Jeremy Hawthorne (left), Mo Karn and another friend squatted in a vacant house, which they refurbished before being kicked out by owner Oliver C. Lawrence. Sarah Walor photo
Our news story in September's Richmond magazine observes the city of Richmond's struggle to deal with Oliver C. Lawrence, the owner of multiple derelict properties that have racked up hundreds of property-code violations. Against that backdrop, city officials and a vacant-properties expert comment on how localities try to get property owners to comply with building codes.
The bulk of problems localities face with vacant property, however, is often less extreme.
The city of Richmond maintains a list of properties that building inspectors have identified as vacant. As of late August, there were about 1,440 properties on that list, according to Rachel Flynn, director of the city's Department of Community Development.
Some property owners, such as Lawrence, have dozens of properties on that list. But most cases are single-owner properties that have become unoccupied for any number of reasons. The current challenge facing localities across the country, though, is the fact that waves of foreclosures are already tearing holes in neighborhoods everywhere.
So, hoping to avoid any worsening damage in their communities, officials around the Richmond region are attempting to stem the tide.
Flynn noted that this year the city of Richmond applied for $20 million in federal funding for local neighborhood-stabilization programs — it received $2 million. The federal-stimulus funds can help U.S. states and localities buy foreclosed homes (if needed), rehabilitate or repair abandoned properties, demolish blighted buildings and provide financial assistance to homebuyers, among other options.
Henrico County's building official, Greg Revels, reports no major increase in building-code violations over the past year.
In Chesterfield County, Bill Dupler, director of the building-inspection department, says the locality has had only 219 vacant-building cases since 2002 — ones that required special attention from the county.
"We haven't seen the foreclosure rate markedly increase these kinds of problems," Dupler says. Nevertheless, the county is paying closer attention to vacant homes. In July, Dupler's department began the first of two pilot programs to keep an eye on the county's older neighborhoods.
In the first sweep, inspectors are performing drive-by tours of the neighborhoods just to observe the "curb appeal" of the subdivisions. Next, the inspectors made return tours of the neighborhoods with front-door flyers (hooked on the doorknobs) that point out common property-code violations and how to resolve them. And two weeks later, the county workers return to deliver compliance letters to homes where there still seem to be maintenance issues.
Dupler doesn't expect that an increase in foreclosure-driven property vacancies would necessarily result in a scourge of derelict houses, as long as responsible parties do what they're supposed to do.
"Generally foreclosed buildings are secured," he says.
And, of course, Chesterfield will be keeping a close eye on the situation.
"We're just trying to find a way to keep up," Dupler says of the county's new efforts. He adds, "The concept is to be proactive and preventive. "