On Wednesday, June 9, the Keller Administration held a news conference to reveal yet another program to deal with substandard or vacant commercial and residential properties that have become magnets for crime and that bring down property values. The new program is dubbed the “Problem Properties Program” (PPP) and it consists of an online roster administered by the City’s Code Enforcement Division of Albuquerque’s “Top 15 Problematic Properties. The city now has a real property version of the FBI’s most wanted felony list. (Que “Law and Order” music.)
PPP PROGRAM EXPLAINED
Albuquerque’s code enforcement division claims the city metro area has upwards of 300 vacant, substandard and uninhabitable residential homes. There is a percentage of the properties that require a high level of city code enforcement. It will be these properties that will make up the new the new “Top 15 Problematic Properties” list. The overall goal is an effort to expedite city action on the properties to get them into code compliance whether through rehabilitation or demolition.
According to city officials, the PPP Program is intended to raise the profile of substandard properties in order to encourage property owners maintain their propertied and make repairs to bring them up to mandated housing codes to allow occupancy. The intent is to also to show neighbors that the city is aware of the properties and is attempting to address them through effective code enforcement.
As of Wednesday June 9, the Problematic Properties Program includes a webpage highlighting the 15 worst dilapidated, neglected, or abandoned residential properties. The public can scroll through the list of properties and see the city’s current mitigation efforts, if the structures are being remodeled or being sold. The City is hoping the PPP site will help the city get in contact with property owners, who can sometimes be hard to track down and restore the buildings faster. According to city officials, it’s a process that can normally take years.
The link to the city PPP Program web site listing the 15 properties and giving photos of the properties, addresses and status is here:
Links to news sources and quotes are here:
On Monday, June 7, the City Council voted to condemn three properties located at 400 Mesilla St SE, 404 Mesilla St SE and 5912 Sweetwater Dr NW. Residents in the area who live near the properties on Mesilla said they have progressively gotten worse over the years and there have been drug deals and prostitution going on the properties.
400 Mesilla in particular has been the site of repeated criminal activity including a fire and numerous responses by the Albuquerque Police Department over the past year. The city already has filed upwards of $20,000 in liens against the property to cover board-ups and cleaning. The property has been in its current condition for about 4½ years. The property owner has been contacted repeatedly by city code enforcement and despite repeated assurances that it would be fixed, nothing has been done to bring the property into compliance.
When condemnations occur, the Planning Department city code enforcement division prepares condemnation resolutions that are presented to the City Council that make findings that the structures on the property are an immediate danger or threat to the public health, safety and welfare and constitute and attractive nuisance and have become magnets for crime. The resolutions usually include findings of structural damage and code violations that render the buiding “substandard” to the extent that they cannot be occupied nor repaired.
The city gives the owner at least one year before pursuing demolition of a substandard property, but it often takes longer than that. Ultimately, the city’s goal is compliance to avoid tear downs with code enforcement working with owners who express a willingness to address violations.
During the June 9 news conference revealing the PPP program, Planning Director Brennon Williams, who oversees the City Code Enforcement Division had this to say:
“At least 12 months has to be provided to a property owner that has a property like this and that’s a requirement not only state statute but under the uniform housing code. This is a long process, and it’s a long process intentionally. When we’re talking about knocking down somebody’s house or apartment building. We want to give that property owner every opportunity to come forward. … We make every effort from an enforcement standpoint to let a property owner know what the issue is and what can be done to correct it. It’s only when we don’t get any communication back and forth … [and] good faith efforts are not made that we take action.”
During the June 9 press conference, City officials said dealing with these properties can take up to six years. Never one to miss a photo op, Mayor Tim Keller stood in front of 400 Mesilla St SE, 404 Mesilla St SE to take credit for the PPP Program and demolitions and had this to say:
“Folks will be able to view where the progress is and also understand what the mitigation efforts are. Maybe if we shine a light on this, things will change faster than (in) six years. … ”
It was two years ago in July, 2019 that Mayor Tim Keller announced the creation of the “Addressing Dilapidated and Abandoned Property Team” (ADAPT). The ADAPT program supposedly relies on new data to target the worst 100 properties in the city. ADAPT is a program in the Fire Marshal’s Office that focuses on abandoned and dilapidated properties that have a pattern of serious criminal activity or pose an immediate threat to public health, safety and welfare.
According the city’s web site for the ADAPT Program:
“Utilizing the ArcGIS mapping system, ADAPT will compile and filter information from the data systems of Albuquerque Fire Rescue, Albuquerque Police Department, the Code Enforcement Division of the Planning Department, 311, and other referrals. ADAPT will assign a point value to each specific response type based on the severity. Properties [are] in four sub- categories:
Each category has a different point value threshold that will be considered critical. This point system will be a fair and equitable way to help identify criminal nuisance properties that will be placed into the ADAPT program.
ADAPT … leads a full inspection of the property with other City departments. The first step is to attempt to work with property owners to clearly identify the source of the criminal activity, and to assist in establishing a plan of action to correct any violations and to improve the property. If the owner cannot improve the property or fails to meet the plan of action goals, ADAPT will move to legal action.
Nuisance properties that do not rise to the level of the ADAPT program are referred to the Code Enforcement Division of the Planning Department to address the deficiencies or problems affecting it. Suspected criminal activity may also be referred to APD.”
