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Metro Council Members Show Renewed Interest In Addressing Vacant Properties

Vacant Properties-5
The house in Shawnee has been abandoned for as long as neighbor George Palmer can remember.

The scourge of vacant and abandoned properties continues to be a thorn in the city's side.

A number of neighborhoods in Louisville are beset with crumbling buildings and overgrown lots. Some 7,000 sites across the city are considered vacant or abandoned, according to a March 2016 report from the city's Vacant and Public Property Administration.

These properties attract criminals, addicts and vermin, and plague nearby neighbors. And they're a financial burden on local taxpayers. City crews are tasked with maintaining some of these properties when the grass begins to grow and wooden boards fall from doorways and windows.

More so, taxpayers are often on the hook when it comes time to demolish the buildings — a cost that's totaled more than $1.5 million in the last two years, city data show.

Costs related to vacant properties mount as more than $40 million in outstanding property maintenance fines are owed by the owners of such properties.

Interest in beating back the blight seemed to wane in recent years. Last year, a council committee tasked with examining vacant properties cancelled all but two of its 12 scheduled meetings. The head of that committee, councilman Brent Ackerson, said in July there was little interest in addressing the issue of vacant properties.

That committee was disbanded earlier this year by council president David Yates.

But now it appears public interest in quelling the rise and prevalence of vacant properties is gaining some steam.

Earlier this month, the council's committee on community affairs, housing, health and education got it's first update from city officials tasked with figuring out how to get rid of vacant properties.

Laura Grabowski, the director of the city's vacant and public property administration, told the committee her agency is on track to meet its annual goal of initiating 100 foreclosures and demolishing 100 vacant or abandoned properties.

Further, the number of properties acquired and disposed of through the city's Landbank Authority is set to sharply increase this year compared with last year, Grabowski said.

To build on this momentum, Grabowski said some key pieces of legislation need to be approved and enacted to help advance initiatives aimed at eliminating vacant and abandoned properties.

Local Legislation

Legislation was filed in the Louisville Metro Council Monday that, if approved, would give city officials a leg up on efforts to acquire vacant properties and bust barriers to redevelopment.

The pair of ordinances is sponsored by council Democrats Barbara Shanklin from District 2 and Vicki Aubrey Welch from District 13. They come on the heels of legislation in the 2016 General Assembly aimed at reducing the prevalence of vacant properties across the state.

One ordinance looks to establish a "tax delinquency diversion program" that would for five years prohibit the sale of tax liens on vacant properties in designated areas. The ordinance would prevent corporations or banks or other entities from being able to "sit on" properties after purchasing a portion of the existing tax lien and also enable the local government to have more control in efforts to redevelop blighted areas, said Jared Dearing, spokesman for Shanklin.

"This is one of the best things to happen to vacant and abandoned properties in quite some time," Dearing said.

The second ordinance filed Monday would, if approved, give the city's Landbank Authority more authority to acquire vacant or abandoned properties. It would afford the authority a more streamlined process gaining control of vacant properties through condemnation and eminent domain.

Grabowski said the measure could ease the financial burden of acquiring vacant properties and remove a level of uncertainty that comes with a foreclosure process.

In a condemnation, the city ends up owning the property, whereas a foreclosure sends the property to auction for "the highest bidder," Grabowski said.

The two ordinances have yet to be assigned to a council committee for consideration.

A State Push

Local council members also have their eye on a bill in the state legislature.

Cheri Bryant Hamilton made an impassioned plea for the measure's support during a news conference last weekthat featured a dozen Louisville Democrats calling for peace among state Republicans.

Hamilton said House Bill 310 would "fundamentally change" the way the city's Landbank Authority works to redevelop blighted properties.

The measure, if approved, would provide a crucial funding mechanism by allowing the Landbank Authority to retain 50 percent of the taxes from the property for up to five years after it is transferred out of the authority's possession. The measure would also allow the authority to retain all proceeds from property sales and it would extinguish all existing tax liens on a property acquired by the authority.

Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican from Erlanger, Kentucky, said the bill would be a key element in efforts to revitalize blighted areas.

"It's the last piece of the puzzle hopefully to clean out these vacant properties as quickly as we can," said Koenig, who is a co-sponsor of the bipartisan legislation.

The bill sailed through the state House and is now awaiting a hearing before the Senate's state and local government committee.

Sen. Joe Bowen, a Republican from Owensboro and chair of that committee, said in an interview Monday that the likelihood of the bill actually getting a hearing "is not great" because the bill's primary sponsor, Rep. Joni Jenkins, has yet to approach Bowen to "make a case" for the bill.

"It's imperative the sponsor come make a case," he said.

Jenkins did not respond to a request for comment.

Bowen, however, said the bill is not totally dead in the water. He said it could be attached to other legislation and could come before his committee during their scheduled meeting Wednesday.

As for his thoughts on the measure, Bowen said he's "agnostic" on the bill, despite having discussed it with legislators from Louisville and "indirectly" discussing it with Jenkins, a Louisville Democrat.

"There's not been enough conversation with the people who are going to be impacted for me to make a decision," he said. "It's not dead until it's dead."

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.