A clean neighborhood has an impact on the health of its residents, as well as the attractiveness of the neighborhood to current and potential residents and investors. Creating a clean neighborhood is primarily the responsibility of neighborhood residents, but the City can assist through proactive programs such as neighborhood clean ups and through the enforcement of ordinances and administration of programs to remove the chronic nuisances and blight.
]It’s an issue that requires cooperation of many parties: residents, property owners, Police, Fire, Health and Building Development Services, neighborhood associations and ultimately City Council. Reaching a common ground and working together can be challenging, but the end goal of ensuring clean, safe neighborhoods has risen to a place of top priority for Springfield’s citizens.
At a series of nine Community Listen meetings in Springfield’s northwest quadrant in May 2015, Zone 1 residents made it clear that their number one concern is the consequences of vacant or poorly maintained properties with conditions such as overgrown yards, piles of litter and trash and abandoned cars.
“Chronic nuisance properties” are defined as those properties about which repeated complaint calls are received and responded to, including from the City’s Building Development Services, Police and Fire Departments, as well as other calls for service. Certain properties in Springfield have had upwards of 70 complaint calls in a single year. Addressing these chronic nuisance properties rose to the top of the list of concerns in neighborhoods and remained a clear number one priority throughout a follow-up process with residents participating in Zone Blitz brainstorming sessions.
The Chronic Nuisance Properties Zone Blitz team leaned heavily on Building Services Director Chris Straw, who worked with other City departments to make improvements to the City’s nuisance and housing code. Property owners and residents violate the law when they allow nuisance conditions to exist, such as litter, tall weeds, inoperable vehicles and other materials or conditions that endanger public health and safety. The Springfield Municipal Code Chapter 74 (Nuisance and Housing Code) defines these materials and conditions and sets out procedures for declaring a nuisance, and determines the remedies for fixing the property.
Currently, 51 percent of the City’s housing code violators are owner-occupied. The remaining 49 percent are rental properties.
“This is a challenge that is equally balanced and so solutions must address both,” Straw said. Allowing chronic nuisance conditions to exist is not only a detriment to the neighborhood, it is also a financial burden to the City by the repeated calls for service to the properties because of the nuisance activities that repeatedly occur or exist on such properties. At its May 26, 2015 meeting, City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to create a series of penalties for property owners that continue to fail to maintain their property, made clarifying changes concerning special tax bills and additions to real estate-tax bills, and codified due-process-of-law provisions for enforcement actions.
Council Bill 2015-177, specifically replaced sections of the existing Chapter 74 with code/ language that is clearer, better aligns with state law, and allows for better and more timely enforcement and abatement. As a result, property owners are now notified (by mail or in person and by a notice posted on the property) of the identified conditions that constitute being a nuisance. The property owner has 15 business days to respond to the notice or improve the condition of the property. After 15 business days, if the property owner has not responded to the nuisance notice, the City can then abate the nuisance at the owner’s expense. Costs of abatement are recovered through assessments, real estate taxes and property liens. The code removed the requirement to hold a hearing, unless requested by the owner, each time a nuisance property needs to be abated, i.e., mowing tall grass or removing trash or abandoned vehicles from a property.
An additional tool to help the City work with home and property owners is the proactive step of residential rental registration. City Council voted to require free, online registration of properties, beginning in January. Rental registration allows for enhanced communication between the City and property owners, proactively establishing lines of communication before legal channels must be explored.
“When the City can quickly identify and contact a property owner when a potential code violation has occurred, the majority of the time the issue is fixed before the City has to pursue any other legal steps,” Straw explains. Rental registration saves both time and money. “At the bare minimum, it saves the cost that is incurred to the City/taxpayer, as well as the property owner, when we do the title search. Our real goal, however, is to be able to contact home or property owners as soon as we know there’s a problem, so they can fix it before things get worse.”
Property owners can register for free at springfieldmo.gov/rentalregistration. A year’s grace period will be given.
What about the Safe Housing Inspection Pilot Program?
In October 2016, City Council approved a 90-day pilot project studying the viability of a proactive life safety inspection program for both owner occupied and rental properties. West Central neighborhood leaders vied for the opportunity for BDS inspectors to be called in proactively to properties that were both referred through complaints and self referred.
Results from the pilot project, however, showed that none of the violations found at the relatively small number of inspections requested were of significant nature. The pilot program, however, also gave the BDS department an idea of the amount of time needed to perform life safety inspections, which proved to be unsustainable citywide due to staffing and funding issues.
The education component of the project will continue citywide, as BDS and other in-home partners more tightly align. For example, Police, Fire, in-home medical services, Parents as Teachers and other organizations will meet annually to ensure the education continues and referral process is communicated. Further, the Safe Housing Initiative will connect property owners to other resources to help residents address the life safety issues found inside their homes.