Parkersburg Urban Renewal Authority discusses housing

Photo by Evan Bevins Parkersburg Urban Renewal Authority Chairman Mike Reynolds, left, speaks during a meeting of the authority on Tuesday. The authority discussed a number of topics related to housing and neighborhood improvement initiatives. Also pictured are, from left, City Councilmen J.R. Carpenter, John Reed, Zach Stanley and Jeff Fox.

PARKERSBURG — Issues related to housing initiatives and property maintenance were discussed at Tuesday’s Parkersburg Urban Renewal Authority meeting.

After unanimously approving the acquisition and demolition of two dilapidated properties via eminent domain, the authority, consisting of all nine members of Parkersburg City Council, talked over a dozen issues placed on the agenda by authority Chairman and Council President Mike Reynolds.

The authority took two actions — voting 9-0 to ask Assistant City Attorney Rob Tebay to develop an ordinance to give code enforcement the ability to fine property owners with repeated code violations and unanimously referring consideration of a program to incentivize property improvement to the Public Works Committee.

Reynolds said he envisioned the proposed ordinance as similar to one council passed in 2017 declaring properties used for drug, gang or prostitution activity; the commission of any felony; or two criminal offenses within a 12-month period as public nuisances. Under that ordinance, owners encouraging, permitting or failing “to implement reasonable and warranted abatement measures” would be subject to a fine of $100 to $1,000 a day.

Mayor Tom Joyce said such a measure related to code would be hard to enforce on owner-occupied property, but “on the landlord side, rental properties, I think it’s worth a stab.”

Photo by Evan Bevins Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce speaks during a meeting of the city’s Urban Renewal Authority Tuesday.

“We want like a regular hammer, not Thor’s hammer at this point,” he said. “What we can’t do is start evicting people from their homes.”

Joyce noted that federal law would require the city to find people suitable replacement housing at the city’s expense.

The discussion of providing incentives for people who improve their property focused mainly on some type of contest. Suggested prizes included everything from gift cards to a discount on the trash bill.

“I think getting the business community involved … you’ve got a little more juice behind it,” Joyce said.

“My recommendation would be first let me see if I can drum up some support.”

Officials also talked about how participating properties could be entered and winners would be determined. Councilman John Reed said similar efforts in other cities often result in larger, well-maintained properties winning, when the emphasis should be on the properties that need the most work.

“I think the way to do that would be for most improved property, with before and after pictures,” Councilman Jeff Fox said.

To inform people about code violations of which they might not be aware, Reynolds suggested including a list of the top 10 infractions with the bills for city services.

“We already send these bills out, so it could be more of a communication tool for us,” he said.

Joyce said there would be no additional postage cost to include the information. The administration will begin that once it researches the most frequent violations, he said. The mayor and council members agreed sharing the messages online would be useful as well.

Members also debated establishing a nonprofit community development corporation to acquire, rehabilitate or construct affordable housing units.

Councilman John Reed said such an entity would have no more power than the Urban Renewal Authority. However, he added that if council members wanted other people involved in those efforts they could change the authority’s membership to include people other than the full council.

Reynolds said he initially felt the same but thought having two or three groups approaching the issue of affordable housing and neighborhood redevelopment from different angles could be beneficial.

“The problem’s just a lot bigger than what we’re going to be able to handle,” he said.

Joyce said he believes the emphasis should be on acquiring land in strategic areas, not only those in the midst of slum and blight but sites in neighborhoods in danger of going downhill.

The authority also touched on the city’s vacant property registry. Councilman Eric Barber asked if the fee of $100 a month should be increased to put more emphasis on addressing empty structures with code violations. City Attorney Joe Santer said the fee is intended to administer the program.

“You can’t get into circumstances where you start fining them,” he said, noting that would be a separate ordinance.

Other topics included the development of tiny houses, a proposed $1 house initiative and the construction of prefrabricated, “quad”-style homes.