City to go after more abandoned houses

The City of Minot is adjusting its procedures for handling abandoned houses to crack down on a problem that has lingered more than two years after the flood.

City council member Dave Lehner noted at the council’s Public Works and Safety Committee Wednesday that many members of the public can’t understand why the city hasn’t already done something about what some are terming “zombie homes.” A few residents attending the meeting spoke of their frustration with weeds and abandoned homes.

Jim Heckman, environmental health director with First District Health Unit, said the current process of condemning houses can be lengthy and doesn’t work in all situations. If the health unit finds an abandoned home to be a health hazard, it notifies the property owner, who has 15 days to submit a plan to either repair, sell or remove the structure.

First District can direct the city to demolish the house if the property owner fails to respond. Where problems can arise is when property owners don’t follow up with their submitted plan or if a house is secured safely so as not to present a hazard.

The procedure developed and presented to the committee provides for environmental and building inspectors to use administrative search warrants to inspect the interior of secured structures for health and safety violations. First District would notify the property owner to abate unsafe conditions, and if no response is given and the home is more than 50 percent damaged, First District can condemn the structure so it can be removed.

City staff also are asking the council to consider giving owners of abandoned homes a deadline to abate hazards or risk condemnation.

City attorney John Van Grinsven stressed that homeowners have rights that preclude the city from demolishing a house without due process. Heckman explained that due process can take a long time, particularly when mortgaged properties go back to banks to be turned over to national realty companies.

“There gets to be several layers of bureaucracy,” Heckman said.

One resident suggested demolishing houses in the buyout areas that are uninhabited and that the city wants to remove eventually anyway.

Cindy Hemphill, city finance director, said buyouts are voluntary at this point, and the city cannot assume that the owner of an abandoned property wants to sell to the city. Even if the owner is a willing seller, the city doesn’t have the money to buy all the properties, she said. The owner may not be able to pay the cost of demolition without getting payment for the property, nor can the city afford to carry that demolition cost without reimbursement, she said.

The current practice is to assess city-ordered demolitions to the property owners. In one case, the owner has not paid a $37,528 bill, and the cost is being assessed to the property’s taxes.

Carolyn Moore, whose southwest Minot neighborhood includes abandoned homes, told the committee that while property owners’ rights should be respected, neighbors also have rights. After more than two years, it’s time for tougher action on vacant properties, she said.

“I think there’s a cry for that to start about now,” she said.