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Population decline and an over abundance of housing has left the Mountain State littered with abandoned homes, and communities are looking to solve the issue through landbank programs.
According to Huntington’s Fire Marshall, Mathew Winters, people who have moved away often inherit property from their parents. When the home becomes a financial burden the new owners are often unable to care for the home and they leave it to sit and rot.
Water damage is the biggest enemy of a home, and Winters noted that once the roof leaks, the water makes its way to the foundation. The added water damage changes how the building burns if it catches fire. He said abandoned properties are hazards where fires can spread to neighboring properties.
“Several years ago we had a fire in a vacant house that had only been vacant about six months,” Winters said. “The exposures on both sides caught fire. One of those exposures was a total loss and a very sweet lady lived there. She lived there 54 years and she lost everything because of that vacant property.”
Chrystal Perry is a demolition specialist for Huntington and a founding member of the West Virginia Abandoned Properties Coalition. She said abandoned properties are also a hazard to the first responders.
“If a property catches on fire, our first responders are going to go into that not knowing what a hazard lurks behind that door,” she said. “Do those first responders know that on that second floor there’s a gaping hole that they can fall in?”
Abandoned properties are also a danger to the people desperate enough to use them as a temporary shelter. Often, homeless people start fires in the building for warmth and in order to cook food.
“I got called to a fire. We were trying to figure out how in the world the fire started with no utilities,” Winters said. “Come to find out, they’d actually broken in through the crawlspace under the house, and cut a hole in the floor. Had they been in there when that fire started, their exit path was blocked.”
These hazards extend to West Virginia’s rural communities, where the majority of firefighters are volunteers.
Perry identified tax delinquency as a major contributor to Cabell County’s abandoned properties. Out-of-state investors often buy property through the county tax sale, and then neglect the property. These properties enter what Perry calls a “tax sale purgatory.”
“They would do a minimal amount of work, put a renter in it, and then when our code enforcement building inspectors got into the property, they would just flip that. They end up at a state tax sale, and by the time they get there, nobody wants them,” Perry said. “Then all that’s left is for the city to come in and spend thousands of dollars to remediate that problem.”
Perry and the West Virginia Abandoned Properties Coalition are part of a state wide push to rethink how communities approach abandoned properties.
One approach is landbanks. Landbanks are tools for communities to acquire tax delinquent properties, demolish the property when needed, and find new owners for the acquired property. Landbank legislation exists on the local and state levels across the country, but laws vary between states and local governments.
There are city wide landbanks such as Charleston Land Reuse Agency, county level landbanks like the one in Logan County, and the West Virginia Land Stewardship Corporation which acts on the state level.
“Now with the landbank, we have that tool if we can find that owner to donate that property to the city’s landbank and suddenly we can cut the grass, take care of the property, but most importantly we can find a new owner for that property,” Perry said, noting that the Huntington Landbank helps the city more effectively manage abandoned property.