Salt Lake City residents with unsafe eyesore buildings in their neighborhoods are one step closer to having a solution.
Abandoned, boarded-up and dangerous buildings have plagued the city since at least 2012. Critics say the structures attract illegal drug use, can be fire hazards and have contributed to crime in some communities. And they’ve been notoriously difficult to tear down. The City Council is now considering a resolution that could make it easier to demolish the structures and reduce an enforcement burden on city inspectors and police.
“There are homes in our neighborhood that have been vacant for over a decade,” said Amy Hawkins, chairwoman of the Ballpark Community Council, which is part of District 5. “There’s a rotting home that’s become a source of regular sex work and drug dealing, literally 10 yards from the homeless resource center.”
Hawkins said she’s concerned about the homelessness issue and lack of affordable housing in the city, but these long-abandoned buildings will never become viable homes again. It’s better to scrap them and start over.
An investigation by The Salt Lake Tribune last year found that 1 in 4 of the vacant and boarded-up buildings in Salt Lake City is in District 5, and the majority of those are in the Ballpark neighborhood. That community made resolving the abandoned property issue a priority in August 2019 after a string of violent crimes, including four homicides. Then, almost a year later, on Sept. 9, 2020, a long-vacant dry cleaning business caught fire. The fire department is still investigating whether that blaze was caused by arson.
“Salt Lake City Police said there’s no relationship” between all the recent events in her area, Hawkins said. “I said, 'No, there is a relationship. It’s geography.’”
Less than a week after the dry cleaner fire, Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s administration presented a solution to the City Council. The proposal addresses an issue that was supposed to be a solution to the infamous Sugar Hole. In the mid-2000s, a developer demolished an eclectic but aging property at 2100 South and Highland Drive. Then the Great Recession hit and the builder abandoned his redevelopment plans, leaving a gaping pit in the heart of Sugar House.
“Nothing was developed for a number of years. It created a real sense of [frustration] in the neighborhood,” said Mendenhall, who used to represent District 5 before she became mayor and took a special interest in the vacant buildings issue. “The previous [City] Council action was, in a nutshell, a knee-jerk response.”
In 2012, that City Council adopted an ordinance that requires property owners to have a permit for a replacement building approved before they can demolish residential buildings. For commercial buildings, property owners need a replacement building or landscaping plan approved and paid for before demolition.
“That council action swung the pendulum so far that even dangerous buildings that caught on fire multiple times … were allowed to remain standing, and in many ways, were required to remain standing,” Mendenhall said.
Plus, the ordinance didn’t solve the problem of empty holes abandoned by property holders after projects become infeasible. The collapse of the State Street Plaza proposal, for example, has left a large vacant lot in a high-profile downtown location for nearly five years.
“It was almost impossible when this ordinance was passed to really make it 100% bulletproof,” Orion Goff, director of building services and civil enforcement, said. “There’s always a way to game the system.”
Another problem with the 2012 ordinance is that owners of long-vacant buildings tend to be unmotivated to do anything about them, and the rule did not provide much incentive.
“Buildings that get to this condition rarely have an owner who is present and attentive and wanting to do the right thing,” Goff told the City Council last month.
While some property owners do want to tear down their derelict buildings, Goff said, the added bureaucratic loophole of getting a replacement building permit approved discourages them from doing so.
Meanwhile, the deteriorating buildings are creating safety hazards for neighbors as well as law enforcement and firefighters.
“They would much rather roll up on a vacant lot than a nuisance structure,” Goff said in an interview with The Tribune.
The new ordinance proposal removes the red tape from demolishing old buildings and provides clearer definitions about what constitutes a nuisance building that consumes city resources to inspect and what is simply a “vacant but secured” building that doesn’t require intervention.
Salt Lake City has 54 vacant buildings that have received neighbor complaints but owners have stepped up to maintain them, Goff said. Another 85 buildings require the city to take action.
Currently, those property holders must pay the city boarded building fees so Goff’s team can inspect them each month. Apathetic, uninvolved owners who don’t pay those fees receive liens on their properties, meaning the city must be reimbursed before the property is sold or refinanced. That often takes years.
“But the problem is … some of the judges are very susceptible to sob stories from these owners," Goff said in his presentation to the City Council. "We rarely get anywhere near what we’ve assessed, just usually pennies on the dollar.”
The proposal addresses that issue by giving the city more teeth. If approved, the city will be able to impose civil fines for unmaintained vacant buildings and take property owners to small claims court if they’re left unpaid.
“That can affect credit, you can have your salary garnished,” Goff told The Tribune. “I think that gives us a better tool to bring buildings back into compliance and put it back into circulation.”
Both the police and fire departments have expressed support of the changes. The City Council has scheduled a final public comment hearing on the proposed ordinance change on Oct. 20 and tentatively plans to vote on the ordinance that evening.