ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) - Vacant homes are scattered across the city of Albuquerque. Many of them have become a magnet for crime that neighbors say is spilling onto their streets, creating a danger to nearby kids and families.
KRQE News 13 found out just how many vacant homes the city keeps track of and what's being done about them.
"They need to go!"
Hundreds of vacant homes are scattered across the city, boarded up and left abandoned.
Residents say they're worried about an area near Copper and Charleston in northeast Albuquerque, where La Mesa Elementary School is surrounded by vacant properties.
"I don't understand it, and especially right here," said a woman who lives near a problem property on Charleston. The woman, along with other neighbors who spoke with KRQE News 13, did not wish to be identified but feel strongly about the problem, saying, "They need to go!"
Neighbors note that city workers are there regularly and have even boarded up the apartments at 336 Charleston, right across the street from the elementary school. "They're drilling and pretty soon, even that same night, they will open it up," the woman said, referring to the homeless. She adds that properties like these are magnets for crime.
Days after the city boarded up the building, KRQE News 13 spotted open doors and people inside, then an argument spilled into the street. "That's normal behavior, and that happens all night," the woman explained.
"They're called trap houses. You know they buy, sell, use drugs in these abandoned buildings," the neighbor said, but that's not all.
There's a mess that follows. Trash, liquor bottles, bodily fluids, and needles litter the street.
What's more concerning isn't just the illegal activity and hazardous waste, but just feet away, kids play in the playground and go to school at La Mesa Elementary.
The problem property on Charleston is currently listed as substandard with the city, citing "life safety issues."
"The property is so badly maintained to the extent that it endangers life, limb, health, property, safety, or welfare of the public or any occupants," the order states.
Complaints about the property into 311 reference "heavy foot traffic, drug dealing and prostitution" and it's not just the building across the street from La Mesa that people worry about.
KRQE News 13 drove around the school and spotted one home after another boarded up, riddled with graffiti and "unsafe to occupy" signs.
This problem isn't unique to one neighborhood either.
Records obtained by KRQE News 13 reveal that in 2016 alone more than 1,300 vacant homes were added to the city of Albuquerque's Vacant Building Registry, and we have mapped that data to show just how widespread the problem has become.
This year so far, nearly 500 vacant homes are listed on the registry, and that doesn't include vacant homes that exist within the city not on the city's list.
"We estimate that there's probably about 3,000 -- that would be a conservative estimate," said Brennon Williams, Deputy Director for the City's Planning Department. Williams says that estimate is based on what field workers observe throughout the city.
Registering a vacant home with the city is required by the housing code.
The City of Albuquerque has maintained a Vacant Building Registry for residential properties since 2013.
Electronic records for the Vacant Building Registry have only been kept since 2015, so the city couldn't tell KRQE News 13 which homes in Albuquerque have been vacant the longest.
To be in compliance with city code, property owners of vacant homes must keep the homes secure, clear of weeds and debris. However, lots of these homes are foreclosures, owned by banks often based out of state. This can create a communication breakdown if there's a problem with the property.
"Many times it's difficult to get the complaint to the right person with the bank or lending institution that takes care of those things," Williams explained. "I mean if we're dealing with an individual, we know who to send the letter to."
Why Register a Vacant Home?
Keeping a registry of vacant homes in Albuquerque helps the city track those homes, which may or may not be up to code or might pose a safety hazard to the general public.
According to the housing code, property owners must "disclose all measures to be taken to ensure that the vacant building will be kept weather tight and secure from trespassers, safe for entry by police officers and firefighters in times of emergency, and, together with its premises, free from nuisance and in good order."
The application fee to place a home on the Vacant Building Registry is $200 and homeowners are required to register a vacant property with the city each year.
The city relies on the eyes of the public to help notify the city via 311 when a home is vacant or not up to code. If a vacant home is not listed on the city's registry, the property owner will receive a notice of violation.
Upon notice, property owners have two weeks to come into compliance. If they don't, the city may file a criminal complaint in metro court.
An Expensive Fix
According to the City of Albuquerque Planning Department, property owners who fail to maintain a vacant home and fail to bring a property into compliance could face fines up to $500 per day, jail time, or other measures a judge may impose.
If owners don't address a violation, in most cases, the city will -- whether it's cutting weeds, boarding up doors and windows, or contracting cleanup of hazardous waste.
