Fairbanks’ problem with nuisance properties exemplifies complexities of governance
Good governance effectively walks the line between individual freedom and public safety. The problem is that on a given issue, these ideas are often mutually exclusive from one another, mirroring two water pitchers where one can only be filled by emptying the other.
This balancing act is not unfamiliar to City of Fairbanks Chief of Staff Mike Meeks, who currently sits on a committee aimed at finding a solution to nuisance properties in the city.
“We’re looking at what we can do…to address the abandoned buildings,” Meeks says. “At the same time, we’re very conscientious about ensuring that individual property rights are not trampled on.”
Nuisance properties can be defined by the threats they pose to their surrounding community. Abandoned buildings are only one example.
Properties whose structure is determined to be so compromised that it is unsafe for entry, and properties which pose a sanitary hazard are categories of nuisance properties currently plaguing the city.
What is causing the City the most problems, according to Meeks, are nuisance properties related to human activity.
Meeks alludes to the fire which engulfed the College Inn in September of last year as an example of this. “It was a vacant building. So how does a vacant building that has utilities turned off catch fire?” Meeks asks. The building was a known location for transient activity.
The “why” of the matter has many layers. Why is the city responsible for expending resources to buildings which by definition are unused? Why does transient activity lead to these kinds of problems?
And then there is the matter of why these locations experience transient activity in the first place.
City Housing and Homeless Coordinator Mike Sanders, talked about why Fairbanks’ homeless population might frequent abandoned locations. “A lot of the folks that are in [homeless] encampments, they’ve been living that way for years,” Sanders says, explaining that the Fairbanks Rescue Mission does have the resources to take in the entirety of Fairbanks’ homeless population.
However, this is simply a way of life for some. For others, illicit drug use or unchecked mental illnesses contribute to their behavior. These portions of Fairbanks’ homeless population who reject assistance are the same ones frequenting derelict buildings and building encampments there.
According to Sanders, the best way to reach out to this population is by building a rapport with them. In that spirit, the City has been working with the Fairbanks Reentry Coalition. They have just received a grant for an outreach program which will make contact with Fairbanks’ homeless population twice a week and establish their trust. The aim is for them to eventually accept offers of aid.
In any instance, nuisance properties pose a liability to the city. “Last summer…we spent quite a bit of resources cleaning up an abandoned building,” Meeks recalls, refusing to name the building. He does, however, share details illuminating the complications associated with the effort. “This building... it's easy to tell it’s abandoned: it has no roof on it, and no windows. All around [it] were junk cars and trash.”
Although the cost of the cleanup was billed to the owner, it is not a guarantee that the owner will pay. The consequences of lack of payment include taking the owner to court, or putting a lien on the property. Both of these scenarios cost the city money.
The ad hoc committee looking at nuisance properties is composed of Meeks, Chief of Police Nancy Reeder, as well as representatives from the City Building Department, the City Public Works Department, and a Fairbanks citizen who has issued grievances related to nuisance properties.
They are currently drafting an ordinance which hopes to pose a solution for these properties. Looking at Anchorage Ordinance No. 2016-81(S) regarding vacant buildings and abandoned real property for guidance, Meeks is looking to “add teeth” to the City’s ability to address nuisance properties.
Currently the City does not have the power to impose consequences on nuisance property owners. One of the solutions Meeks is exploring based on the Anchorage ordinance includes a registration fee for abandoned buildings. Over time, these fees become significant and difficult for a property owner to ignore.
Meeks stresses that nothing has gone before the City Council yet. He expects to have an ordinance to bring to the Mayor and the City Attorney within the coming months before it is sponsored and voted on by the Council.