Vacant Lots How can vacant lots be used to strengthen neighborhoods?

 

A vacant lot is a neglected parcel of property that has no buildings on it.  In many cases, houses were on these lots, but as they fell into disrepair they were burned or demolished.

 

  • illegal dumping of litter and other solid waste

  •  Hazardous waste contamination such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and asbestos

  •  home for rats

  •  unsafe conditions- children get hurt there

  •  crime (drug dealing, prostitution, hiding places for criminals)

  •  unsightly blights on the urban landscape

  • a wasted resource

  • disrupt a neighborhood's sense of community

  •  lower neighborhood property values

  •  environmental justice issue since there are more vacant lots in the City’s poorer neighborhoods (i.e., South Providence has many more vacant lots than Blackstone)

 

Currently, most vacant lots are a blight on Providence neighborhoods.  If properly cared for, they could become a valuable resource. The main goal of vacant lot policies is to move these lots into productive use.  Some examples of productive uses for vacant lots are:

  •  maintained side yards

  • community gardens

  • parks and  playgrounds

  • off street parking

  • new housing units

  • new businesses

Each site is unique and each neighborhood has different needs.  Plans for vacant land need to be developed at the neighborhood level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Effective Has Recent Legislation Been?

After the 1997 Vacant Land Task Force report, a number of changes were made. 

Tax Sale Realty Law(1997) - allows the Providence Redevelopment Agency (PRA) to target specific properties (that owe back taxes to the city), remove them from the tax sale process and use them for neighborhood development.  This law also holds speculators responsible for maintaining the lots they purchase at tax sale even if they don't foreclose on the lot. 

Current Status - In the fall of 1997, after the legislation passed, about 20 properties were held off the tax sale list at the request of housing non-profit agencies.  The City can pull a property at any time, not just before the tax sale, for redevelopment purposes.  The Department of Planning & Development prepared the "Vacant Lot for a Dollar" program in partnership with DARE.  The PRA publically approved the process in the Spring of 1999, and the procedures are in place.  About 70 lots have been transferred so far. 

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Default Law (1997) - allows the Environmental Court to fine any offender who fails to appear in court.  The Department of Public Works (DPW) has also been given authority to settle cases out of court by holding nonjudicial hearings.

Current Status – these two changes seem to be working well.  Over the last 2 years, the percent of offenders who responded to their violations has increased from 10% to 40%.  Currently, there are about 50 cases at trial and 400 "no shows" that are pending.

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Super Lien Law (1997) - liens placed against those lots cleaned under the City's "Clean and Lien" program are now recorded in the highest priority.  This should increase the chance that the city will recover cleanup costs.  Under the “Clean and Lien” program, the DPW will clean up a dirty lot if its owner doesn’t respond to the notice of violation within 3 days.  After the cleanup, the City places a lien on the lot.  A lien is a sum of money that is owed on a property and must be paid back before the property can be sold.  The threat of a DPW cleanup and an expensive lien has encouraged many owners to maintain their property.  However, this program has suffered serious funding cutbacks and DPW can only clean a limited number of lots each year. 

Current Status – 125 lots have had liens recorded with 10 pending.  Funding for the program was cut in the 1999/2000 budget year.  Uunless funding is restored to the "Clean and Lien" program it will quickly become ineffective.  If DPW doesn't have enough money to clean dirty lots and put a lien on them when violators don't respond to their tickets, the environmental enforcement process will not work.

 

 

The purpose of the PRA is to turn blighted property into productive taxpaying land.  As a quasi-governmental agency, the PRA markets property through various programs.  In order to turn lots over to community residents and nonprofit organizations for an affordable price, in the 1980's, the PRA created the Special Vacant Lot for $1 Program (SVLP).  Originally, lots sold under the program could be sold only to nonprofits and abutting (next door) owner occupants for 25 cents/sq. ft.  On the recommendation of the Vacant Lots Task Force and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), the SVLP was turned into the $1/lot program.  Under the new program, lots can be sold for $1 to nonprofits and abutting owners (both owner occupants and absentee owners) and other neighborhood residents.  Started in the spring of 1999, the $1/lot program is still a new program, so it is difficult to determine how effective it has been.  Because the PRA's records are not computerized, they do not know how many lots are sold each year.  They estimate approximately 70 lots have been purchased through the program.  Many people still do not know about the $1/lot program and the PRA needs to secure additional funding to expand its advertising efforts.

