Demos to Diamonds

 In City Commisioner, Featured News, News

We’re in the middle of a heat wave! I’ve never been so excited to see temperatures in the 50s.

As winter slowly loosens its grip, it will soon be time to venture out and do some seasonal spring fixes to the house. One thing that I already know is in my future is fixing my front porch, where heavy snow and ice loosened the gutter. It should be an easy fix, but necessary to prevent future water damage.

Sadly, that care isn’t coming for many houses in Atchison. Homes that sit vacant in our community are allowed to deteriorate year after year, until they reach the point of being so unsafe that the city has to tear them down.

Most of the time, we have to do this at the taxpayer’s expense. Each year the City of Atchison tears down 10 or more houses, while only three to five new homes get built. That math isn’t sustainable for our community. We’re headed the wrong direction.

The question becomes, how can we save these houses, before they reach the level of being demolished? We have to keep learning more about the problem and find smarter ways to address it.

Currently, the city has a Land Bank that is full of unwanted, empty lots, some of which fell to the city after we knocked down an unsafe structure and the homeowner walked away.

In the past, the idea was that if we collected enough empty lots in one area, we could package them together and entice a developer. While that strategy may prove useful in the future, it has yet to show strong results. Most of the time, when a lot leaves the land bank, it is being offloaded to a neighbor to take care of.

The reality has been that once a house is torn down, nothing replaces it, and the neighborhood is forever changed. I’ve heard these empty lots compared to missing teeth in a smile, while degraded, vacant houses drag down everything within sight.

It’s time to change our approach. Instead of focusing solely on acquiring vacant lots for infill development, we’re looking at strategies for saving those unwanted vacant structures. If the city can acquire them, we can board them up, make them secure and market them to local contractors.

We would offer the homes free of charge, but require them to be improved beyond just minimum occupancy standards. For the contractors, the return on investment looks a whole lot better when there are zero acquisition costs.

The city avoids wasting money on demolition, and the neighborhood gets a home that drags the surrounding properties up instead of down. Another benefit for the home remodelers is that instead of buying a property blind from a tax sale, they would have an opportunity to tour the house first and see the exact scope of work needed.

The bidding process for acquiring the home wouldn’t be who is willing to pay more, but who is willing to improve it the most. All improvements would then have to be completed within one year.

Vacant houses are tipping some of our neighborhoods towards blight and the end goal is to provide a safe place for people to live and raise a family. We have some beautiful old homes in Atchison. We need to be focused on preserving these houses instead of watching them fall apart for years until the only viable option is demolition.

Let’s stop tearing down our neighborhoods and start building them up instead.

– Mayor Shawn Rizza