As discussion and dissatisfaction over blighted properties grows among city residents, one specific term has come under fire — condemnation.
Specifically, community members criticize the effectiveness and fairness of the city process that condemns some properties and not others that seemingly meet the criteria for condemnation.
City code, based on the International Property Maintenance Code, defines condemned buildings as those without connected utilities, illumination, ventilation or other indicators that make it unfit for human occupancy.
Code officials “shall” condemn any structure found to be unsafe, unlawful or unfit for human occupancy, although there are no further details regarding what constitutes an unsafe or unlawful structure under the city code. The building department can also condemn buildings as uninhabitable based on structural safety issues.
Structures that meet this definition receive a placard to be placed in public view on the building, indicating that it is condemned and that no one can live there.
As of Tuesday, 11 city properties are condemned — four by code enforcement and seven by staff in the building department, according to information provided by Nikki Bamonti, the mayor’s executive assistant. Prior condemnations at two other properties were lifted in the last two months.
The sticking point for some observers is the difference between condemned buildings and those with code violations. City officials maintain that a condemnation does not necessarily mean there are also code violations, mentioning the Asiana building at 123-125 N. Market St. as one example of this situation.
Although property owner Duk Hee Ro faced numerous code violations when the city identified the downtown building on its blight list in June 2014, all violations have been corrected and the building has brought up to code, according to the city’s code inspection database. But the property remains condemned because basic utilities have not been installed, making it unfit for human occupancy, Bamonti told The News-Post previously.
Residents, in turn, make an example of the Asiana building as evidence that the enforcement mechanisms for condemned buildings are limited, at best.
Ro has not returned numerous voice messages and certified letters from The News-Post asking for comment on several of her properties.
“Condemnation is, at its best, a scarlet letter,” said local resident and blight watch activist Ned Bond. “Once we throw the sticker on it, we’re done.”
Truby LaGarde, a coordinator and resident of Neighborhood Advisory Council 11, where many of the blighted and condemned buildings in the city are concentrated, agreed.
Condemning a building is the first step, she said, but enforcement can’t end there.
A condemnation forces the property owner to secure any structurally unsound components of the building, according to city code. Failure to do so within a specified time frame results in the city securing the structure and charging the property owner for the service by placing a tax lien on the building.
Condemning a building also lets law enforcement officials enforce the “no occupancy” requirement, including the ability to directly remove any people living in a condemned building without first having to consult city staff, according to Bamonti.
In what Bamonti described as a last resort, the city can also take ownership of a blighted, private property through eminent domain if the building has so severely deteriorated without being fixed that it poses a “serious and growing menace to the public safety, health and welfare,” according to city code.
But the city can’t force a property owner to hook up utilities, or find tenants or new owners, which would violate basic private property rights, elected officials and city staff have said.
The scope of enforcement encompassed through a condemnation could be broadened, though. Kathryn McKenzie, an original member of the city Blighted and Vacant Ad Hoc Committee recently reinstated by Mayor Randy McClement, said the group should make the condemnation definition one of its priorities.
“I definitely think we have to take a look at condemnation and maybe expand upon the remedies for that,” she said.
Although a building can be condemned and not blighted, or vice versa, each one can lead to the other in a chain reaction, she said.
“If we allow either one of those things to get out of control, we get a situation like 56 S. Market,” Bond agreed, referring to a prominent blight site along Carroll Creek.
A fairness issue
The South Market Street roofless building and series of facades is one of several some residents point to as evidence of the inequity with which the city condemns some properties and not others.
The original buildings were torn down decades ago and the remains sold at auction to a Montgomery County resident in 2011, The News-Post previously reported. But the site has never been condemned, according to Bamonti.
Bamonti explained the lack of condemnation, in part, to the unique challenge posed by the property’s characteristics. The facades at 58-70 S. Market St. are just walls separating the empty lot from the public sidewalk, not actual buildings.
As for the roofless building at 56 S. Market St., Bamonti said that condemnations typically result from complaints reported about a specific property, which prompt inspection from code enforcement.
“We can only condemn what we know about,” she said. “Unless we get a complaint, we don’t necessarily know.”
But city resident Bruce Albaugh questioned how the property owner played into the city’s pursuance of a condemnation or code violation notice.
“Mrs. Ro is kind of an easy, low-hanging fruit,” Albaugh said. “They seem to be picking on her but letting other places in much worse condition get a free pass.”
Albaugh named the Union Mills building owned by Douglas Development Corp. as one that — until recent renovation work began — seemed to meet the criteria for condemnation. But it has never been condemned, according to Bamonti.
Similarly, Douglas’ building on North Market Street, which sits on what is colloquially known as the Carmack-Jay’s property, has sat vacant since the company purchased it in 2002, but the city has not condemned it.
Jim Mackintosh, a Realtor with Mackintosh Realtors Inc. handling the leasing of both properties, declined to comment on the lack of condemnations or accusations of unfairness.
Bond echoed Albaugh’s comments, pointing to the city’s fear of litigation and “good old boy network” as factors involved in which property owners face city enforcement.
He wasn’t sure what it would take to spark the necessary changes, however.
“Dealing with the city is like playing three-card monte,” he said. “You know you’re not going to win. It’s always a sham.”