On February 5, 2018, the Albuquerque Journal wasted a lot of ink and space on a front page, above the fold report on the “Vacant and Abandoned House Task Force” report that was released last month to the City Council.
The headline blared “Vacant homes are bad neighbors; New task force suggests ways to deal with problem properties”.
Anyone who has lived in Albuquerque for the last eight years knows that vacant homes are bad neighbors and this really is not news.
A lot of time and energy was wasted on the Vacant and Abandoned House Task Force when it would have been easier to fully staff and seek reinstatement and funding for the Safe City Strike Force.
It was reported last year by a TV news out let that in 2016 alone, there were more than 1,300 vacant homes added to the City of Albuquerque’s Vacant Building Registry.
By September of 2017, nearly 500 vacant homes were added to the city’s registry which does not include vacant homes that exist within the city not on the city’s list.
A conservative estimate is that there are about 3,000 vacant homes and not including vacant commercial buildings.
There is very little if anything reported by the task force that was not already known or should have been known by city hall.
Further, Vacant and Abandoned House Task Force Report makes recommendations that have been done or that was actually done by the Safe City Strike Force for eight years from 2002 to 2009.
The best example is the task force recommendation to create “land bank” to acquire properties.
Under the Safe City Strike Force, a land bank took the form of the “Metropolitan Redevelopment Project” where the City assembled substandard properties at fair market value in the Southeast Heights “International District” and then had it developed housing.
The “metropolitan redevelopment project” resulted in a large area of housing developed in the International District.
What is not in the report is the lack of real commitment by city hall to fully staff and fully fund a program that was recognized as a best practice by municipalities throughout the country.
NEW MEXICO LAW AND CITY ORDINANCES
New Mexico and the City of Albuquerque have some of the strongest nuisance abatement laws in the country and enforcement action can be taken by the City Attorney’s Office.
The City of Albuquerque can have an impact and reduce the number of blighted and substandard commercial and residential properties in Albuquerque by relying on existing nuisance abatement state law and city ordinances.
In 2004 the city enacted the Vacant Building Maintenance Act which requires property owners to register their vacant buildings, repair them and keep them maintained.
Albuquerque’s housing and commercial codes define substandard structures and there are provisions that allow inspections and civil code enforcement actions.
Under existing city ordinances, property owners can be cited for code violations for not maintaining their properties in compliance with city codes.
Under the nuisance abatement ordinance, aggressive code enforcement action against blighted properties, both residential and commercial, can be taken where it is found that that the properties have become a nuisance and magnets of crime resulting in calls for service to the Albuquerque Police Department.
SAFE CITY STRIKE FORCE
In 2002, the Safe City Strike Force was formed to combat blighted commercial and residential properties and I was appointed its Director and tasked with putting it together.
Thirty (30) to forty-five (40) representatives from the Albuquerque Police Department, the Albuquerque Fire Department, the Fire Marshal’s Office, the Planning Department Code residential and commercial code inspectors, Family Community Services and the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office participated comprised the strike force.
Seventy (70) to one hundred fifty (150) properties a week, both residential and commercial properties would be reviewed by the Strike Force.
The Albuquerque City Council would be given weekly updates on the progress made in their districts on the nuisance properties found.
The Safe City Strike Force routinely prepared condemnation resolutions for enactment by the Albuquerque City Council to tear down substandard buildings.
The Safe City Strike Force took civil enforcement action against some 6,500 properties, both commercial and residential.
MAGNETS FOR CRIME
Crime rates can be brought down with civil nuisance abatement actions.
The Safe City Strike Force took civil action against substandard properties that had become magnets for crime.
A magnet for crime property is one that has an extensive history of calls for service to the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and where crime occurs.
Residential and commercial properties used for prostitution and drug activity such as meth labs and crack houses are examples of magnets for crime.
A review of the total number of calls for service a year is what is used in part to determine if a property is a public nuisance or a nuisance under city ordinances.
Calls for service to the Albuquerque Police Department to deal with properties that have become “magnets for crime” result in a drain on police resources and costs millions of dollars a year in taxpayer funds.
The average cost of a call for service to dispatch police officers to handle such minor calls as suspicious persons, loitering, loud parties and loud music cost taxpayers between $75 to $150 per call depending on the time spent on the call by police officers dispatched.
