On March 14, it was reported with great fanfare that Mayor Tim Keller was reviving up one of his pre-pandemic programs targeting the most dangerous and problematic buildings in the city. The home at 1828 Mary Ellen NE was targeted by the city’s Problematic Property Program (PPP) having been abandoned for roughly 20 years and increasingly become a burden on city services. As a backhoe was preparing to demolish the severely dilapidated and deteriorating, city officials found a homeless person sleeping inside.
In the last year, the northeast Albuquerque home had been the subject of 54 calls to Albuquerque police, seven fire calls and has been boarded up 10 times. Neighbors who gathered to watch the demolition said that for decades the house had been a source of shootings, drug deals, fires, among other things, and they were happy to see it go.
Keller said this:
“In the last 12 months this particular building has had 54 APD calls, it’s had seven fire calls, and it’s been boarded up 10 times. We … know that these buildings are being burned down all the time by squatters, so it’s a safety hazard for them, and of course for the neighbors. … It should not take 20 years to deal with a building like this. … There was actually somebody sleeping in here this morning. … Fortunately, we were able to try and connect him with services. We try and secure properties but at some point, if we cannot secure the property and the owner can’t secure the property, then we have to resort to things like demolition. [The city has razed] 32 other buildings … deemed a threat to safety in the past year. It’s not a number that we’re proud of, because it reflects broader problems in our community, we know that. … There is a huge backlog, but we are working it and in due time and legal appropriateness.”
There are currently five in the pipeline that are expected to be torn down in the near future. Under the Problematic Property Program, the City Planning Department identifies and demolishes dilapidated buildings that often magnets for crime and other safety concerns to Albuquerque neighborhoods.
City Planning Department Director Alan Varela said the city has five upcoming emergency demolitions and another seven properties under review that could get added to the list. Varela said this:
“Most of the time, we can encourage and nudge the owner into taking them down themselves, it’s much less expensive for the owner to do it. … If the city takes it down, the city bills it back to the property owner, we put a lien on the property, and if the liens are large enough, then we look at foreclosure actions as well.”
Varela noted that the troubled Ambassador Inn near I-25 and Menaul is an example of a problematic property where the owner is cooperating with the city. Varela said
“The owner has taken upon themselves to start doing renovations and so it’s our understanding that they’ve completed renovations on at least one of the floors. And they’re working their way through the building in order to clean it up and run it the way it should be run.”
City councilors are working on a plan to speed up the nuisance abatement program. The city says there are five more emergency demolitions planned in the future and seven more properties that are under review.
The links to quoted news source material are here:
PPP PROGRAM EXPLAINED
It was on June 9, 2021 that Mayor Tim held a news conference to reveal his “Problem Properties Program” (PPP) to deal with substandard or vacant commercial and residential properties that have become magnets for crime and that bring down property values. The program it consisted of an online roster administered by the City’s Code Enforcement Division of Albuquerque’s “Top 15 Problematic Properties.
When announce on June 21, 2021Albuquerque’s code enforcement division claimed the city metro area had 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.
When originally announced, the Problematic Properties Program included a webpage highlighting the 15 worst dilapidated, neglected, or abandoned residential properties. The public could 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 had hoped that the PPP site would help the city get in contact with property owners, who can sometimes be hard to track down and restore the buildings faster.
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:
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 Keller Administration 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, 2021 news conference revealing the PPP program, then Planning Director Brennon Williams, who oversaw 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 4 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
The more things change with the Mayor Tim Keller administration dealing with problem properties and magnets for crime, the more things stay the same: press conferences and photo ops with little progress. Mayor Tim Keller’s ADAPT program and the PPP Program are nothing more than extensively watered-down versions of the Safe City Strike Force.
It absolutely false when Mayor Tim Keller says that substandard properties can take one to six years to deal with problem properties and tear downs. Keller wants 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, or for that matter 20 years as was the case with the abandoned 1828 Mary Ellen NE 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.
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 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 than the 300 vacant properties that 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.
When it comes to Mayor Tim Keller, images and press conferences have always been his go to crutch to promote himself and what is important to him. On more than one occasion he has appeared on TV news casts to take credit for “teardowns” done by the city. 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.