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"Dangerous Building" Backlog Is Too Much For Gainesville's Annual City Budget

At 724 SW Terr., garbage bags pile up in front of one of four structures on the property. It has been given a four-star rating by code enforcement. (Alena Poulin/WUFT News)
At 724 SW Terr., garbage bags pile up in front of one of four structures on the property. It has been given a four-star rating by code enforcement. (Alena Poulin/WUFT News)

Rotting wood, overgrown yards and debris littering the property are just a few of the characteristics of a property that the city of Gainesville Division of Code Enforcement has listed as "dangerous."

And yet the division's yearly budget of $27,000 is insufficient to raze the 74 properties and 86 total buildings on the department's Dangerous Building list.

“Our budget is an annual budget. It’s Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 and a lot of times he [Todd Martin, the only code enforcement officer in charge of updating the list] expends the budget well before the end of the year,” said Jeffrey Look, interim manager of city code enforcement.

Since 2015, the city has demolished 19 buildings.

Look said the number of demolitions per year varies.

"A house can cost two or three thousand dollars to demolish, or it can cost 15 to 25 thousand dollars to demolish," he said. "So there may be years that we do two, there may be years that we do 10. There is no set number of houses that we do."

Code enforcement updates the list every three years and categorizes buildings based upon a five-star rating system. A one-star rating means that a building is marginally dangerous, a three-star rating means it is capable of rehabilitation, and a five-star rating means it needs to come down.

While the department is currently in the process of updating the list for 2018, the numbers are not likely to have decreased, Look said.

Martin said when the list was being compiled in 2015, it was during the housing market crash, which caused many homes to fall into disrepair. Now, he said that many more homes were damaged in Hurricane Irma last year.

Look said the rating system is subjective. There are not defined infractions that lead to a designation, and ratings are on an individual basis. Look said Martin is a “team of one," and goes out to every property in order to examine and update its rating as necessary.

“It’s more of an individual opinion,” Look said. “It’s not anything in writing.”

Leslie Suskin, Gainesville real estate agent and member of the State Housing Initiatives Partnership, said the list does not include all of the properties in Gainesville that have been abandoned or haven't been maintained.

She explained there are often “ghost foreclosures,” cases where a bank starts the process of foreclosing on a property, but never finishes, and neither the owner nor the bank takes care of maintenance.

Field managers are supposed to be in place to take care of the property for the banks, but this does not always happen, Suskin said.

Not every building is vacant, and not every one is considered decrepit enough to be condemned. For those that are dangerous, but are not yet scheduled to be taken down, the city is working on other solutions.

"We try to be decisive because it costs a lot of money even prior to the demolition,” Look said. “So Todd has learned not to seek demolition on a house he doesn’t feel is going to be able to get through the process.”

City commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said vacant properties deemed dangerous are boarded up. The city is also developing a pilot program that would use plastic instead of wood boards, so the buildings can be protected, but less noticeable from the street.

Houses are prioritized for demolition based on their rating, concerns of crime the area or community complaints. Property owners are given notice when possible to fix the issues, but there is generally no penalty assessed if the owner complies within the time frame given, Look said.

“The city has no recourse but to issue a code enforcement violation, and that doesn’t mow the grass,” Suskin said.

Suskin said the properties are an eyesore, a potential danger and can attract criminal activity if they are left vacant. If too many are located near one another, they can reduce property values in the neighborhood.

The city also does not actively pursue foreclosures if the owners cannot be contacted. If code enforcement does tear down a structure, they will file a lien against the property for demolition costs, said Hayes-Santos.

The community occasionally will rehabilitate properties with cultural significance, as with the property at 709 SE 8th St. — a  small, rectangular, pink wooden house which has been given a three-star rating by code enforcement.

Although not listed as a historic structure, the house is part of a group of buildings associated with the Cotton Club, a 1950s-era music hall located in southeast Gainesville where legends such as Ray Charles and Bo Diddley once graced the stage.

Vivian Filer, chair of the board of directors of the Cotton Club Museum and Cultural Center, wants to renovate and preserve the property rather than have it destroyed by time or by a construction crew. Their plan is to renovate the Cotton Club cluster of buildings into a “community village,” while maintaining the era's culturally significant style.

“With the African American Community, there has been very little of our history saved in a museum anywhere, and so it's time to get that done,” Filer said.

With Community Redevelopment Agency funding, Filer said improvements have already started on the main building, beginning with the bathrooms.

Filer moved to southeast Gainesville in the seventh grade and grew up in the neighborhood.

The goal is to restore one house as an example of what it was like to live in the area back in the 1940s and '50s. The other is to be turned into a community house.

Down the street there are two more houses built in the same style, one of which she said has previously been refurbished by UF Students, and one of which is already beyond repair.

“It’s important that we don’t go another 50 years and have them say that no one saved it," Filer said.

This story emerged from an audience question. Submit your curiosities for Untold Florida, and we’ll find the answer. Preference is given to those who include their first name and city.

Alena Poulin is a reporter at WUFT News and can be contacted by emailing alenarene@ufl.edu. You can follow her on Twitter under the handle @AlenaPoulin and Instagram under the handle @alenarene