The Albuquerque Police Department handles anywhere from 600,000 to 750,000 calls for service per year consisting of priority 1, 2 and 3 calls made to the 911 emergency operations center.
BLIGHTED, SLUMLORD PROPERTIES
Albuquerque and the commercial real estate sector may be on hard economic times, but that does not mean commercial property owners and landlords can just turn their backs on making repairs and do nothing to maintain their properties.
Not being able to afford to make repairs is not a good excuse when it comes to substandard commercial and residential buildings.
If commercial and residential rental property owners cannot afford to make repairs and keep maintenance up, then they need to sell their properties to someone who can.
Residential rental landlords and motel owners need to provide housing that is safe, secure and livable for all tenants.
Tenants are legally entitled to safe, secure, clean, living quarters with working utilities when they pay their rent.
As Director of the Safe City Strike Force, I saw way too many slumlords charging top dollar to rent their properties to some of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
Many slumlords refuse to make repairs when needed, even when the health and safety of tenants are at risk.
Slumlords have the financial upper hand with their tenants and have the attitude with their tenants that if you do not like what I am renting to you, then get the hell out.
Undocumented or non-United State citizens are also reluctant to complain to slumlords for repairs or the police because of fear of eviction or deportation.
Slumlords are also quick to evict when there is a missed monthly rental payment.
Some of the more egregious instances where property owners refused to make costly repairs and where health and safety was an issue involved heating and air condition systems that broke down during peak usage times.
CIVIL ACTIONS EFFECTIVE TO ADDRESS SLUMLORD PROPERTIES
Nuisance and blighted properties bring down property values and can endanger an entire neighborhood when the property becomes a magnet for crime, especially when used for a crack house or meth lab.
The most effective approach to address blighted properties is to initiate civil complaints and secure temporary restraining orders, preliminary and permanent injunctions.
The City Attorney’s’ office can seek court orders to compel property owners to bring their properties into compliance with city ordinances, codes and state laws.
The City Attorney’s office can file in State District Court civil complaints for injunctive relief or negotiated stipulated settlement agreements to abate nuisance properties.
Interventions with property owners can also be undertaken to negotiate stipulated settlement agreements.
The Safe City Strike Force required slum lords to make repairs to their properties so that the properties could be occupied safely without exposure or threat of injury.
During my eight (8) years as Director of the Safe City Strike Force, I saw way too many slum lords charging top dollar to rent their properties to some of our poorest citizens with the landlords refusing to make repairs when needed, even when health and safety was an issue for the tenants.
Some of the more egregious instances where property owners refused to make costly repairs and where health and safety involved heating and air condition systems that broke down during peak usage times by the tenants.
The goal was always to try to work with the property owners and negotiates stipulated settlement agreements with them, either for repairs or voluntary tear downs.
TEARDOWNS AND BOARD UPS
With the assistance of the Planning Department, Code Enforcement Manager, federal grant money was secured for the tear down of blighted, substandard properties and went from $25.000 the first year to $1 million.
The Safe City Strike Force was responsible for the tear down of an entire residential block of homes located at 5th Street and Summer in the Wells Park neighborhood area located north of downtown Albuquerque.
There was a total of 21 abandoned and vacant, boarded up properties that could not be repaired, owned by one elderly woman who agreed allowed a tear down of the structures by the City.
As Director of the Safe City Strike Force, I negotiated a voluntary tear down of an entire strip mall that had been boarded up for years, beyond repair, located near the former Octopus Car Wash on Manaul Street and Eubank.
The strip mall was constantly being broken into, with fires being set by the homeless, and at one time a dead body was found at the location.
Two long vacant and vandalized restaurants, the Purple Plum and a Furr’s cafeteria, both on far North-East heights Montgomery, were torn down by the Safe City Strike Force.
One year, Albuquerque experienced a huge spike in meth labs where almost 90 meth labs were found and identified and where the Safe City Strike Force was asked for assistance with contamination clean up.
The Safe City Strike Force required commercial property and motel owners to make repairs and they were required to reduce calls for service and address security on their properties.
The Safe City Strike Force took code enforcement action against 48 of the 150 motels along central and forced compliance with building codes and mandated repairs to the properties.
