Understanding Your Local Problem
The information provided above is only a generalized description of abandoned buildings and lots. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.
In addition to criminal justice agencies, the following groups have an interest in the abandoned property problem. These groups should be consulted when collecting information about the problem and responding to it as they form the foundation for enduring police- community partnerships:†
How They Can Help
- Public school officials and local law school clinics
- Elected and appointed leaders
- State and federal law enforcement agencies, environmental protection agencies, and other regulatory agencies
- Child protective services
- City and county agencies: (e.g., fire; board of health; code enforcement; housing; parks and recreation; planning board; zoning board; corporation counsel/law department; sanitation and public works; traffic engineering; prosecutors office; courts; community and economic development corporation)
- Provide data for analyzing the magnitude and seriousness of the problem, help plan, implement, and monitor responses and make policy/legislative changes
- Share costs so that no single agency bears the full financial burden, which is an incentive to participate
- Subdivide responsibilities and provide information on the limits of each agency's legal jurisdiction and rules
- Provide resources beyond the local government or resident groups
- Initiate federal prosecution
- Provide economic incentives for housing and business development (tax abatements and reductions)
- Real estate appraisal companies
- Scrap metal dealers and recyclers
- Banks, lien holders, and mortgage companies
- Hazardous waste remediation companies
- Utility companies
- Property insurance companies
- Realtors and developers
- Provide data and information about housing market fluctuations, property marketability, neighborhood desirability, and future housing and development markets
- Identify unforeseen hazards
- Serve on as expert witnesses in court
- Prioritize cleanup/remediation and development efforts
- For those with a financial interest, help design and implement prevention efforts
Community and Nonprofit
- Neighborhood residents, tenants councils, civic groups, and block watch associations
- Business associations/chamber of commerce
- Owners of abandoned properties
- Local animal shelters and animal advocates
- Drug treatment providers, homeless and homesteading advocates, and other social service providers
- Local legal aid society
- Secure the residents and business owners commitment and support during the planning and response phase to avoid negative reaction from an intervention
- Allow property owners to unveil how the problem began, what precipitated it, and how to prevent it
- Use local social networks to identify potential contributing factors and community supporters and to build alliances
- Provide a letter of support or in-kind contribution when applying for a grant or other funding (advocacy)
- Provide volunteer help and pro bono legal services
- Provide a sworn affidavit or corroborating testimony in court
Collecting and Analyzing Data
Data are especially important for state and federal grant applications, influencing public policy, and crafting responses. If you identify gaps in current mitigation efforts, legislation, or other regulatory aspects, then you will need to document the problem and the proposed policy changes, which will be informed by accurate and timely data. Most states do not establish standards for collecting property data, so it may be difficult to compare your jurisdiction to another. Also, given any changes to your jurisdictions existing data collection methods or data elements, it may be difficult to compare property data within your jurisdiction over time. Take an inventory of abandoned properties and analyze the data to get a baseline understanding of the scope of the problem.
Asking the Right Questions
The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your community's abandoned property problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you prioritize individual locations and choose the most appropriate set of responses.† Before taking legal action, review the definition of "abandoned" to ensure the properties that are the object of your intervention meet all of the elements of the offense. An uninhabited and untended property may not meet the legal definition of "abandoned," but it still can breed conditions favorable to crime, disorder, and poor health, which you should address before additional harms result. In these situations, the police may take limited corrective action and may observe and report conditions to the appropriate government agency (e.g., code enforcement, health department, fire department), who can investigate further.
Scope and Seriousness of the Problem
- What specific harms are occurring in and around abandoned properties?
- If these incidents or conditions are displaced to another area, where would they go? Why?
- What are the current conditions of the properties? Are they in danger of collapse?
- How many abandoned properties are recorded? What proportion has been razed, auctioned, repaired, cleaned up, or secured?
- If buildings are being stripped, what types of materials are being stolen? Where are they being disposed?
- Have any buildings or lots been intentionally booby trapped?
- Has anyone reported being lured to an abandoned property and then victimized (e.g., taxi drivers, food deliverers, escorts from a service)?
- Has anyone been injured or killed at the site? If so, under what circumstances?
- Have any juvenile runaways been found inside abandoned buildings? Is there a nexus to drugs, illicit sex, or human trafficking?†
- Have any pets or stray animals been found at the site?
- Is there an environmental hazard or contamination at the site?
- Is there illegal dumping or abandoned vehicles at the site? Can the source be traced?
- Are abandoned buildings clustered in particular locations, or scattered? Are they isolated, or near other occupied properties?
- What is the total acreage of abandoned building parcels and vacant lots?
- What proportion of abandoned buildings is commercial, single-family residential, multi-family residential, or governmental?
- Do crime "hot spots" emerge around abandoned properties?
- Do certain profiles of property owners or business practices emerge from abandonment? Are there repeat offenders? What are the criminal, civil litigation, and lien histories of these property owners? Do the owners have properties in more than one city? If so, what are the conditions of the properties?
