Statesville City Councilman John Staford ran for office with a goal of taking care of neglected homes in Statesville. Now, he’s trying to make good on that promise.
Staford has a four-pronged plan he has told Statesville City Council about multiple times as he’s tried to get ordinances changed, removed or added to Statesville’s unified development code in the past few months. His plan is not universally embraced by members of the council, though.
The plan includes more efficient foreclosures on homes owned by people who haven’t paid property taxes; an ordinance creating minimum standards for vacant homes to meet; policing targeted at the activities that may go on in vacant homes; and proactive code enforcement.
“When we (Staford and his wife) moved to Statesville 27 years ago, we chose this city. We could’ve moved anywhere in the country. It was a choice move, and we chose it because it was a clean, well-kept city,” Staford said. “Where this unraveled, I don’t know. We (the city) quit doing it (enforcing code and managing neglected properties), and we’ve got to get back to doing it, and it’s not something that will fix itself overnight, but goodness, you got to turn this ship around and start back in the right direction again.”
Staford said there are 500 delinquent homes, where property taxes or fines haven't been paid, in Statesville, and they aren’t just in south Statesville. He can name specific streets with neglected homes in the city’s historic district. He carries a map in his truck highlighting the properties with taxes owed in red. Some properties are only a few blocks away from downtown.
Staford said getting homes in the hands of people who will renovate the house and maintain it will help Statesville in a variety of ways from providing workforce housing to lessening the illegal activities vacant homes often associated with these properties. He said he just has to get council and the city to help him enact the four prongs of his plan.
Several of the councilmen have expressed concerns from how effective Staford’s plan will be to a possible conflict of interest. Councilman Michael Johnson said he wants to know how the programs tie together and what Staford’s ultimate goal is. He has particular concerns about starting a receivership program.
“As standard operation, I just don’t buy it (receivership),” Michael Johnson said.
A multifaceted problem
Residents of Statesville “have rights to live in a quiet and peaceful and comfortable neighborhood and not look outside their window or their front door and look at a derelict piece of property that harbors drug dealing, prostitution, child molesters, a chance for arson, and their kids are over there playing with safety hazards,” Staford said.
Besides the dangers vacant homes may bring to a neighborhood, Staford also pointed out that neglected homes can lower the property values of nearby lots. He gave the example of a house on Carroll Street where the property owner had to discount his property value by $60,000 because of another house on the street that had been neglected for 27 years.
Delinquent properties where taxes are not being paid are unfulfilled monetary potential for the city, Staford said.
Finally, the neglected homes in Statesville’s historic district, once they’re demolished, are pieces of history forever lost to the city, he said.
Though he expresses concern for every issue neglected homes creates, Staford has firsthand experience with historic homes in Statesville. Before he served on council, he was on the city’s Historic Preservation Committee.
“One we lost, the Anderson house, finest Queen Anne in the state, is no longer there. The tax value on that property, a million dollars, gone, lost forever, and the asset of that historic structure is lost to this community and this state. Really, as a city, we should be held responsible for that because the state demands we take care of those properly. That’s what historic districts are all about.”
Staford’s plan aims to address each issue created by neglected homes in the city.
Today, the city doesn’t have a formal foreclosure plan. Staford said an interested buyer can ask the city about a certain home they’ve noticed. If property taxes are owed, the city can foreclose on the house, and it can be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
“A lot of not-so-good landlords got a lot of properties that way,” Staford said. “Now, they go before the courthouse steps, but they were the only ones who knew about it going up there even though it was advertised. That’s not a proper way for us to do it. A proper way for us to do it is to develop a list.”
Staford said he wants the city to hire a law firm which specializes in foreclosing homes for municipalities. City Attorney Leah Messick can also foreclose homes but much more slowly.
“We’ve gotta take sections of the city at a time because there are 500 of them, so you can’t do it all at once, but you can do 70 or so at a time,” Staford said.
Minimum requirements for vacant homes
Staford said he hopes to change the wording in the city’s ordinances, so vacant homes are included in the minimum housing standards. Currently, city staff interprets the statute to mean if an owner does not intend to live in or rent out money for a home, the building doesn’t have to meet housing standards.
