WSAZ Investigates | Problem Properties

WSAZ Investigates | Problem Properties
Published: May. 10, 2022 at 6:30 PM EDT
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Vacant properties across the country bring a slew of additional problems.

The city of Huntington is not exempt from the issue or the dangers empty buildings bring.

For years, Kathy Roque said she watched trash pile up on the porch and the roof cave in at the vacant home next door. Roque worries it puts her family at risk.

“The roof is sinking in. Last year, they [city officials] came and clipped the electrical line to keep from having a house fire,” Roque said. “This is an eyesore. If we let out property look like this, we would get fined.”

Roque said she’s watched people go inside the building at all hours of the day and night. She says the vagrants next door even tagged her own home with spray paint.

Huntington city officials maintain two lists to tackle vacant properties.

In the 1990s, the Unsafe Buildings List was created.

The Unsafe Buildings List, or sometimes known as the demo list, deals with properties deemed a nuisance or dangerous by city officials.

If the city receives a complaint about a property, the owner is summoned to appear in front of the Unsafe Buildings Commission.

The commission decides if the property can be salvaged with renovations. Owners must complete the renovations within a specific timeline.

The property can be slated for demolition if the owners do not want to make renovations.

In February of 2022, the home next door to Roque’s sits on the Unsafe Building List.

In 2016, the city created the Vacant Property Registry.

Under the ordinance, owners of commercial structures must register their buildings if the buildings have been 100 percent vacant for 30 or more days. Those who fail to register will receive a notification from the city of Huntington’s Legal Department. If the owner still does not comply, the city will register the building and will levy a fine of at least $100.

For residential properties, registration shall be required whenever a building has remained vacant for 210 consecutive days.

Mayor Steve Williams said the registry is a preventive measure.

After a vacant building is placed on the registry, the city’s Inspection Division will inspect the property to ensure it is secure and safe from water damage. The Legal Department will notify the property owner of any maintenance issues, and citations will be issued if the property is not brought into compliance.

A residential or commercial building must be occupied for 11 consecutive months for it to be taken off the vacant buildings registry. The city will require the property owner to pay a fee if his or her building has been on the registry for one year and every additional year afterward.

“The whole idea is to create an incentive or a disincentive to those individuals putting their property into productive use,” Williams said.

The city says registration waivers may be granted if the owner provides satisfactory proof that the vacancy is temporary and may be due to illness of the owner, active military service, or some other reasonable explanation believed to be short-term in nature and documentable as necessary.

Property owners can register their vacant buildings by calling the Legal Department at 304-696-4480.

WSAZ started digging and found a couple of potential flaws in the system.

First, the Vacant Property Registry operates on the owner’s self-registering.

WSAZ drove through the streets of Huntington to see if property owners follow the honor system.

When we found a property that appeared to be sitting empty, we took down the address and then checked it against the Vacant Property registry and the Unsafe Buildings Lists we requested from the city.

In one afternoon, we found more than two dozen vacant apparently properties not on either list.

Williams encourages Huntington residents to report properties they believe are vacant.

“All somebody has to do is call my office and say this property has been vacant for a period of time,” Williams said. “If you see something, say something. Folks are seeing some properties that worry them sitting vacant. Call us and let us know.”

To report a problem, call the Mayor’s Office or download the 311 app.

An online portal of the app is available here.

WSAZ found another loophole. If a property is listed for sale, the owner isn’t required to register and pay up.

The former YWCA building, located along the 600 block of Fifth Avenue and adjacent to WSAZ, is owned by Francis McGuire.

McGuire says the property has been vacant and listed for sale since he bought it in 2009.

“My intent was to tear it down and build a new building for retail use. I bought it for development, but that didn’t pan out,” McGuire said.

However, the property was registered on the Vacant Property Registry in December 2021.

WSAZ dug through six years of 911 call logs since the Vacant Property Registry was created.

Police, fire, and EMS were called to the property four times more than any other property registered on the Vacant Property Registry. Amongst the 49 calls placed to 911, some include fire and overdose reports.

“I don’t question this at all. Homelessness has been a real issue for us,” McGuire said.

McGuire said he’s worked to board up the building after an instance when a person broke in.

“We’ve reboarded them. We nail them shut. They take the screws out and try to back them. We put a chain-link fence and they cut holes in it. We’ve done everything we can think of,” McGuire said.

McGuire plans to demolish the property later this year.

“They’ve destroyed it beyond the use of rehabilitation for the most part. We’re considering now just tearing it down because it could probably be upon the point of repair or economically feasible,” McGuire said.

While his building may come down, neighbors like Kathy Roque want a solution for properties near their homes.

“It takes time to get things done, but I wish they would do something with this house here because it’s eventually going to fall,” Roque said.

City officials say the property near Roque’s home is on the priority list for demolition as it sits on the Unsafe Buildings List. Christal Perry, a Huntington’s Demolition Specialist, explained asbestos testing must be completed prior to the scheduling of demolition.

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