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Federal Way targets trashy properties | Vacant homes become dumping grounds

In response to an increase in foreclosures on local homes, Federal Way is set to amend its “unfit building” code to include unfit premises. The revision comes after citizens’ complaints that many properties, especially those going through foreclosure, have become impromptu junkyards.

“That’s something we’ve heard about recently,” said Patrick Doherty, the city’s director of community and economic development, during a report at the May 3 council meeting. “People are dumping junk or furniture or appliances or whatever in these vacant or abandoned homes.”

Doherty said another instance where this revision was needed came when an abandoned property became a magnet for trash and rodents. Students who waited at a bus stop near the property were being exposed to the rats that the garbage had attracted.

“It was really an unsavory situation and we had a difficult time contacting the owner,” Doherty said.

Doherty outlined what would fall under the “unfit premises” amendment:

• Accumulation of junk, garbage and trash

• Unsecured abandoned vehicles and trucks, and/or other equipment on the property deemed to be inoperable

• Sinkholes, exposed wires or trenches

• Dilapidated sheds, carports or fences

• Noxious weeds or plants, specifically blackberry bushes

Outside of the definitions for unfit premises, Doherty said the amendment would change the hearing process for the conditions outlined above. The city’s building official would be the first to hear cases regarding unfit buildings and premises, as opposed to the hearing examiner. If there is an appeal in a situation, then the hearing examiner would address it.

Doherty said this change was made to save time and money for the city. Bringing the hearing examiner into proceedings runs the city approximately $1,500 a hearing, he said. By having complaints go to the building official first, the city hopes to shorten the turnaround time on these proceedings.

Funding for the expanded sphere of enforcement the city will possess after the amendment is passed will come from an $85,000 abatement fund, Doherty said. Funding can also come from tax liens against property owners if needed, he said. If the tax lien is needed to recoup costs, Doherty said that it will take time for that money to come back to the city.

“That does take up to three years plus to recoup that,” he said.

Federal Way City Councilman Jack Dovey agreed that the revision was needed, but was unsure of the funding model proposed by Doherty at the May 3 meeting.

“I understand why we would want to do this,” Dovey said. “But, with the amount of foreclosed homes, this could be one of those things that starts to be a ticking time bomb.”

In a May 9 telephone interview, Dovey elaborated further on his concerns regarding the funding for enforcement of the proposed amendment.

“I believe that if it’s not done correctly, it could become a fund we aren’t prepared to pay for,” he said. “It could potentially become a really large unfunded mandate that we put on ourselves.”

Dovey said he hopes the city takes a look at practices in cities such as Seattle or in Oregon cities like Eugene and Portland. In each, there is a system of notices and fines that allow cities to recoup their costs when needed.

Local statistics

With the housing market continuing to face trouble, it doesn’t appear that Dovey’s concerns are unfounded. On Monday, Zillow.com released its first quarter report for 2011, in which it shared two record-setting numbers. The site reports 28.4 percent of all single family homes with mortgages nationwide were “underwater,” a term used by the housing industry to describe the condition of homeowners owing more on a home than it’s actually worth. The second record number released by Zillow.com was the number of homes that sold at a loss in a one-month period. For March 2011, 37.7 percent of all homes sold were sold at a loss.

In Federal Way, the numbers proved true. In an email from Tricia Ackerman of Prudential Northwest Realty, The Mirror learned that in the last 180 days, 288 homes were sold in the Federal Way area. Of those 288 homes sold, 124 were bank owned at the time of sale, making up 43 percent of the total sales. In addition, 32 of those homes (11 percent) were “short sales,” a term for a home that sells for less than it is worth.

With the housing forecast continuing to look grim, Federal Way planning director Isaac Conlen said city staff anticipates an increased workload from unfit buildings and premises.

“Based on economic factors and the continuation of the economic downturn, this type of work will be an increasing component of the department’s responsibility in the near future,” he said. Conlen did reiterate that the main intent of the code amendment was to create a more timely response for both the city and its residents when dealing with such issues.

“The changes were made to make the process more efficient,” he said.

The proposed amendment is set to be finalized at the May 17 city council meeting. The proposed changes to the code can be viewed at www.cityoffederalway.com.

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