Since taxpayers foot the bill for that work, the city will then place a lien on the property for the cost of boarding up a home or cleaning up a property. For example, if a home needs to be torn down, that price tag presents another problem.
"Usually it's about $25,000 to start, I mean that's the low end," said Williams, and the demolition costs can easily triple if a home has asbestos.
Last year the city budgeted just over $300,000 for board-up costs and demolitions.
"We overspent that," said Williams. "We spent about $400,000 simply because the need was there to do that."
Limited funding and resources mean demolitions for problem properties are few and far between.
Williams' department was scheduled to receive an additional $200,000 for fiscal year 2018, but it didn't work out. "Unfortunately the budget changed as it passed through the council process and so that money is not there."
The Board Up Budget for Planning's Code Enforcement Division for fiscal year 2018 is $316,067. Demolition costs would come out of that same budget. "We have to very carefully determine when we're going to spend funds to demolish a building," Williams explained.
On average, code enforcement sees about 10-12 residential demolitions a year. Six to eight of those are paid for by the city, resulting in a lien being placed on the property; other demolitions are funded by the property owners who do not wish to have a lien placed on their property.
Worst of the Worst
If you see a home boarded up, it doesn't necessarily mean it's "condemned" or even on its way to getting torn down. "We have to kind of juggle and figure out which one is the worst of the worst," Williams explained.
It's part of the reason places that seem forgotten sit empty for so long.
"Of course, we're knocking down somebody's home so we want to make sure that we dot our 'i's and cross our 't's, and everybody that deserves notice has received notice on that particular piece of property," said Williams.
Properties that take higher priority for possible condemnation include those that are constantly needing to be boarded up, if there's a criminal presence, a constant drain on city resources, or a fire causing structural damage.
Meanwhile, neighbors near La Mesa Elementary are waiting for what's next.
"I choose to stay in my house and stay out of it," a neighbor said.
While the vacant building on Charleston has caught fire and city crews keep responding to calls there, it's not targeted for demolition yet.
The woman who lives next door said she worries for her own safety and the safety of her neighbors.
Some neighbors want to see it torn down now, knowing that won't fix everyone's problem -- especially those without a place to call home.
"We want to live in a better community, in a better neighborhood, and we don't want to have to see this," the woman said. "But still that doesn't mean we kick them to the curb you know?" She added, referring to the homeless who sleep in the abandoned building. "You can't make somebody do something they don't want to do."
The City of Albuquerque is currently considering the following houses for demolition (view on map):
- 242 Espanola St NE
- 128 Wisconsin St. NE
- 132 Wisconsin St. NE
- 146 Wisconsin St. NE
- 8411 Central Ave. NE
- 5609 Central Ave. NW
- 1308 8th St SW
- 311 Atlantic Ave. SW
- 6401 Kiowa Ave. NE
- 2225 1st St NW
- 1105 Stutz Dr. NE
- 11705 Holiday Ave. NE
- 11424 Love Ave. NE
- 615 Arno St. NE
- 1418 William St. SE
- 919 Alvarado Dr. SE
- 923 Alvarado Dr. SE
- 3018 3rd St NW
- 557 Dolores Dr. NW
- 5235 Gold Rush Dr. NW
According to the City of Albuquerque's Planning Department spokesperson Melissa Perez, the list above is subject to change depending on other properties that may worsen or new properties that may suffer fire damage or other life-safety issues throughout the coming year.
In addition, the city may not be able to seek condemnation on all of those properties this coming fiscal year, as it will depend on demolition costs.
When KRQE News 13 asked Williams if the city has enough resources to manage all of these vacant properties, Williams responded, "We do the best with what we have."
City Council Response
On Monday, Albuquerque City Councilor Diane Gibson introduced a resolution to create a seven member task force to try and address the vacant home problem.
"Other than zoning enforcement which is weeds and litter and that type of thing, we don't have a lot of influence," Gibson told KRQE News 13.
The task force would consist of city staff from code enforcement, family and community services department, city legal department, city council services and the mayor's office, along with two community members with special knowledge or interest in issues associated with vacant or abandoned properties.
"Hopefully they'll be able to come back with some recommendations," Gibson said.
Earlier this year, city council enacted an ordinance to address dilapidated commercial buildings and properties in Albuquerque.
The pilot project is aimed to help remediate dilapidated commercial properties within city council districts 6 and 9.
Currently, the city does not keep a list of vacant commercial properties in the same way it does residential properties. However, code enforcement can post a commercial building as substandard if necessary.