The Central motels that were demolished were not designated historical and were beyond repair as a result of years of neglect and failure to maintain and make improvements.
Central motels that had historical significance to Route 66 were purchased by the City for renovation and redevelopment.
The Central motels that the Safe City Strike Force took action against include the Gaslight (demolished), The Zia Motel (demolished), The Royal Inn (demolished), Route 66 (demolished), the Aztec Motel (demolished), the Hacienda, Cibola Court, Super-8 (renovated by owner), the Travel Inn (renovated by owner), Nob Hill Motel (renovated by owner), the Premier Motel (renovated by owner) the De Anza (purchased by City for historical significance), the No Name, the Canyon Road (demolished), Hill Top Lodge, American Inn (demolished), the El Vado (purchased by City for historical significance), the Interstate Inn (demolished).
The Safe City Strike Force was responsible for the demolition of at least seven (7) blighted motels that were beyond repair.
When people were displaced by enforcement actions taken by the Safe City Strike Force, the City’s Family and Community Services Department would provide vouchers to the displaced and assist in locating temporary housing for them.
The Safe City Strike Force took action against violent bars on Central that were magnets for crime.
Many Central bars have hundreds of calls for service a year placing a drain on law enforcement resources.
A few of the bars located on or near Central that were closed or torn down by the Safe City Strike Force include the Blue Spruce Bar, Rusty’s Cork and Bottle, the Last Chance Bar and Grill and Club 7.
The Safe City Strike Force closed Club 7 and the owner was convicted of commercial code violations.
As a Deputy City Attorney, I was co-counsel with the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office and brought charges against and convicted the Club 7 downtown Central Avenue bar owner that hosted a “rave” that allowed under age participants to mingle with adults and where a young girl was killed.
The Safe City Strike Force took enforcement action against a number of convenience stores on Central that had substantial calls for service to APD.
In 2005, The Safe City Strike Force identified convenience stores that had an unacceptable number of “calls for service” which resulted in the convenience stores being considered a public nuisance by the Albuquerque Police Department (APD).
Outdoor phones at the convenience stores used for illicit drug transactions were identified.
APD felt the convenience stores were relying upon APD to provide security at taxpayer’s expense rather than hiring their own private security company.
In 2005, as Director of the Safe City Strike Force, I was able to negotiate a stipulated settlement agreement with three major convenience store corporate owners of seventeen (17) convenience stores throughout Albuquerque and they agreed to pay for private security patrols.
The Safe City Strike Force was responsible for the closure of Louie’s Flea Market and the Star Flea Market, two Westside flea markets both on Old Coors Road South of Central.
Area residents felt the flea markets brought down property values.
Both flea markets had been around for decades and caused extreme traffic congestion on weekends they operated causing problems for the established or developing residential areas.
Both flea markets were found by the Albuquerque Police Department to be locations where stolen property was being sold and both had an excessive number of calls for service.
Some of the most tragic and heart-breaking cases that the Safe City Strike Force dealt with involved “hoarders”.
Hoarding is a pattern of behavior that is characterized by excessive acquisition and an inability or unwillingness to discard large quantities of objects or animals that cover the entire living areas or exterior of a home or property.
The Strike Force dealt with approximately 10 cases of hoarders.
One hoarder case I vividly recall involved an elderly woman who was housing over 60 cats in her 1,200 square foot, three bedrooms home. The home was not fit to be lived in as a result of contamination by the animals. Dead cats were found in her freezer.
The City removed the cats, cleaned up the property and placed a $40,000 lien on the home for the cleanup of the contamination.
Another hoarder had accumulated an extensive number of items in his front and backyards to the extent that the area had become rat infested and the City forced a cleanup of the area.
For the eight (8) years, little or next to nothing was really done by the City of Albuquerque to address blighted and substandard commercial and residential properties.
Today, the Safe City Strike Force has one employee, its director, and the Safe City Strike Force exists in name only.
Funding the Safe City Strike Force may not be a construction project like the ART Bus project, a library or fire station that Mayor’s and city councilors always love taking credit for, but it would go a long way to getting rid of blighted commercial and residential properties, which only sully entire neighborhoods and put residents in danger and bring property values down.
I have no doubt that the task for report will sit on a shelf and gather dust despite representations to the contrary.