ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Between Albuquerque’s sluggish local economy, online shopping or the popularity of big box stores, the city has more than its fair share of vacant stores, restaurants, and office buildings. A lot of them are eyesores and magnets for crime. It’s a nuisance the community took note of long before the pandemic’s impact on the economy. Now, it’s noticeably becoming worse. 

KRQE Investigates

People who live in southeast Albuquerque’s Elder Homestead Neighborhood reached out to KRQE News 13 about a building they say has caused them problems for years. Ryan Kious said what was once a popular restaurant just four houses down from his, became vacant about five years ago. It sits at the corner of the neighborhood on Gibson Boulevard. 

“We’ve had homeless encampments, we’ve had trash pickups, we’ve had open-air dumps,” Kious explained. Now, the vacant building is boarded up, fenced in and growing all types of weeds through cracks in the pavement and sidewalk. He’s fed up with the eyesore.  

“I mean, at some point, a nuisance becomes a danger,” Kious said. “And this happens within any abandoned property.” The problem with his nuisance neighbor is one the city runs into all too often. 

“We want economic justice, we want jobs. We want a vibrant southeast Albuquerque.”

Ryan Kious, lives in Albuquerque

“We’re going to begin holding property owners accountable for not keeping up their building and keeping it up to code throughout our city,” Mayor Tim Keller said in a June 2018 press conference. A promise proclaiming he’d start tackling the long list of rundown, dangerous properties in Albuquerque. What started as red-tagging buildings became ADAPT about a year later. A program that would go after the worst of the worst. 

“ADAPT is serious,” the Mayor said in a new interview with KRQE News 13. “Like, we’re putting liens on your property and we’re on the path to bulldozing it; but, we’re also telling you what to do to prevent that and to make it safer.” Run by the fire marshal, the Abandoned and Dilapidated Abatement Property Team works to compel owners to fix up their buildings or tear them down. The task force consists of lawyers, inspectors and police. 

The city uses a scoring system to determine if a property should be targeted. Inspections, 311 complaints, 911 calls and police reports influence the total. Since ADAPT started in 2019, the city said it’s reviewed 194 commercial properties. It’s not clear how many of those qualified for the program. 

“You have to document the actual related crime issues and then you have to get a court to agree with you,” the Mayor explained. The ultimate goal, he added, is not always to demolish a property. That can be expensive. 

“Why don’t you fix the lighting? Why don’t you fix the electricity and the fire issues?” Mayor Keller shared. “And if they do that, you know, they sort of graduate out of — or graduate into compliance — and then out of the ADAPT program.” But, the timeline of getting to that ADAPT graduation can last up to five years. That’s why the city said it hasn’t gotten to the point of tearing down a single building under the program.

“The way the law works, if that owner starts making good changes, the process is paused,” Mayor Keller explained. “And so a lot of owners do game it a little bit. They’ll put up a fence, they’ll clean up the property or they’ll make one change, and then they’ll wait.” Because to be compliant and left alone, the property needs to be tidy and crime-free. The standards for being a ‘good neighbor’ are laid out in an ordinance Pat Davis got his fellow city councilors to pass about six years ago. 

Removing weeds, boarding up windows and putting a fence around the perimeter are some of the improvements that can get the city to back off. “But, we’ll be there,” Mayor Keller added. “And so after six months, we’ll come right back at ’em again.”

Pandemic’s impact on progress

“They’ve been successful but … we can do two or three of those a month,” Davis commented. “We need to do many, many more if we’re going to catch up to the backlog.” He explained that the backlog existed prior to the pandemic but believes the problem is now exaggerated because of it. 

“Older families that built those buildings and small businesses had leased them out over time to the next generation of business owners, and those folks weren’t able to operate during COVID and a lot of them just walked away from their leases,” Davis explained. 

On top of that, the Mayor said the people running ADAPT were prioritizing enforcement of the COVID-19 public health order until about six months ago. Davis said that led to less attention on the growing problem. Now working to catch up, the city said tracking down property owners can be a challenge. 

“If the owners walked away or if they passed away and the bank owns their property, those national banks usually don’t even know they own that property in Albuquerque, much less know how to take care of it,” Davis explained. 

Or, the property owner doesn’t live in New Mexico. That’s what the Mayor said delayed any movement with the strip mall at Juan Tabo and Central, where he hammered home his promise in 2018. The vacant businesses continue to be a source of problems for the city. Crews responded to a fire there Nov 11.

“I mean, we want to have somebody use it, that’s what you really want. But unless they actually voluntarily sell it to us or to someone else, we can’t force them to do it,” Mayor Keller said of the strip mall. 

“They can keep paying the bank, even if no one’s paying them, but it does have to meet those standards,” Councilor Davis added. “You have to be a good neighbor, you have to be ready to lease it or ready to sell it at any moment and that’s what our rule says.” The city can only continue using the ordinance requiring owners to keep up their property. 

“If landlords aren’t going to do it, we can step in and do it but we need lots of money to do it. And that might mean less money for other cool ideas, but it might be a more urgent one right now,” Davis explained. He’s already asked the Mayor to set aside $400,000 in the next budget. 

The city’s looking to use those dollars for everything from hiring more lawyers to buying more boards and fencing to secure abandoned buildings. They could also use a portion of the money to better track the scope of the problem. Because, right now, no list exists of all vacant commercial properties across Albuquerque. “We don’t know how many there are until people start calling us,” Davis said. “And so as frustrating as that can be to not get an answer right away, I promise you, we get to see that data and we need it to do our job.”

For people like Kious who have to deal with these places, that means more phone calls and more waiting. He said he will keep calling, but a long-term solution is needed to sustain the city. “When people come and see properties like this — abandoned, derelict — and then the trash and the weeds that come with it, we’re gonna have trouble getting other businesses in this part of town,” Kious explained.