Thursday, April 9, 2015

Real Property, Probate & Trust Law: Vacant and Abandoned Property Registration

By Jennifer Lima-Smith

Vacant and abandoned property is recognized as a significant barrier to the revitalization of central cities. There have been numerous U.S. studies on its effects on communities. Researching the topic online produces many informative articles. What’s the bottom line from all these surveys? Findings show that vacant and abandoned property is perceived as a significant problem by residents and elected and appointed officials in the nation's largest central cities, especially those with large populations.

Think about your experiences and feelings when you see vacant property in the neighborhood you happen to be in. Usually, the emotion isn’t a pleasant one. The reason for the vacancy or abandonment could be circumstances such as a lost job, illness, mismanagement of finances, death of the bread winner in the family, reset of mortgage interest rates, foreclosure, eviction, etc. Studies have shown that single- and multi-family housing, retail properties, and vacant land are the most problematic types for most cities. Properties that have been abandoned and allowed to become overgrown, and those whose structures are left open and unsecured, not only have a negative impact on community value but also can create conditions that invite criminal activity and foster an environment that is unsafe and unhealthy for our communities. It is for these reasons that abandoned properties must be maintained so as not to create these nuisance conditions.

Cities and counties use a variety of registration ordinances, regulations, and innovative techniques to address this problem, including aggressive code enforcement, tax foreclosure, eminent domain, and cosmetic improvements. In Florida, regulations, codes, and ordinances outline which properties need registration.

Purposes for vacant property registration ordinances are threefold:

  1. To ensure that owners of vacant properties are known to the city and other interested parties and can be reached if necessary;
  2. To ensure owners of vacant properties are aware of relevant codes and regulations;
  3. To ensure owners meet minimum standards of maintenance for vacancies.

A fourth purpose, although not always stated, is to motivate owners to use the properties.

Ordinances should include the following elements: a clear definition of which properties and which parties must register; requirements and procedures for registering, including information required of the owner or lienholder; the fee structure; the obligations of the owner, with respect to maintaining the property; and the penalties for failing to register in a timely fashion. Fee structures vary and could include covering basic maintenance costs to motivate owners to restore and reuse vacant properties.

Best practices include: providing the owner or agent phone number and mailing address within the state (if a Post Office box is used, it must be accompanied by a physical address); certifying and documenting the property has been inspected; designating and retaining an individual or property management company responsible for the security and maintenance of the property; and remembering things change — for example, in one Florida county, the code changed for regulating acceptable grass height.

It’s always best to consult with local counsel for any questions.