Des Moines property owners could soon have to register and follow maintenance requirements for their vacant homes and lots, according to a proposed ordinance that’s up for a final vote at the City Council meeting Monday.
City officials say if passed, the vacant property registration system would allow them to monitor vacant properties and require owners to be better stewards of them, with the goal to reduce blight. SuAnn Donovan, deputy director of neighborhood services, called the ordinance another tool to stabilize and protect Des Moines neighborhoods.
Donovan said buildings sat vacant during the Great Recession, when many homeowners went into foreclosure, which led to reduced property values and had other adverse effects on neighborhoods.
The city already has an ongoing program to remove abandoned and dilapidated structures called Blitz on Blight, funded by the Local Option Sales & Services Tax. Since 2019, Des Moines has demolished more than 100 structures at a cost of $2.5 million. Des Moines has launched an online map where residents can track houses and structures the city designates as public nuisances, the first step toward demolition.
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The goal of the new registration system is to “move attention to the front end,” by maintaining properties and saving them from deterioration and eventual demolition, Donovan said.
“It looks better for the community and the drag (of) having a dilapidated property is gone,” Donovan said. “And … if you can protect the exterior elements of the building, you can hopefully stop deterioration on the inside of the building.”
Basic maintenance requirements included in the ordinance are:
- Placing glass in windows and doors that are boarded;
- Making sure the roof and siding are secured;
- Providing “ongoing” maintenance on the property’s exterior by cutting down volunteer trees, mowing and clearing the property of litter, junk and debris;
- Keeping the parking lot and sidewalk surfaces hazard-free, as well as removing ice and snow from traveled surfaces.
Des Moines does not have an estimate on how many vacant lots and buildings are in the city. But Donovan said it is assessing the condition of every house in the city through the Improving our Neighborhoods program. The ambitious survey will extend to more than 50 neighborhoods and 96,000 homes.
If the vacant property registration ordinance is approved by council members Monday, the city will send out notices to remind property owners to register, Donovan said. To register, the owner of the property must provide the city with contact information for them and their insurance provider, and pay an annual fee to keep the property registered. The owner also must check on the property monthly. Out-of-state property owners would be asked to assign a local management agent to maintain the lot.
Under the ordinance, the city could provide maintenance or clean-up notices. If owners don’t make the necessary repairs, the city would complete the work and bill them it.
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Owners who fail to comply with any part of the ordinance would face a $750 penalty on the first offense and $1,000 on any subsequent offenses.
At a City Council meeting earlier this month, council member Josh Mandelbaum said he requested amendments on several items in the ordinance to “limit the possibility for unintended consequences.”
One amendment, for example, clarifies that the city only has the power to investigate and declare nuisances at properties that are vacant. Another clarifies that a person who buys a vacant property with the intent of moving in isn’t required to re-register the property as vacant.
“I wanted to make sure we started off on the right foot,” Mandelbaum told the Register. “We want this (ordinance) to be focused on properties that are sitting vacant and ensuring that those properties are maintained and taken care of while they’re vacant, and we don’t want to create extra work when people are already addressing their properties.”
The City Council meets at 5 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 400 Robert D. Ray Drive.
Virginia Barreda is the Des Moines city government reporter for the Register. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.