Marc Nelson, Poughkeepsie City Administrator, discusses efforts to address abandoned properties in Poughkeepsie.
The little, red house at 556 Main St. sits empty and dilapidated. Warped, ravaged steps lead to an overstuffed mailbox and a boarded doorway. Plants grow from the roof, its sheathing moldy and rotten. The failing structure is beset on all sides by refuse — broken beer bottles, discarded clothing and a hypodermic needle litter the ground.
The house is the next in the list of abandoned properties set for demolition in the City of Poughkeepsie. It is scheduled to be demolished around Jan. 10, according to city Administrator Marc Nelson.
The city reexamined how it addresses these properties after two buildings on Academy Street partially collapsed in June amid a sudden storm with powerful wind gusts. The incident led to multiple injuries and displaced residents. It also resulted in ongoing legal action; Rotanya Hargrove-Cooper, who was trapped by debris for several hours in a nearby building, is suing property owners.
There are 537 vacant or abandoned buildings in the city. Though most, like the red house on Main Street, pose no structural threat, they are more than eyesores. Vacant properties can attract wild animals or homeless looking for shelter. Such properties have also been the sites of fires.
This was underlined earlier this month, when four people were killed in a fire in an Academy Street building listed as vacant. Nelson said the city is playing catch-up to address the problem it went ignored for years.
“The city realizes this is a major issue, and we will address it with all resources available to us,” Nelson said. “We’re taking a targeted approach in addressing out vacant and abandoned buildings.”
Since April, the number of vacant buildings in the city has been reduced from 620, using such methods as demolition or the owner rehabilitating the property. The cost of demolition makes it impossible to fix the overall problem immediately, Nelson said, and the city does not own many of the properties.
But the city hopes to better address the issue of vacant properties in 2019, implementing new technology and increasing funding to tackle the problem.
New staff and technology take aim at abandoned properties
The city building department added two code enforcement officers using $140,000 allocated in the 2019 budget. “They’re both following up on tips sent to the department and proactively searching for problem sites,” Nelson said.
The city has also budgeted $185,000 for the Department of Public Works to have weekend cleanup crews to clear the areas around vacant and abandoned buildings, Nelson said. To streamline the process of addressing vacant properties, the city adopted two software tools.
iWorQ, which the city started using in April, is a software suite for managing public works and community development. Its capabilities include a code enforcement software that can track inspections, citations and warnings, according to the iWorQ website.
The second software, BuildingBlocks, will be implemented by mid-March, Nelson said. BuildingBlocks would allow different departments with the city review what interactions other departments had with a building owner, Nelson said.
“Someone with the building department can see if police have been called to the building or if the fire department has checked it recently,” Nelson said. Fire officials have also said it is important to know if a building is vacant before responding to a call, as dilapidated buildings can pose additional dangers to responders entering.
Nelson said it was vital for the city to carefully consider how it uses its limited resources to deal with abandoned properties. “The city is playing catch-up on a job that’s been left undone for more than a decade,” Nelson said.
The estimated cost to demolish a building is $60,000, Nelson said. While he did not have a number for demolition funds for 2019, Nelson said the city still had $145,600 from leftover funds in 2017 and $89,400 from 2018.
To address properties not owned by the city, a building inspector can issue citations, stop-work orders and other compliance notices against a building that poses any risks or any vacant property. The inspector also can file a court action against a non-compliant building owner or abate the violation if it a safety hazard.
Vacant buildings must be registered and maintained, and the city can force a lender to initiate foreclosure proceedings or take the property title if these criteria are not met