SAFE CITY STRIKE FORCE SUCCESS
From 2002 to 2009, the Safe City Strike Force was formed to combat blighted commercial and residential properties and Deputy City Attorney Pete Dinelli was the Director the full 7 years.
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 and comprised the strike force.
Seventy (70) to one hundred fifty (150) properties a week, both residential and commercial properties would be reviewed by the Safe City Strike Force.
The Albuquerque City Council would be given weekly updates on the progress made in their districts on the nuisance properties identified by the Strike Force. The City Attorney’s office routinely conducted interventions with property owners along with their attorneys and would negotiate nuisance abatement agreements as well as voluntary tear down agreements. The Code Enforcement Division component of the Safe City Strike Force routinely prepared condemnation resolutions for enactment by the Albuquerque City Council to tear down substandard buildings, including commercial buildings.
Over 8 years, the Safe City Strike Force took civil enforcement action against some 6,500 properties, both commercial and residential properties.
The success of the Safe City Strike Force is clear and unmistakable and can be summarized.
TEAR-DOWNS AND BOARD UPS
One of the most effective tools to deal with substandard residential and commercial properties was the City Attorney component of the Safe City Strike Force to negotiate voluntary board ups and tear downs of structures where the property owner gave permission for the city to do the work and then place a lien on the property. The liens would allow the city to be reimbursed upon sale.
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. It was done without a condemnation action but a voluntary tear down agreement. It took 2 months to negotiate the agreement and to tear down the substandard residences on the property, including one commercial building. There were 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.
A voluntary tear down of an entire strip mall was negotiated by the Strike Force. The strip mall had been boarded up for years, beyond repair, located near the former Octopus Car Wash on Menaul 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 also torn down by the Safe City Strike Force using voluntary tear down agreements.
One year, Albuquerque experienced a large 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. A few of those residential properties were torn down with negotiated tear down agreements.
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.
The city attorney’s office in conjunction with the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office brought criminal 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, the Strike Force 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. 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.
In 2010, the previous administration began to dismantle and reduce funding for the Safe City Strike Force. At the beginning of 2018, the Safe City Strike Force had one employee, its director, and the Safe City Strike Force existed in name only.
Today in the Mayor Tim Keller Administration, the Safe City Strike Force no longer exists.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
It absolutely false what Planning Director Brennon Williams and Mayor Tim Keller say that substandard properties can take one to six years to deal with problem properties and tear downs. Both want the public to believe condemnation by the city council is the only line of offense for tear downs. If it takes 1 to 6 years for a tear down, it’s because of sure laziness and failed commitment and leadership to get the job done.
The Safe City Strike Force and City Attorney’s office repeatedly met with many residential and commercial property owners and was able secure permission and voluntary tear down of substandard and residential and commercial properties without any need for a condemnation action. The City would do the teardowns and place a lien on the property and when it was sold, the city would be reimbursed.
The City of Albuquerque and the State of New Mexico have some of the strongest nuisance abatement laws in the county. Crime rates can be brought down with civil nuisance abatement actions that protect the public health, safety and welfare of the public.
Mayor Tim Keller’s ADAPT program and the PPP Program are nothing more than extensively watered-down version of the Safe City Strike Force. Confidential sources within City Hall have said that Mayor Tim Keller felt the Safe City Strike Force had too much of an “aggressive sounding title”, he and others did not like it as fitting into his “ONE ABQ” slogan and the city wanted to soften the approach to nuisance abatement.
Confidential sources have said Mayor Keller’s first Planning Director David Campbell made it known to the housing code inspectors he felt housing code inspections and posting residential homes as “substandard” was not a priority. The former Planning Director was reluctant or refused to allow inspectors to file misdemeanor charges as was done in the past.
ADAPT is essentially a “passive aggressive” approach by the Planning Department which really has not worked, or has little success and the number of vacated, abandoned and substandard properties needing to be demolished in the city has only increased in the last 12 years. Truth be know is that it is likely there are far more vacant properties than city hall wants to acknowledge.
When dealing with meth labs, crack houses and magnets for crime, legal action by the city attorney’s office is in fact the most effective approach to crime and slumlords. What Keller fails to understand is that for residential property owners who feel the sting of crime in their neighborhoods and living next door to magnets for crime, a slogan of One ABQ is meaningless when their own quality of life is affected, not to mention a reduction in property values.
SENDING THE WRONG MESSAGE
Mayor Keller’s ADAPT program and the PPP Program sends the wrong message that he wants city residents and property owners to be content and ADAPT to the fact the city really does not want to do anything at all about nuisance, substandard and abandoned properties, or at least drag things out for as long as possible. What Keller should do is to reinstate the Safe City Strike Force.
It is very disappointing that Mayor Tim Keller reneged on his decision to reinstate the Safe City Strike Force when the decision was made to replace the Safe City Strike Force with his own ADAPT program. The Strike Force was a proven and effective program and was recognized as a best practice nationally. Under Mayor Tim Keller, the program exists only in memory.
PHOTO OPS IS WHAT KELLER IS ALL ABOUT
When it comes to Mayor Tim Keller, images and press conference appear to be all that is important to him, especially now that he is running for a second term. On more than one occasion he has appeared on TV news casts to take credit for “teardowns” done by the city, and now that he is running for a second term, we can expect more. Someone should tell him he can do another press conference announcing he is reinstituting the Safe City Strike Force and maybe that will motivate him to do it.