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Clearwater has a plan to knock down unsafe, vacant houses

CLEARWATER — Jim Stanley drives his city truck behind a rotting, abandoned two-story house just north of downtown.

"The roof is collapsing. The fire escape is falling off the side. There's termite damage throughout the place," he says.

He drives a block up N Garden Avenue and stops at another house. "This one has vagrants. The foundation is caving in."

And another house: "The owner died three years ago. Then it caught on fire."

Under pressure from neighborhoods, Clearwater is taking steps to demolish more of these boarded-up houses. At its most recent meeting, the City Council voted to pull $100,000 out of reserves to knock down the worst 20 buildings in town.

The city has a list of 96 unsafe houses. Some have been damaged by fire or by having vehicles run into them, Others are just neglected. Many are in foreclosure.

At least 20 have reached the point where they should definitely be demolished, officials say. They're a public safety hazard and a blight on their neighborhood.

"We've been unsuccessful trying to get the owners to repair them," said Stanley, the city's unsafe buildings official. "You've got broken windows, uncovered pools, vagrants stripping homes, kids in there having parties. It's dangerous."

Some of these places have stood vacant for years. Neighborhood groups like the North Greenwood Association ask why it takes so long for the city to deal with them.

But private property rights are strong in Florida. The city has to follow state mandates and jump through all kinds of hoops.

It's Stanley's job to get these houses' owners to either fix them or raze them. This involves tracking people down; dealing with banks, trusts, lawyers and insurance companies; mailing out certified letters; and documenting the unsafe conditions with photos. Often it's not cost-effective to repair the houses.

"It's a time-consuming process. There's a lot of legal paperwork involved," Stanley said. "If we've got an owner who's working with us, we're going to work with them. The whole idea is to bring it back up to code, but some people just can't do it."

Demolishing a house costs anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000, depending on its size and whether it's made of wood or concrete block.

The city tries to get owners to do it. Failing that, the city will hire a contractor to take the building down. Then officials will put a lien on the property in hopes of being repaid whenever it gets sold. Sometimes the city gets its money back and sometimes it doesn't.

"We'll do everything we can to find a responsible party to take these buildings down themselves," planning director Michael Delk told the City Council.

The 20 houses that are being targeted are clustered in a few neighborhoods north, east and south of downtown.

"These are cancers that are metastasizing throughout the neighborhoods," said Council member Bill Jonson. "It's something that citizens I talk to want the city to be able to handle."

Some of the $100,000 that the council recently freed up also will pay to mow dozens of vacant and neglected lots during the rainy season, when they become especially overgrown. But most of it will pay for demolitions. Officials hope to knock down the city's 20 most hazardous buildings in the next year or so, if possible.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater has a plan to knock down unsafe, vacant houses 05/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 3:05pm]
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