The ordinance closely mimics state general statute. Staford said the state does not share the city’s interpretation and believes vacant homes can be held to the same standard.
“My job is to change the ordinance, so he (a code enforcer) has to interpret it the way I want it interpreted, so I want to change that ordinance to say ‘Any property that is occupied or has ever been intended to be so used,’” Staford said. “That way, it covers it (vacant homes).”
Staford also wants to change the wording of the ordinance specifying requirements for a home’s exterior to make it clearer.
He said this prong of his plan is particularly important because it would allow the city to make use of a new state statute called vacant building receivership.
Receivership is a concept that has been applied in North Carolina in instances of bankruptcy. During such an instance, a person’s funds are given to someone else who has the authority to manage them, paying debts and doing whatever else they feel needs to be done.
The state created a statute allowing municipalities to create receivership programs for vacant homes in October 2018. Because the statute is so new, receivership for vacant homes in North Carolina is fairly uncharted territory.
There are five types of properties that can be subject to receivership. Staford is particularly interested in properties that haven’t been maintained to a minimum housing code. However, under the city’s current interpretation of minimum housing code, vacant homes are not enforced by those ordinances.
If council changes the code to include vacant homes, properties can be eligible for receivership. Once a receiver has been appointed, they can repair the building. The cost will be included in the lien, or debt tied to the property, and included in the sale price.
Receivership is “a tool that’s given to us,” Staford said. “The first part of this, though, is what we’re trying to do is get compliance. If we’ve got the tools and the process in place to get to the end, I think a lot of people are going to see it, and they’re going to comply, and we’ll never even have to use that tool.”
The third and fourth prongs of the plan are policing and code enforcement.
Staford said some progress on these two parts of his plan had already been made. Police Chief David Addison is focused on community-focused policing, and a second code enforcer has been hired.
Staford would like to see a third code enforcer hired as well. Their yearly salary would be $65,000.
“I’m just saying the ordinances we have, the bar is not very high. It’s not terribly high just to get it to that level,” Staford said. “We’re just looking out that people have a right to a peaceful, quiet environment where they live and shouldn’t have to look at these just absolute ramshackle places.”
While Staford is confident his plan will work, others on council aren’t sure yet.
Johnson said Staford’s plan treats every property and owner the same when that’s not the case.
Some property owners cannot afford to pay the taxes for the property they own and still live on that property.
Johnson said the list of delinquent homes could be shared with investors or private buyers then an interested party could ask the city to foreclose on the house they wanted to buy.
“I don’t understand why the city has to be the catalyst,” Johnson said.
Johnson also said he doesn’t believe one code enforcer will be the only additional staff necessary to make Staford’s plan a reality, and he thinks the programs will come with tremendous legal expenses for the city.
Staford said exceptions could be made for impoverished people struggling to pay their property taxes.
“Now, you may come across one where it’s a little old lady, and they just don’t have any money. Well, we’re going to have to take that one and find a church group or find Habitat for Humanity or find an organization that can help her out and get those taxes paid,” Staford said. “We have to have compassion when we’re doing this.”
In response, Johnson asked what city employee would find that charity.
Solutions that pay for themselves
Staford said if the programs could get started, they would start paying for themselves.
“It will pay for itself to fix this problem, and it improves the quality of life for the entire city,” Staford said. “We will never be the city we should be with these derelict houses in this city.”
As delinquent homes stand now, they don’t make the city any money as long as their owner doesn’t pay taxes. In some cases, neglected homes pull down the property values of their neighbors and use city resources like police and code enforcers as problems appear.
However, if those homes could be put in the hands of someone who would pay taxes, that’s a benefit to the city. Eventually, the city’s tax base would increase.
“The idea is to transfer these properties from irresponsible ownership to responsible ownership, and we’ve demolished 80-plus houses in the last five years," Staford said. "The house isn’t the problem. It’s the ownership. It’s the derelict, vacant, non-existent ownership that’s causing the problem. The house is an asset to this city. It’s on our tax roll. It has value.”