 

  • If a lot is privately owned, then private citizens or the City can approach the owner and ask to purchase the lot.  In many cases, the lot is owned by a speculator who is holding onto the lot, waiting until a development prospect comes along. 

  • If the owner is unwilling to sell, all the City can do is enforce environmental ordinances to make sure the lot is properly maintained.  Under certain circumstances the City can use its power of eminent domain to take a property even if the owner refuses to sell.  But, this can only be done if the lot is needed for a specific project and the City pays the owner fair market value.

Lead Testing & Lot Cleanup

 

The City owns or controls between 400 and 600 lots.  Many of these lots were acquired because their previous owners owed large amounts of taxes or liens to the City. Once the City controls a lot it needs to clear its title, foreclose and then transfer it to the PRA to be turned over to a resident, nonprofit, or developer.  The process by which lots are transferred to the PRA needs to be streamlined.  The biggest problem is that there is no funding to foreclose lots.  The average cost for legal and advertising fees is $3,500 dollars.

 

 

Maintenance of private lots is the responsibility of their owners and environmental ordinances to this effect have long been in place.  The 1997 default law and the adoption of administrative adjudication (a nonjudicial hearing run by a DPW officer to settle the case out of court) have been working well.  Over the last 2 years, the percent of offenders who respond to their violations has increased from 10% to 40%.  But, because the "Clean and Lien" program has been cut, the City's ability to follow through, clean dirty lots and place liens on them has been limited.  In order to target owners, liens for lot cleanup are now being placed on the owner's primary residence.

There has been mixed review of the progress so far.  Some community agencies have expressed concern that the process is too lengthy.  However, the legal notification procedures take several weeks, and if a violation is not cooperative, it can take up to 3 months.  PEST handles between 6,000-10,000 cases per year with a staff of five.

 

  • In many cases, back taxes, liens and foreclosure costs are greater than the value of the lot.  If the city requires the purchaser to pay these costs it cannot find a buyer.

  • Right now a lot's back taxes and City liens can only be abated by City Council ordinance (a slow and uncertain process)  or if the PRA condemns a lot.  A faster, more efficient process needs to be developed.

  • The City has not developed a foreclosure policy for tax reverted properties or funding stream.

  • The City hasn't developed a clear policy to remove vulnerable lots from the tax sale and send them directly to the PRA.  Lots are referred to as vulnerable if they have a high chance of being purchased by a land speculator at the tax sale

 

 

Until lots are turned to productive use, they need to be maintained.  Because these lots are unused, weeds can grow unchecked and people tend to dump litter and other solid waste.  PRA-owned property used to be cleaned by private contractors 3 times per year.  After funding cutbacks, PRA lots are now cleaned only one time per year.  Following this initial cleanup, lots will not be cleaned again until the next year unless someone complains.  Because the City is not legally responsible for the condition of its approximately 200 tax reverted properties, they are not maintained on a regular basis and are instead cleaned under the DPW's scaled down "Clean and Lien" program.  Though cleaning efforts started off strong, they have slowed due to severe cuts in funding.  The City's failure to keep its lots clean is a serious problem that can only be remedied by restoring funding.

 

  • Thomas E. Deller, AICP – Deputy Director of Planning and Development (401) 351-4300

  • Bill Floriano - Providence Redevelopment Agency (401) 351-4300 x511

  • Kristi Rea - Urban Environmental Initiative, EPA -- New England, (617) 918-1595

Reports & Documents

  • The Providence Vacant Land Task Force A Report to the Mayor (February 1997)

  • Mayor's Vacant Land Task Force A summary of City of Providence Reforms In Environmental Enforcement

  •       Providence Redevelopment Agency $1/lot program descriptions