The number of privately owned vacant properties in Wilmington has dropped 22 percent since the city started a vacant property registration program nearly three years ago.
Jeff Starkey, the city’s commissioner of licenses and inspections, said: “The whole purpose of the program is to get the properties reoccupied. Left vacant, they are a blight in the community and become havens for negative activities. In addition, these properties don’t contribute anything to the city’s efforts to revitalize communities.”
Starkey said that the program, which applies to all vacant structures, was a major reason for the reduction of privately held vacant properties. Other factors involved in the reduction include the fact that the city was just beginning to develop a database to track the properties when the program was launched, and some city programs that targeted several neighborhoods resulted in a number of rehabilitated properties, he said.
The number of privately owned vacant properties has been reduced from 1,455 in November 2003 to 1,128 at the end of September 2006, according to Starkey. The 1,128 properties, which include 55 Wilmington Housing Authority houses and three HUD-owned houses, represent 4 percent of roughly 28,000 residential and commercial properties in Wilmington.
An owner of a building that has been vacant for more than 45 days must file a notarized registration statement with contact information. The city assesses an annual registration fee to each vacant property that has been vacant for at least one year. The fee is based on the number of years the property has been vacant regardless of varying ownership and ranges from $500 to over $5,000.
The fee is billed each year in November and owners have until November 30 to provide proof that their property is being rehabilitated, demolished, sold or leased, or request an appeal or waiver. The fee must be paid in full by January 1.
The city can issue a summons for noncompliance and can recommend properties for sheriff’s sale, a process that typically takes three to six months, Starkey said.
In 2003–04, the first year of the increased fee schedule, 950 registration fee notices were mailed to vacant property owners; owners later obtained rehabilitation or construction permits totaling $9.2 million, according to city records. Also, 36 property owners paid fees totaling $55,000, and the city issued more than 172 summonses to owners who were noncompliant with program requirements.
In 2004–05, 677 fee statements were mailed to vacant property owners; owners later obtained rehabilitation or construction permits totaling $6.8 million. In addition, 129 vacant property owners paid fees totaling $217,000, and the city issued more than 400 summonses to noncompliant owners.
In 2005–06, 650 registration fee notices were mailed to vacant property owners; owners later obtained rehabilitation or construction permits totaling $15.2 million. Also, 275 vacant property owners paid fees totaling $535,500, and the city issued more than 220 summonses to noncompliant owners.
The program has withstood a legal challenge in Delaware Supreme Court.
In June, the city of Wilmington received a City Livability Award for outstanding achievement in the vacant property program. The award is jointly sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Waste Management Inc.
Meanwhile, the city has reduced its own stock of vacant properties. As of the end of July 2006, the city owned 49 vacant properties, down from 68 in 2003. These numbers include city properties being redeveloped as green space or low-cost housing.
In the past five years, the city has granted or sold 218 properties to private and nonprofit developers to establish new rental and ownership housing or neighborhood parks and gardens. During that time, the city acquired 74 additional vacant properties because owners failed to pay taxes or neglected or abandoned properties.
For information, contact Jeff Starkey at (302) 576-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Cynthia Ferguson, vacant property administrator, at (302) 576-3096 or email@example.com; www.ci.wilmington.de.us.