Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 19 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
Editor: Brooke Mercaldi
Contributing Author: Gabriella Mickel [*]
Remediating Distressed Properties to Improve Public Health
Distressed properties include substandard, unsafe, vacant, abandoned, and blighted properties. Bad health and poor-quality housing are inextricably linked. Distressed properties can leave communities more susceptible to gentrification that displaces current residents, which is traumatic and adversely affects social well-being and overall health. Additionally, distressed properties are often the least energy efficient because they require more fuel to heat and cool. By enacting and enforcing local laws that remediate distressed properties, local governments can improve equity, increase health, decrease housing insecurity, and support climate equity – “efforts to fight climate change in ways that also attack the country’s social and racial inequities.”
Although the legal framework varies in each state, several legal tools are generally available to help local governments remediate distressed properties. In most states, local governments have a varying degree of inherent power under their police power to protect the public health and welfare, including protecting the public from nuisances like distressed properties. In other states where less power is granted to municipalities, they often must wait for legislative grants of authority to act; however, most jurisdictions have fire codes, health codes, property maintenance codes, or abandoned property codes that local governments can leverage. Additional tools include tax-related foreclosure and the implied warranty of habitability.
Local governments may use their state delegated legal authority to address vacant and problem properties by enforcing codes, requiring the licensing of vacant and problem rental properties, destroying or ordering repairs to the properties, or transferring the properties to non-profits. Vacant and Problem Properties: A Guide to Legal Strategies and Remedies describes these techniques in detail, including the following local examples.
Greensboro, North Carolina adopted the Repairing Buildings for Human Inhabitation Ordinance, which combines code enforcement and demolition or repair strategies. The ordinance authorizes a City inspector to serve complaints upon owners of homes that violate minimum standards in the City’s housing code. If the inspector finds conditions rendering a building unfit for human habitation, such as leaning walls or unsanitary conditions, the inspector must issue a complaint to the property owner. After a public meeting, the inspector determines whether the dwelling is unfit for human habitation and issues an order requiring repair by the owner. If repair is impossible, the inspector may require demolition.
Cincinnati, Ohio has a Vacant Building Maintenance Licensing Program that utilizes code enforcement and registration strategies. By charging registration and licensing fees, local governments can recover the costs of protecting public health, safety, and welfare in communities impacted by vacant and problem properties.
Cincinnati’s program requires vacant building owners who do not have a satisfactory development plan and proof of financing to apply for a vacant building license. The application must describe the measures the owner will take to weatherproof and secure the premises. After a property inspection to ensure compliance with the City’s vacant building standards, such as securing the building against trespassers and keeping all debris off the premises, the license is issued and the owner must pay a fee and maintain a general liability insurance policy. The owner must renew the license each year and pay an annual fee that increases each year up to a maximum of $3,500.
St. Louis, Missouri leverages the non-profit strategy. Local governments can consider transferring temporary or permanent possession of vacant and problem properties to non-profits (including land banks) through tax foreclosure or receivership sales. Local governments can also give owners the option to voluntarily transfer their properties. This strategy helps prevent the same houses from repeatedly cycling through tax foreclosure sales under different owners.
The St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) is a not-for-profit corporation organized under Chapter 355 of the Missouri State Code. The SLDC’s mission is to foster economic development and growth in the city through increased job and business opportunities and expansion of the city’s tax base. The SLDC is managed by its own Board of Directors and has seven subsidiary groups. One of these groups is the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). Real property owners in St. Louis have the option to convey title by warranty deed to the LRA so long as the property is free from any encumbrances or liens. Upon acceptance and recording of the deed by the LRA, the former property owner has a complete legal defense to prosecutions for past ordinance violations on that property. The LRA then manages, maintains, markets and sells the properties in its possession.
For additional resources, the Gaining Ground Information Database is free and features best practice models used by governments to control the use of land in the public interest. Please direct your search toward the Healthy Communities topic.
[*] Gabriella Mickel is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Student Associate at the Land Use Law Center.
Brooke Mercaldi is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Research Assistant to Professor Nolon.
The previous blogs in the series are listed here:
- Reframing Sustainability: Introducing the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
- Planning for Public Health: A New Beginning for Land Use Law
- The Role of Density in Combatting Climate Change and COVID-19
- Novel Coronavirus Claims Implicate Age-Old Property Rights Questions
- State & Local COVID-related Emergency Powers: Individual Rights
- COVID-Related Land Use Regulations and Judicial Deference
- Mediation of Eviction Disputes May Hold the Key to the Survival of Small Businesses
- Using Zoning to Help Eliminate Food Deserts: A Few Steps Forward
- Urban Heat Islands and Equity
- Urban Heat Island and Equity: What Can Local Governments Do?
- The Recovery Lease: Preventing Evictions of Commercial Tenants During the Pandemic
- The Role of Hazard Mitigation Planning in Promoting Public Health and Resilience
- Hazard Mitigation Planning: A Case Study
- Complete Streets: Protecting Public Health
- Zoning and Lease Mediation as a Way to Retain Critical Small Businesses
- Segregation by Law and the Racial Inequity Pandemic
- Combating Food Swamps to Improve Equity and Public Health
- The Pandemic Plan for Healthy Buildings
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