'It's not a fast, easy process.' Code compliance addresses abandoned, dilapidated homes
Aztec highlights renovated home as a success story, but not all properties have that luck
AZTEC — When Daylee Atchison first saw the house her father had bought in Aztec, she was shocked at its condition.
She said her first reaction was, “oh my god, what did you get involved in.”
Aztec Code Compliance Officer Andrew DiCamillo said there were holes in the wall and trash everywhere. A previously burned trailer remained in the backyard, surrounded by weeds. A thin path through the weeds led to the gas meter. Now the backyard is clear and the trailer is gone, the interior is spotless and has new appliances. Even the peeled siding on the exterior has been replaced with stucco, and a covered front porch is a new addition.
Atchison said her father saw the rundown house with weeds filling the yard and wanted to flip it to help the neighborhood.
“He wanted to do something to make a difference and I’m really grateful now that it made a difference,” Atchison said.
Months later, the house has been completely redone and the Atchisons are now selling the house, which is listed on realtor.com for $152,000. Atchison said that price will allow the family to break even.
DiCamillo describes the house as a success story, but many similar properties do not have people like the Atchisons to come in and fix them.
These properties can lead to increased crime and health hazards while also lowering property values and discouraging economic development, according to local officials.
"The code enforcement plays a pivotal role in keeping this a livable community," Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said.
San Juan County Code Compliance Officer Bob Carman said there are some neighborhoods that county code compliance employees visit more than others.
"It's not a fast, easy process," Carman said. "You see a lot of neighborhoods where there's several abandoned, single-wide mobile homes and you have to do all the leg work to figure out who owns them and where they're at and do they have the means to do anything with them or will they surrender them to us. So there's a real chase to some of these neighborhoods."
Abandoned, dilapidated buildings have economic impacts on cities
San Juan County, Aztec, Bloomfield and Farmington officials all said reducing the number of abandoned or dilapidated properties will help with economic development initiatives.
"You're not going to attract businesses that think, 'I'm coming in to a place that doesn't look inviting and welcoming to people,'" Bloomfield Police Chief David Karst said.
Hebbe said Farmington is better than many other communities in terms of the number of abandoned properties. But, having dilapidated buildings harms other homeowners in the area, officials say.
"There's nothing worse for property value than one eyesore," said DiCamillo.
Hebbe said abandoned properties also make it harder for neighbors to sell their houses.
"Nothing kills your ability to sell your property like a nearby house in disrepair," he said.
Mark Romero, a Farmington code compliance officer, said the city looks for buildings that are open where squatters could potentially get inside. If the place is easily accessible, Romero will send a notice giving the owner 30 days to fix the problem.
"Most people, believe it or not, take care of it in 14 days," he said.
New code has helped Aztec address issues throughout the city
The economic impact on the community and on property values is one reason the Aztec City Commission adopted a new property maintenance code last year.
He cited the Embarcadero Apartments on Navajo Avenue as an example. DiCamillo said the apartments looked like something you would find in a third-world country. After receiving a notice from the city, the property owner spent $20,000 repainting the buildings. In addition, the apartments now have numbers on the units and buildings. This helps police if they respond to calls at the apartments.
"Sometimes it just takes a little nudge," DiCamillo said.
Bloomfield, Farmington updating ordinances
Farmington and Bloomfield are also in the process of updating ordinances.
"It's not trying to make them overreaching, by any means," Karst said. "It's just a lot of them are outdated and unclear."
Romero said Farmington's property maintenance ordinances have not been updated since the 1960s.
Crime runs parallel with building conditions
Karst said abandoned properties and dilapidated buildings also increase crime.
"If you have a house with broken windows, it's going to attract crime because it shows that there's nobody who cares for it," he said.
DiCamillo said oftentimes criminal activity runs parallel to substandard living conditions. One example he gave was 707 McCoy Avenue, which the city has boarded up to prevent drug use and squatting. DiCamillo said Aztec hopes to have the house torn down in the future.
The Aztec City Commission has budgeted $20,000 for property clean up.
DiCamillo said the city has been unsuccessful at contacting the owner of 707 McCoy Avenue and the property may use that entire $20,000. A sign posted on the door warns people to stay out. DiCamillo said he hopes to have the building demolished.
