Jefferson City council may toughen abandoned property rules

Preservationists are pushing the Jefferson City Council to crack down on abandoned properties like this house on Adams Street.

The city council appeared poised Monday night to consider tougher rules for abandoned properties after a presentation by the head of a preservation group.

Historic City of Jefferson President Steve Veile said more than a hundred buildings are currently on the city's abandoned properties registry. Those buildings include homes dating as far back as the late 1800s, many of them on East Capitol Ave. He said such properties attract crimes like burglary, arson and sexual assault. In one instance, he said a homeless person set fire to one building after getting into an argument with other squatters living there.

Jefferson City Police Capt. Doug Shoemaker said abandoned properties can be attractive to criminals not only because no one else is living there but also because such properties make the surrounding neighborhood more appealing to them. Shoemaker said his department subscribes to the broken windows theory, which states that run-down properties give the impression that the area does not care about its well-being, thus implying that crime is more acceptable.

"An area that appears to be decrepit and look bad tends to be an area where the criminals will gravitate," he said.

Under current city ordinances, landlords who own abandoned property must register that property with the city. Landlords pay a $44 registration fee and an additional $32 per month until they sell the property or fix it up to the point that they can remove it from the registry. Interim City Administrator Drew Hilpert told KRCG 13 the city already can take owners of such properties to municipal court over certain code violations. The city will take on the responsibility of boarding up such properties or performing nominal maintenance if necessary.

"If we have the hearing and they don't prove their case, or the city proves ours, we'll actually go out and abate those nuisances ourselves, incur the cost of that and then the costs go as a tax lien against the properties," he said.

But several councilmembers at Monday night's meeting noted owners could avoid the ill effects of those liens by simply never selling the property. Councilwoman Carrie Tergin characterized many of the codes surrounding abandoned properties as voluntary. Much of Monday night's discussion centered around one landlord in particular who Veile said owns 19 abandoned properties. Councilmembers said the city has a lot of trouble bringing landlords like this one to heel because the penalties are not severe enough. Some councilmembers indicated they were in favor of fining landlords or even threatening them with jail time.

Hilpert indicated at the meeting he would be interested in discussing the matter with Veile further. Veile said it is a disappointment to see such valuable buildings going to ruin but added not all of the buildings in question are a total loss.

"East Capitol Avenue should be the jewel for Jefferson City," he said. "It can be, but it's not there right now."

Veile said he was encouraged by the discussion his presentation sparked at Monday night's meeting and he hoped something productive would come of it.