Blight, vacant buildings cause headaches for code enforcement

2019-01-15 | New Castle News

Jan. 14--Rats, rabid raccoons and feral cats along with fleas, roaches and bedbugs make up the menagerie of critters encountered by the New Castle Code Enforcement department.

These hardy adventurers have also found ground hogs in basements, squirrels and raccoons living in walls and trash found in garages, houses and in yards and lots.

"And let's not forget the garbage," said Anthony "Chopper" Cioffi the working foreman of the department.

Cioffi said he prefers to inspect in the winter when critters aren't as active and garbage is not so "ripe."

Like many cities, New Castle's code enforcement department faces challenges in its efforts to control blight.

One of the challenges is manpower which the department is limited to five full-time officers and one part-timer.

To assist its small staff the city relies on help from outside sources to notify them of code violations. This information comes from police and firefighters, tenants, neighbors and the general public who drive through town who see problems.

Code department supervisor Patrick McGuire, who is also the city's health and gaming officer, regulating restaurants and gaming devices in bars and convenience stores, said he understands why residents are frustrated when it appears that nothing changes even after complaints are made.

Property owners, he said have rights to their real estate which are protected by law. But other laws exist to protect the safety of tenants and neighbors and those laws too are enforced.

McGuire and his staff are kept busy -- usually behind the scenes -- enforcing those laws.

"We give them time to make repairs. We're very reasonable as long as there is no safety factor" he said.

The most frequent complaints received by the department, McGuire said, involve garbage and high grass.

"That's what can be seen from the outside," he said.

PROCEDURES

When he gets a complaint, McGuire said, he first identifies the code violation and confirms that a problem exists. He then identifies the owner, or tenant if it is a rental property, and sends a Notice of Violation. This document lists all violations to be corrected and sets a timeline.

"If a chimney is missing bricks and mortar we'll allow them three months to correct that," he said. "If it's trash to be picked up, they have 10 days."

The notice is followed up by a re-inspection to see if the violation has been corrected. If it has, the case is closed. If no progress has been made, a Citation/Final Notice can be issued.

If nothing is done within the timeline set out, the citation can lead to judicial action with hearings in district court before district justices Melissa Amodie or Jennifer Nicholson.

Everything, Cioffi said, is documented with photographs taken by city code officials who represent the city at the hearings.

"If the person cited pleads guilty or is found guilty a fine is assessed and he is required to pay," McGuire said,. Fines are between $50 and $1,000. "But that is no guarantee that the situation will be corrected. It's possible that the trash will still not be picked up and the grass will not be cut."

McGuire said after 60 days code officers can return, re-inspect the property and begin again the cycle of sending notices of violations, reinspections and sending citations.

"Sometimes we revisit the same house two or three times a year on the same complaint," he said. "We keep going around and around. But the public perception is that we've done nothing because nothing has changed at the house. We're battling hard behind the scenes but grass is still high and the trash is still in the yard."

With commercial properties, McGuire said, "Owners generally find it is cheaper to pay the fines than to make corrections."

BLIGHT

As is the case with many older cities, New Castle is plagued by blight -- the neglected, rundown buildings -- as well as code violations.

Following sessions with blight reduction experts in 2018, city officials are armed with new strategies to reduce blight. Options include issuing "tickets" -- similar to parking violations -- to individuals who do not keep up their properties or disqualifying buyers from purchasing land through tax sales if they have been habitually cited for code violations or if they owe taxes on other properties they own.

The city has adopted the International Property Maintenance Code which provides rules governing building maintenance. Adoption of these codes promotes competent and professional building maintenance and code enforcement with an eye toward safety of inhabitants.

With regard to blighted areas of the community, McGuire said the code enforcement department is continuing the enforcement process. This too becomes a slow process.

"In the worse cases, when demolition is the only answer, it could take eight months or longer to complete paperwork (for demolition) once it is determined that the house should come down," he said.

Cioffi does title searches to determine all possible owners of a building to be demolished. "Everyone with an equitable interest must be notified and given the opportunity to comment," McGuire said. "And the structure must be posted."

From that date, the city must wait for four months to demolish the building.

If an emergency demolition is required, as in the case when a building partially collapses or is burned and becomes a safety hazard, demolition might be ordered within days.

"Emergency demos can be done right away," Cioffi said. "Safety is always a factor."

According to McGuire, the property owner has the option to file appeals to the city's five-member housing code board of appeals when demolition notices are issued.

"If no appeal is filed and if funds are available, the building could come down," Cioffi said. He noted that bids are needed and city council must approve the bid.

COSTS

In 2018, New Castle spent $367,138 to demolish 56 properties. An additional $51,650 was set aside to demolish two commercial structures.

"This is the most the city has ever spent in one year," Cioffi said. "We want to see houses remain on the tax rolls and not be knocked down. But we'd also like to see manufacturing plants in the downtown that are willing to pay workers $30 per hour. We have to work with what we have."

He added that in 2018, the county commissioners have "been a tremendous help" to the city providing about $96,000 in demolition funds for the city. Additional help came in 2018 from 10,000 Friends in Pennsylvania who has undertaken a renovation project in the city's south Side and provided funds for demolition. DON Services is also helping by renovating houses on the Lower East Side.

"This has all been a major help," he said.

ENFORCEMENT

Cioffi said code officials order vacant buildings to be boarded up as soon as possible to discourage homeless people and animals from taking up residence. "But they still get in," he said.

McGuire said a building gets listed on the city's demolition list "if the cost of repairs exceeds the value of the building."

In the case of repository properties -- buildings taken for non-payment of taxes and held by the Lawrence County Tax Claim Office -- he said a house could be purchased for a minimum bid of $500, but making it habitable requires adding windows, heating, plumbing, electric wiring, etc.

"You could spend $25,0000 to $30,000 on repairs and not see any difference."

He added that most repository houses also require a furnace, outside steps, a roof, paint or siding and other necessities.

"Contractors say remodeling costs $80 per square foot. So a 2,000-square-foot house will cost $160,000 to meet current building code requirements."

McGuire said blighted commercial properties present the greatest challenge due to the cost of demolition.

"it might cost the city $4,000 to $10,000 to demolish a house. But commercial property demolitions are $100,000 plus."

Many of the city's former commercial structures are in bad shape. falling apart and with caved-in roofs.

"The money just is not there to fix them or to take them down," McGuire said. "The answer is to keep trying to work with the property owners to get them to improve or demolish their buildings or to find an investor. It's hard to spend money on some buildings when they look as they do."

McGuire said most of the city is located in the Enterprise Zone and businesses would be eligible to apply for tax credits or low interest loans.

"But every building has a time clock. If it sits vacant long enough the cost of repairs will exceed the value of the building making it hard to find a developer to work with it."

He said the clock has been running on many downtown buildings including the former Post Office on Kennedy Square which is privately owned.

"We recently entered a building to find that the floor and roof had collapsed but from the outside it looked normal," McGuire said.

"But until we get inside these buildings, we don't know how bad they are," he said.

nlowry@ncnewsonline.com