"A vacant lot creates a greater value than what's on here now," he said.
Hebbe said it can sometimes be hard to contact the owner. Sometimes the owner has moved out of the state. Properties can fall into disrepair after their elderly owners are moved into nursing homes. Other times, a bank has foreclosed on the property.
If no owner can be found, the city will clean the property and place a lien on it.
Romero said in the 15 years he has worked for Farmington he has only seen that happen twice.
San Juan County offers program to clean up properties, demolish homes
The county has been helping property owners and cities demolish dilapidated residences and clean up properties for more than a dozen years.
"It was started back then as a cleanup program and it was a voluntary program," said Larry Hathaway, the county's community development administrator.
Hathaway said the program helps with health and safety for the neighborhoods where there are abandoned or dilapidated structures.
"Any time you've got anything that's been abandoned or isn't maintained, no one's around, it seems like the pests and the rodents kind of move in... and then, of course, oftentimes it becomes a fire hazard," Hathaway said.
He said the landscaping also tends to become overgrown, adding to that hazard.
"Some of them, too, have a little bit of illegal activity that takes place inside of them, so there's those health issues also," Carman said.
Abandoned trailer on Bergin Lane creates safety concerns
"When I got here, one of the biggest complaints we had was code compliance, lack of enforcement, especially this 405 (N.) Bergin Lane because it's just down the street from Mesa Alta Junior High School," Karst said. "What it is, it's a piece of property with overgrown weeds, but more importantly it had a single wide trailer on there that had been abandoned. The windows were broken out, the doors kicked in and we had a lot of calls for service at that trailer for everything from vandalism to kids especially being inside there. I'd also heard during City Council meetings there were a lot of complaints that people would say something but nothing was ever being done about it."
Karst said there were also numerous calls about people squatting inside the trailer and using drugs.
"All we want is voluntary compliance," Karst said. "We're not trying to make money off of fines or fees. We just want the property cleaned up, especially something like this that could be really dangerous so close to the school."
Because the city was struggling to contact the owner, Karst said it couldn't get a court order to have the property cleaned up. That left one other option — the City Council passed a resolution that would have allowed the city to destroy the trailer, clean up the property and place a lien on it.
While the city did pass a resolution to clean up the property, the owners stepped up and took responsibility. They contacted San Juan County and asked if it could be included in a county cleanup program that demolishes dilapidated residential structures.
Karst said cleaning up properties and placing a lien on them is not going to be a common practice "because, one, I don't feel like we should just be intervening in people's property. Two, it's a great cost to the city and the taxpayers of Bloomfield to do it."
New program allows residents to report code compliance violations
Karst said he learned after joining the Bloomfield Police Department about a year ago that the city did not have a good system in place for tracking code compliance complaints. After doing a bit of research, he found a program called SmartGov, which the city has purchased and is now using for both code compliance and business licenses.
The program allows residents to report complaints and track the progress of complaints they have made.
After a complaint is made on the website, Bloomfield's code compliance officer will investigate the property for code violations. These can be abandoned cars, dilapidated buildings or overgrown weeds.
"I really like the transparency of it," Karst said. "I really like the public feedback. They don't think that their complaint just falls on deaf ears. It's right there that they can check at any time."
Since the city implemented the new program in mid-June, it has had more than 240 code compliance complaints.
Abandoned hotels create unique challenge for Farmington police
While Aztec and Bloomfield generally see homes sitting empty or smaller buildings, Farmington is more likely to identify large buildings like vacant hotels as problem properties. One of these abandoned hotels — Sage North Motel — became the scene of a fatal fire in 2017.
This presents one of the biggest concerns for Farmington police and its code compliance division. In addition to the abandoned hotels providing a tempting place to spend the night, the size of the buildings makes it hard for officers to find people who are squatting inside.
Unsecured, vacant properties can create a safety hazard, especially in the winter, Romero said.
"This time of year is the worst because if they don't have people living in them, they don't have heat on," Romero said.
He said people will squat inside those houses without utilities. Sometimes they will start fires to keep warm, which can lead to a structure fire.
"Code compliance is all about having citizens keep their properties clean and safe for everyone," Romero said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at email@example.com.
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