Monday, January 12, 2009

Cincinnati Property Maintenace: A broken system

The city of Cincinnati has a property maintenance system that is broken and results in the needless demolition of historic properties. Feel free to forward this blog to your local city councilperson as we need to start on serious dialog about how to "fix' the problem.

The city has been applauded nationwide for its Vacant buildings permit system which in its original form was designed to stop blight and encourage redevelopment and restoration. However this system has failed and needs to be revisited by the council and the mayor and a new solution need to be found for addressing this problem.

As it is written :

Vacant Building Maintenance License
Ordinance 59-2006 (Amendment)
Sections 1101-77, 79, 129
A vacant property is: a property ordered vacated due to non-compliance of a 13 point code by Buildings & Inspections Dept.

• Applicant must apply for Vacant Building Maintenance License w/in 30 days of order to vacate.
• Applicant must pay fee or request waiver.
• Applicant must provide evidence of general liability insurance for property (min of $300k for residential $1M for
commercial or industrial)
• Building must be brought into VBML compliance (demolished, rehabilitated, or up to code) within 60 days of
• Unpaid fees become liens.
Fee schedule:
• $900/year for properties that have been ordered or kept vacated for less than 1 year
• $1,800/year for properties that have been ordered or kept vacated for at least 1, but less than 2 years
• $2,700/year for properties that have been ordered or kept vacated for at least 2, but less than 5 years
• $3,500/year for properties that have been ordered or kept vacated for at least 5

While this sounds like a great idea.

The reality is that it is almost impossible to insure a vacant structure. This ordinance has resulted in many historic properties being "unsaleable" due to the liens placed against it.

The ordinance also requires a building be brought to code within 60 days of application of the license. It should be noted that it takes 120-180 days to build a new construction home. Restoration of historic homes can take years due to the intricacies of restoration.

It is the 'demolished' phrase in the ordinance that is the most damaging to historic properties and needs to be removed from the ordinance as written. Property owners , faced with spending huge sums of money often take the "easy way out and tear the property down. It is certainly easy to do, you pull a permit.

From the city website:

- No plans necessary. A separate application describing the structure to be demolished is required.

The city makes it easy to demolish a structure as it is one of the few cities its size that allows the property owner to do the demolition! In most cities a structural demolition can only be performed by licensed demolition contractors who have both insurance and a bond posted with the city in which they do business. Private property owners faced with the high cost of a VBML permit and bringing the property into compliance simple choose to demolish the property. Bear in mind that the property owner does not have to be a licenced contractor, and may have no training or skills in structural engineering. Also the permit lasts for 120 days during which the property is often not properly secured and creates a liability issue not only for the homeowner but the city which granted the permit.

How we fix the problem.

The "demolition" clause should be removed from the ordinance.

Structural demolition in the city of Cincinnati should only be allowed to be performed by a licensed demolition contractor.

Demolition is a zoning issue not a building issue and as such should be subject to a zoning hearing in which adjacent property owners and neighborhood associations and community council are notified and allowed to have input on the granting of a demolition permit. The only exception in case a a fire where there is demonstrated safety issue that affects the general public.

Historic properties: All properties more than 100 years old for which a demolition permit is applied for should be subject to review by city engineers as to if they can in fact be rehabilitated. properties deemed restorable, that have no structural issues that cant be corrected an pose no harm to public safety, should be ordered boarded with the owner required to pull permits within 90 days or place the property for sale with a broker.

We need a common sense problem to stop the senseless demolition of historic properties and the city needs a FULL TIME historic preservation planner.

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