Galveston City Councilman Craig Brown’s plans to impose tougher rules and steep fines for owners of neglected, abandoned and vacant buildings is promising.
We support any efforts that would rid the city of blight and unsafe buildings. But for tougher rules to work, they’ll have to be enforced. That’s going to require some backbone and political will from the city council, which is set to vote on Brown’s proposal in October.
When city officials begin to enforce tougher rules, building owners undoubtedly will raise the issue of property rights. But the rights of owners of vacant or neglected properties don’t supersede those of everyone else.
This isn’t just an issue of a snooty class unwilling to tolerate eyesores. Aesthetics are the least of it.
Vacant buildings that are uncared for become unsafe, unhealthy, attract vagrants, criminal activity and drag down the values of surrounding properties. Vacant buildings prevent economic recovery in neighborhoods.
“Vacant and abandoned properties are widely considered to attract crime because of the ‘broken windows’ theory — that one sign of abandonment or disorder (a broken window) will encourage further disorder,” according to the Office of Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Increased vacancies leave fewer neighbors to monitor and combat criminal activity. Boarded doors, unkempt lawns, and broken windows can signal an unsupervised safe haven for criminal activity or a target for theft of, for example, copper and appliances.”
Professors James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in the early 1980s introduced the broken windows theory, which more recently has become mired in controversy for being applied to policing, with the idea that cracking down on minor disorders — vandalism, loitering and the like — can cut down on violent crime as well. For the purposes of this editorial, we won’t attempt to delve into that argument.
But in terms of vacant buildings, the theory has followers. The federal housing department went on to cite a study of Pittsburgh showing that after a property becomes vacant, the rate of violent crime within 250 feet of the property is 15 percent higher than the rate in the area between 250 feet and 353 feet from the property.
Local governments — taxpayers — bear the cost of maintaining, administering and demolishing vacant and abandoned properties, as well as servicing them with police and fire protection and public infrastructure, according to the housing department.
Vacant and abandoned properties have bedeviled communities for decades and it’s not an easy problem to solve.
Brown last week said the ordinance was still in the early stages. Essentially, it would require city staff to give owners of vacant structures notice to repair their buildings in a certain time period. If repairs aren’t made in that time, the city would fine owners between $200 and $2,000 a day and could file Class C misdemeanor charges, Brown said.
Local governments long have had the legal ways and means to secure properties that pose a threat to public safety and welfare by issuing citations or assessing fines.
From what we understand, Brown’s ordinance sets real deadlines for improvements and takes a tougher stance. But the perennial hurdles remain.
Many of the vacant houses on the island have been inherited down family lines, Brown said. Part of the problem with improving vacant structures is that owners can be incredibly difficult to find, he said.
If you can’t find the owners now, how are you going to motivate them with the threat of fines? If they don’t have the means to repair their properties, how will they pay those fines? We’ve heard city officials lament such conundrums for years.
But if owners aren’t responsive, the city should follow any legal means to take control of an unsafe, blighted building and either demolish it, or make it an asset.
There are hundreds of vacant properties across the island. It’s a real problem that needs a real solution. We urge the city council to adopt the tougher measures Brown proposes and take a hard line against blight. A flourishing city depends on that.
• Laura Elder