Special report: City of St. Pete plans major improvement in codes enforcement

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Editor’s note: The following is from SaintPetersBlog correspondent Daphne Street.  She can be reached at dts.streetmedia@gmail.com.

One of the goals of the St. Petersburg City Council set at the beginning of the year is improved code enforcement. In particular, the city intends to work closely with neighborhood associations to serve as an active tool in hearing concerns and empowering communities through improved codes enforcement.

This has become an increasing concern in the midst of this recession as many property owners are dealing with financial hardships, resulting in neglected properties. There is a marked increase in properties that have substantial code violation issues, and increased foreclosures have further exacerbated an already troublesome problem.

In the wake of all this, several neighborhood associations have thrown up their hands in trying to address code enforcement issues, explaining to the city that the problems have become too great and the solutions too scarce resulting in little more than efforts in futility.

As a result, the City Council has heard these concerns and wants very much to address them and support these neighborhood associations. For this new city goal to be realized, it is important to note what has happened with code enforcement issues in the recent past.

St. Petersburg Councilmember Karl Nurse reports, “The City is making progress in identifying the roadblocks to neighborhood renewal.  The changes to the code enforcement lien releases that City Council passed last week will allow people to renovate problem properties with a clear path past these liens. The ‘special assessment liens’ will be revised to follow a similar path.

Nurse continues explaining the role of the newly formed Codes Focus Group, which Nurse helped organize as, “[Providing] a roadmap to help our community to get past the damage caused by the great recession and the foreclosure crisis.  It will take several months to work through the various changes to polices and/or ordinances to accomplish these goals.”

In the fall of 2011, the city formed The Codes Focus Group, which met three times in 2011. This group drafted a series of recommendations intending to address the challenges to codes and neighborhoods. The codes department provided comments to the focus group in three specific areas: 1) foreclosure registries; 2) dealing with long-term abandoned properties and 3) repeat code violators.

Foreclosure Registry

One activity that the city has begun the process of building is a mandated foreclosure registry. This registry will require the foreclosing institutions to register with the municipality within a short period of time after filing for foreclosure.

Both Tampa and Hillsborough County have such a registry in place today, and Tampa alone has a $125.00 filing fee with approximately 3,000 houses registered for 2011, generating more than $375,000 annually. Miami also has a similar registry and also charges a $500 penalty for not registering a property.

All funds raised through this registry allow the communities to fund codes enforcement. Rightfully so as many codes violations have been brought on by the foreclosures.

City of St. Petersburg staff have visited with those at the City of Tampa to learn about the foreclosure registry and its process. What is most important about the registration process is that the bank is required to identify a “responsible party”—a name of a person that the city may contact to resolve property maintenance and upkeep issues during the lengthy foreclosure process.

Tampa reports considerable success in getting the foreclosing institutions to correct code violations, do yard maintenance and board properties. St. Petersburg Codes Compliance Staff intends to meet with the legal department and begin drafting a St. Petersburg ordinance.

Dealing with long-time abandoned properties

First, a quick definition: abandoned properties are those that have remained vacant for a period longer than twelve months with no upkeep or oversight by an owner or mortgage holder and on which tax certificates are being issued.  Frozen properties are identical to abandoned properties in every respect except that their property taxes are being paid before tax certificates are issued.

The codes group has determined that it favors a pro-active program to foreclose on abandoned and frozen properties.

Priorities have been established to focus on lots with surviving structures first, then to address vacant lots. Tax deed sales also are being planned as an inexpensive way to acquire properties that are eligible for such sales and can shorten the cycle time to reactivate the properties. As a testament to the potential success of this plan, several private companies are purchasing up to 100 properties a month in this manner.

Plans also are being made to recycle the properties once acquired. Some may be donated to non-profits while other may be sold in clusters to the private sector, each with restrictions.

The city will generate revenue in this manner, recouping its costs through the sale of the properties, by the reduced code enforcement being needed, by lessening the police work required, and by restoring the house to the tax rolls when it is rehabilitated.

City liens will have to be cleaned up for most of these properties so they can be financed.  Efforts to develop clusters of properties which can be bundled through a request for proposal process will greatly increase the odds of successful renewal.  It is also possible to seek personal judgments in conjunction with the foreclosures.

An added bonus to the community is that these processes will help to support and encourage additional affordable housing opportunities throughout the city.

Repeat code violators 

In regard to repeat violators—there are two categories: 1) the repeat violator of a single property; and 2) the repeat violator who owns numerous properties with violations. The first violator shall be subject to the code as currently written whereas the latter will have a separate set of rules written within the city’s codes enforcement process to better address the complex issues of these properties.

Community Education

While these processes are progressing, the city understands its responsibility to educate the public on these changes and to further express the importance of codes enforcement.

It is critical for codes enforcement to be successful that property owners clearly understand their responsibilities and consequences of non-compliance. Plans to help increase community education include an updated code enforcement show on the city channel along with downloadable materials that can be put into neighborhood newsletters and blast emails.

Dog Breeding and Aggressive Dogs

As a side note, but of major concern in some communities are illegal dog breeding and aggressive dogs. The city has determined that this issue, while very important, touches on code violations, but it has been referred to the policy level.

In short, the county has cut staff in their animal services department to such a degree that the Saint Petersburg Police Department is now routinely called to deal with aggressive dogs.  Police personnel are not experts at this, the city is being sued in some cases, and the police are refusing to respond to these calls. The city understands that the neighborhoods are the losers as a result. Therefore, the issue has been moved to a committee that can better address the issue.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.