MEADOW LAKE, N.M. (KRQE) – Vacant homes and buildings are a problem that plagues communities across New Mexico. One small community is slowly tacking a big backlog of problem properties.

For thousands of New Mexicans whose home is their sanctuary, in Valencia County, there are also hundreds of homes long forgotten. In the small Meadow Lake community alone, there are close to 50 homes considered vacant. “There’s several streets that have burned buildings that have been there for years,” said one woman, who did not want to be identified.

The woman, a longtime Valencia County resident, picks up trash along the road on her daily walks. “Just trying to make it look a little better,” she explained.

However, looks aren’t the only concern. “It’s a little scary because you don’t know what they do in there, they might do a crime, they might be cooking drugs, who knows?” said Geraldo Gabaldon, a Valencia County resident.

County residents say some of the problem properties have been abandoned for more than a decade. But with property owners often nowhere in sight, what is the solution?

That’s where a group of county leaders comes in. “We’re the ones overseeing the project and trying to get it off the ground,” said Valencia County Manager, Danny Monette. He, along with four senior staffers in the county formed a committee to tackle the issue of abandoned homes.

Since our initial interview about the program in April, county leaders say the program has picked up. “After the first story ran, people took that as a pretty big cue to get their properties in order. So we’ve seen a good number come into compliance on their own,” said Community Development Director Nancy Gonzales.

Gonzales says five code enforcement officers are handling 80-active cases of abandoned properties. So far, roughly 40% have come into compliance. Meaning they are in the process of cleaning up or they’ve given the county a clear plan of how they’re tackling the issues.

Tracking down each property owner is a challenge. Gonzales says about 30% of the time its not immediately clear who the property owner is or where they are. “Our code enforcement officers are going, I would say, the extra mile, you know, doing title searches, last known addresses, just really trying to find anyone to get a hold of before we take that final step,” said Gonzales. “We’ve even found people who didn’t even realize they still had property in their name.”

Owners have 60 days to respond to each notice from the county. If no one responds to clean up the property, the county can move to demolish a home. However, it’s not cheap.

“We’re looking at between 15 to 30 properties based on the amount of money that we got,” said Project Manager, Jeremias Silva. They’re prioritizing the worst of the worst properties considered a nuisance to neighbors or tied to criminal activity.

Since the program’s inception, Valencia County received more than $1 million in state grants to help. Even if it’s slow-going, county stakeholders say tackling the backlog of abandoned properties is something they’ll continue to do. “It’s not going anywhere, and we intend on utilizing these funds in the best interests of the taxpayer,” said Silva.

Each code enforcement officer is handling about 16 cases and they’re asking people to continue notifying them about abandoned or problem properties.