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Here Are Two New Ways Louisville Is Fighting Blight

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

Vacant properties plague Jimmy Harper nearly every day.

They pepper each passing block when he drives the neighborhoods of the police department's Second Division, which he commands. Blighted houses and barren lots breed crime, he said (vacant structures were the scenes of two recent police shootings).

"These vacant properties created the scenarios we've had with officer-involved shootings," he told a Metro Council committee earlier this month.

Harper said officers are often called to address reports of drug use and burglary at vacant houses. He listens as residents talk about the burden of the deteriorated properties that dot their neighborhoods.

Harper wants to see fewer vacant properties in the city. And he hopes a set of recent ordinances approved by the Metro Council will do just that.

At present, there are some 7,500 vacant properties across the city, according to data from the city's Vacant and Public Property Administration. The structures stress residents and strain city budgets.

City crews cut the grass and board doors and windows of the empty houses. Taxpayers often foot the bill for demolition -- a nearly $1.5 million cost during the previous two years, city data show.

What's more, outstanding property maintenance fines on these structures total more than $40 million.

New Laws

Late last week, the council approved two measures aimed at reducing the stock of vacant and abandoned properties in Louisville.

One bolsters the city's Landbank Authority, giving it the power (previously held by the Vacant Property Commission) to certify properties as blighted or deteriorated and initiate the process of condemnation.

The ordinance also leans on recently reworked state legislation allowing estimated repair or demolition costs to be deducted from a property's market value, making condemnation more financially feasible for city agencies, said Laura Grabowski, head of the city's Vacant and Public Property Administration.

In the past, Metro government officials have shied away from condemnation and relied more on foreclosures due to those added costs, she said.

The second ordinance approved by the council last week will allow the Landbank Authority to recommend and Metro Council to approve certain areas to be included in a "tax delinquency diversion program."

Under the program, the sale of tax liens on vacant properties in designated areas would be prohibited. The aim of the program is to prevent corporations or banks or other entities from being able to sit on properties after purchasing a portion of an existing tax lien — giving the local government more control to redevelop blighted areas, Grabowski said.

Both ordinances passed unanimously through the Metro Council.

A spokesman for Democratic Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, the core sponsor of the legislation, called the measures some "of the best things to happen to vacant and abandoned properties in quite some time."

More Help Coming

More upgrades are expected in the fight against blight.

A bill recently approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Matt Bevin will give the Landbank Authority the ability to retain the proceeds from property sales. It would also extinguish all existing tax liens on a property acquired by the authority.

The measure will allow the authority to retain 50 percent of the taxes from the property for up to five years after it is transferred out of city government possession.

The change in state law doesn't take affect until July 1, and Grabowski said her office would soon begin to examine changes necessary to implement the action locally.

"We're thrilled about that," she said.

The recent push to beat back blight in Louisville comes as official interest had waned in vacant and abandoned properties.

Last year, a council committee tasked with examining vacant properties cancelled all but two of its 12 scheduled meetings. The head of that committee, Democratic Councilman Brent Ackerson, said in July there was little interest in addressing the issue.

That committee was disbanded earlier this year by council president David Yates, also a Democrat.

For Harper, the LMPD Second Division Major, the rekindled interest is promising. Vacant properties cut at the quality of life in neighborhoods, he said. They frustrate officers. And their existence sends a message that crime is accepted.

"A lot of times, that's where our criminals go, where they think it's going to be accepted," he said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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