Oklahoma City makes an abandoned properties plan

Oklahoma City Director of Development Services Bob Tener likens properties left to decrepitude in the city to a bad neighbor and says the city finally has a plan to do something about them.

The Oklahoma City Council unanimously approved in December a proposal to create a vacant building registry for both residential and commercial properties.

Tener says the list is meant to serve notice to owners of vacant property that the city is watching and expects those properties to be maintained and eventually occupied.

The city hired GSBS Richman Consulting to look at the issue of vacant properties in the metro.

“Vacant buildings don’t really generate revenue,” Tener says. “They pay lower property taxes, and there is no generation of sales tax, plus they increase the number of calls we have to make for police, fire and code enforcement. The study identified the fact these vacant buildings created a nuisance for the neighborhood.”

The study shows that from 2000 to 2010, the number of vacant properties in OKC increased by 25%. Some 12,000 buildings in Oklahoma were cited as vacant for six months or longer, creating a $2.7 billion hit on the city’s overall property value.

The breakdown was 8,500 single-family homes and 350 commercial properties, and the rest were multi-family dwellings.

In comparison, owners of vacant property pay less than one-tenth the amount of property taxes than homeowners who occupy the property they own.

Commercial buildings will get more leeway, with the owners given one year to report a vacancy. Properties undergoing renovation will also only have to be registered if vacant for more than six months.

While the registry is meant to keep property owners on notice, the city still has little power. Under Oklahoma law, cities are not allowed to enforce fines levied on vacant property owners other than taking an owner to small claims court. Fines cannot be entered as a lien on the property, Tener says.

Darla Cheek, government affairs director for the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Association of Realtors, voiced the association’s concerns with the proposal’s broad language during the council meeting.

Cheek says the association worked hand in hand with former Planning Director Russell Claus. After Claus took a job in Australia, the proposal was handed off to Development Services and city attorneys helped write the language.

“We’re all about taking care of the distressed and abandoned properties,” Cheek says. “There are thousands of properties out there that need to be dealt with, and we are all for dealing with those. But our main concern is the word vacant just because vacant isn’t distressed.”

Cheek also worries that creating a registry of vacant buildings could give criminals a list of potential targets.

Commercial properties make up approximately 3% of the vacant properties in Oklahoma City, and Cheek acknowledges the inherent challenges of working with commercial properties and agrees with the differing guidelines.

“They’re a lot more difficult,” Cheek says. “Take the Skirvin. It sat empty for many years, and it’s a wonderful piece of property. There are many examples like that. Quite honestly, it’s harder to sell commercial property. You can’t just put a tenant in there. You have to have the right tenant.”

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