- Is there a nexus to gangs, organized crime, or followers of anti-consumerist movements such as freeganism and sovereign citizens?
- Are the owners individuals, corporations, or franchises?
- Is fraudulent banking or lending involved? Is prosecution an option?
- What do property owners say about their motivation for abandoning properties?†
- Of those arrested, cited, or found at abandoned properties, what proportion are adults and juveniles? What profile emerges—age, sex, school, place of residence, criminal history of arson, burglary, or theft?
- Are property owners required to screen tenants as a lease condition?
† See Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 3, Using Offender Interviews to Inform Police Problem Solving.
Economics and Community Perceptions
- Are retail sales or tourism down in the affected area?
- What is the average property value in each census tract?
- How concerned are community residents about the problem? Are concerns greater in some neighborhoods than in others? Why? What activities concern them? Do residents alter their travel routes or behaviors because of the properties? What solutions do residents propose?
- How organized and active are community members who oppose abandoned properties?
- Are properties catalogued with sufficient data in a central computer system? Is the system accessible to all involved agencies and stakeholders?
- Are properties periodically inspected to forewarn of impending problems? Is there an early warning system?
- How are abandoned properties reported by the public? What proportion is reported by citizens? What proportion is reported by government employees?
- What are the direct monetary and manpower costs associated with abandoned properties for each agency?
- Does your jurisdiction have a public education campaign about the risks of and consequences for abandoning a property and how to avoid it?
- Are financial institutions that hold mortgages on the properties aware of the problems? What actions, if any, have they taken to improve conditions?
- What is currently being done to address the problem? Other than enforcement action, what other system responses have been applied? Of those, which should you replicate?
- Does your government have a plan to relocate homeless persons from abandoned buildings?
- Are the roles and responsibilities for each government agency clearly defined? Has there been adequate employee training?
- How many foreclosures are pending in your jurisdiction? What can be done to prevent more?
† This section was modified from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (n.d.).
- What agencies are responsible for classifying buildings as abandoned? Does code enforcement have the discretion to declare buildings "unsafe" and order immediate demolition?
- Is registration required for vacant and foreclosed properties?
- What political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal factors foster or constrain your ability to effectively address problems at these sites?
- Does the definition of "abandoned" include accessory structures (e.g., shed, garage)?
- What is the process for initiating a lien?
- What fines and other penalties are imposed for abandoning a piece of property? What proportion of fines is collected?
- If liability insurance is carried on the property, can you recover expenses from the insurance company?
- What is the process for razing an unsafe building? Securing an open building? Cleaning a vacant lot? Are public agencies or private contractors used? Who must pay? How long does it take?
- Is a minimum bid required for auction? What documents are required? Are the properties offered below market value to attract developers? Are tax abatements offered?
- Are adjacent property owners offered vacant lots to incorporate as contiguous side lots or backyards?
- Is special financing available to rehabilitate the property?
- Do zoning laws allow subdividing vacant lots?
- What is the owners plan to sell, rehabilitate, or demolish the property? Current progress?
- Does your government have a partnership/agreement with real estate agents, developers, or nonprofit groups to help reuse the property?
Measuring Your Effectiveness
Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. You should take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area. Bear in mind that at the outset of a response, some of these measures may increase before they stabilize and eventually begin to decline. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 1, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers and Guide No. 10, Analyzing Crime Displacement and Diffusion.
The following indicators are potentially useful for measuring the effectiveness of responses to abandoned properties. These measures are divided into two groups: those that measure the impact on the problem (outcome measures), and those that measure your agency's response to the problem (process measures).
In addition to increased property values, indicators of successful outcome measures include reduced:
- Percentage of properties classified as abandoned
- Percentage of calls for service and complaints about crime and disorder, sorted by type of call
- Length of time between initial report and disposition (i.e., sale, demolition, rehabilitation)
- Percentage of the budget necessary to properly address abandoned properties
- Percentage of abandoned properties sold at auction
- Number of injuries and deaths at abandoned properties
- Citizen fear in areas with abandoned properties (this may be evaluated through citizen surveys; observed changes in use of public space; reported changes in retail commerce in neighborhoods with abandoned properties; and similar indirect measures)
- Need for stabilization efforts: cosmetic improvements, board-ups, cleanups, fencing, demolitions, environmental changes
Indicators of successful process measures include increased:
- Percentage of fines and fees collected
- Total assets seized/forfeited
- Percentage of property taxes collected
- Number of enforcement actions: arrests; field interviews; citations; written warnings; juveniles taken into custody for status offenses; and prosecutions, including type and length of sentence, or fine imposed
- Community participation through neighborhood watches and partnerships
- Employee training in addressing abandoned buildings and lots
- Grant funds secured to address abandoned buildings and lots
- New building and construction permits issued