Empty buildings in small towns

Messenger News Fort Dodge photo by Bruce Coleman
Messenger News Fort Dodge photo by Bruce Coleman

Why are these buildings empty and not fixed? 

People say “Downtown is dead. Why aren’t there more stores?” Take a good look at the empty buildings. If they were maintained and available to use your town would have a better downtown with a place for more businesses.

There are many reasons like expensive code-compliance issues or huge remodeling needs why these buildings are empty. Sometimes the owner uses an empty building as a tax write-off or uses the building for storage. Perhaps the owner doesn’t care, or he’s waiting for the rental market to improve. Maybe they can’t afford to do anything with it.

Absentee owners often just don’t care. They don’t live in town and don’t have to look at it.

Why don’t we have an empty buildings code? 

Are you sure your city doesn’t have one?  About ten years ago there was a vacant building ordinance included in the Webster City, Iowa code. It’s still there today. And it has not been used, many people thought there wasn’t one.

It says in the code:

The enforcement officer examines the unsafe building and gives notice to the owner. The owner or person in charge of the building or premises has 48 hours to begin repairs, or demolish and remove the damaged portions. They have 90 days from the date of the notice to complete the work. 

The better question is why isn’t it being enforced? 

Currently, there’s a job opening for an enforcement officer. However, many of those empty buildings were that way when there was an enforcement officer. Centerville, SD hired someone to do code enforcement from the nearest big city. It was a savings to them – it was a contracted position and didn’t require any benefits. The code officer was NOT known locally and the risk of giving people extra chances was not happening.

What does one empty building cost? 

Donovan Rykpma of Place Economics in Washington DC  calculated the cost of one empty building. One building sitting empty for one year in a small-town commercial district will have the following impact on the community:

Source of Loss Amount Lost
Advertising revenues to local media $3,500
Business profits and owner compensation $24,750
Employee payroll $16,250
Fees to local attorneys and other professionals $1,250
Household income generated elsewhere in the community $18,900
Loan demand to local banks for the building $51,000
Loan demand to local banks for the business $15,000
Local deposits in local banks $5,100
Payments to local utility companies $5,550
Property management fees $750
Property tax revenue to the local government $1,500
Rents to the property owner $15,000
Sales $250,000
Sales tax revenue to state and local government $12,500

There have been several buildings in most downtowns that qualify as an empty building. Some are damaged and need major work done. There’s more, and the first step would be:

create a list of empty buildings.

Who owns it, a bit of history, location, value, and possible incentives. Make this list public, and shareable.

What else can you do about it? 

Steal ideas from places like Waynoka, OK – where a group of citizens got together and bought an empty building. They worked together to fix it, sell it, and buy another one.

Keep existing buildings up to code. Pennsylvania has a toolkit for preventing blight, keeping properties up to code, and fighting long-term blight.

Try targeted incentives for improvements and code compliance 

Encourage your city officials and economic development people to create some targeted incentives to help meet part of those costs of repair. Instead of only having incentives for recruiting businesses, consider incentives to address the specific costs of compliance. Reach out to your city council members and elected officials. Your vote (or lack of) helped elect them and they have a responsibility to their constituents. Hold them to it. Attend the city council meetings, and speak during the open public portion. You can also watch these meetings online.

What are some incentives that address the cost of code compliance?

  • Offer tax credits or exemptions for businesses or individuals who invest in code compliance measures.
  • Provide grants or low-interest loans to help cover the costs of implementing necessary code updates.
  • Streamline the permit application process to make it less burdensome for property owners and businesses.
  • Offer recognition or awards to businesses and property owners who have gone above and beyond in meeting code compliance standards, to incentivize others to follow suit.
  • Partner with professional associations and advocacy groups to promote code compliance and to offer resources and support to property owners and businesses.
  • Rebates: Rebates are typically offered as a percentage of the cost of the energy-efficiency upgrades. For example, a city might offer a 20% rebate for the purchase and installation of energy-efficient windows.
  • Waivers of fees: Cities can waive fees for permits and inspections for property owners who make energy-efficiency upgrades to their buildings. This can save property owners money and make the upgrades more affordable.

Why does it matter? 

Here’s what’s possible when you’re downtown is in good shape.

  • There’s room for more new small businesses.
  • Independent businesses support local families, and community projects, keep profits in town, and reduce sprawl.
  • More jobs become available.
  • Second-story housing gives people a choice in living arrangements.
  • Healthy businesses in buildings assessed at full value generate taxes that give taxpayers a return on the public investment.
  • Revitalization protects property values in surrounding residential neighborhoods.
  • It stimulates the local economy.

And it’s your home.

Update: Chelsea Watts, one of the owners, shared about the image above. “It was not empty, it was our building, office space for our electrical company. Main floor remodeled with 7 offices, break area and new bathroom and had plans to remodel apartments in the future.” They are waiting on the insurance company and the city to determine what next steps will be. She will stay in touch and let us know what’s going on. When we can have conversations, we are better able to assist. Transparency is a great thing!