Abandoned homes a constant issue for city

PARKERSBURG – The city of Parkersburg took control of and demolished more than a dozen abandoned homes last year and more are on tap for removal in 2013.

During a recent Urban Renewal Authority meeting, officials presented pictures and information on dozens of homes in Parkersburg earmarked for removal. In some cases the authority takes ownership of the property, but in other instances the city must place liens on the property.

Identifying and removing abandoned homes “is a constant effort, in money and in personnel,” said Mayor Bob Newell. The city spends more than $100,000 each year on court fees and demolition costs to attempt to remove these abandoned and often unsafe buildings, he said.

“Last year we spent another $200,000 to demolish a bunch of houses,” he said. “We have more we are looking to take out this year.”

It is a tedious process, but officials must be careful when taking control of private property, Councilman John Rockhold, chairman of the Urban Renewal Authority, said.

“Even if you have everything perfect, you still have to justify your actions,” he said.

The properties come to the city through a variety of means, most times when neighbors complain about a structure that has been abandoned and has become an eyesore and a hazard. Abandoned homes can attract vermin and even squatters, which can then result in damage to the property or surrounding properties, or even fires.

“Sometimes people can’t afford their properties and they give them to the city,” Rockhold said. “Other times the owner dies, or you just can’t find the owner. Sometimes people just abandon property.”

Abandoned lots have to be maintained by the city to keep the neighborhood from suffering, and often those buildings and yards are left in terrible condition.

It ends up being a money sink for the city, Newell said. After all of the court costs plus the time and expense to tear down a building, often the property itself is sold at a significant loss.

“It’s just not that valuable. You’re left with this difficult piece of property to sell,” he said. “These older homes often were built on 30-foot lots. If you build one today you have to have a 50-foot lot, so unless we have two adjacent lots, we don’t have much interest.”

The exception is if a new owner within a year of the house being torn down builds on the footprint of the old house, Rockhold said.

“That doesn’t happen very often,” he said.

When Community Block Development Grant funds are used, the city must go through additional steps, including checking with state authorities to make sure a house doesn’t qualify as “historical. Often the physical design of the house qualifies it as a historic structure, rather than any specific history attached to the structure, officials said.