily be classified as vacant and dangerous. Now Barnes & Barnes has the option of giving less than $5K to the City each year for inspections or spending $3M to properly fix it. A source of blight will remain a source of blight even with this amendment’s passage.

When it comes to this issue, I am in favor of code that can be applied fairly across the board, and more importantly, I am in favor of code that will correct the problems we face. This amendment does neither. Increase fines to a level that makes razing properties like 12 and 14 North River Street the cheapest option (i.e. it’s cheaper to raze a building than pay a number of monthly fees / fines). Make each day a separate violation. Implement a “broken window” mentality. Hire additional staff. (Seeing as the City is in such a serious financial crunch, that is probably not an option.) Then deputize existing personnel like Fire Mashall Ichesco suggested at Tuesday’s meeting. Set quotas on issuing citations in order to make the program self-sustaining. Make it an objective of the City Manager’s [email address unavailable] performance review. Fix the mechanism that causes code and ordinances to currently go unenforced. Do you know why out-of-town landlords treat Ypsilanti as their garbage dump? Because we allow them to by not enforcing the code that exists today.

City Council continues to take the stand that it is more important to do something even if it is not the right thing. To show support of this amendment is to not understand what the problem really is.

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