When City of Elkins tore down the charred remains of a house at 201 Graham Street earlier this year, it was just the latest chapter in a still ongoing story that began in 2014, when the house was rendered uninhabitable by a fire. Why did it take so long to deal with this hazardous eyesore, and what’s next for this property, which the city still does not own?
The answers to these questions highlight how different the story of each abandoned property can be and demonstrate some of the obstacles that can slow the resolution of such situations. The story of 201 Graham Street also illustrates the potential value of a new law passed in 2022 by the state legislature. That law makes changes to the tax-sale process and establishes a $10 million state fund for demolishing dilapidated structures statewide.
Sold on the Courthouse Steps
By the time of the 2014 fire, the owners of 201 Graham Street had stopped paying property taxes, and the house was placed on the list for that year’s tax-lien auction. These are held each fall by the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office on the steps of the county courthouse.
At tax-lien auctions, bidding starts at the amount of taxes and fees outstanding on each property. Elkins City Attorney Geraldine Roberts explains that winning bidders can’t take possession of the properties for at least 18 months after the auction, during which time the original owners may recover their properties by repaying the taxes and fees, with interest.
“What the sheriff auctions off at these sales is not the property but the right to collect the overdue taxes and fees from the delinquent owner,” says Roberts. “For eighteen months from the date of the auction, the owner of record can redeem the property by repaying those taxes and fees to the winning bidder. If there is no redemption after eighteen months, the winning bidder can take title to the property by completing the redemption process with the state auditor. But until they do, they don’t own it, so not only do they have no incentive to make repairs, they can’t even legally set foot on the property.”
In the case of 201 Graham Street, however, the winning bidder in the 2014 auction declined to accept title to it after the 18-month redemption period ended, and the property was placed back on the list for the next tax-lien auction. It was then purchased by another party, who also eventually declined to take title. Finally, after no one bid on the property at a third auction, the tax lien was transferred to the West Virginia State Auditor.
Throughout this time, the owners of record could not be found, and as mentioned, the parties who purchased the tax lien had neither the legal right nor the incentive to spend a dime on a property that was not, and might never become, theirs.
The burnt building continued to deteriorate, and the grounds became an overgrown jungle of poison ivy.
The City Obtains the Lien—But Not Ownership
In September of 2021, City of Elkins purchased the lien on 201 Graham Street for $726.35 in delinquent taxes, penalties, and fees from the period 2018-2021. Again, the city still did not own the property.
Unlike private parties who are the winning bidders at tax-lien auctions, however, cities don’t necessarily need to wait for title to a property before taking action to address dangerous situations there.
“Under state code, municipalities have the specific power to provide for the eliminations of hazards to public health and safety and to abate a public nuisance,” says Roberts. “In other words, cities do have the right to enter private property and demolish a derelict structure if it has been found to be structurally unsound. This property had been determined to be uninhabitable by both EFD and city code enforcement, so there is no question that the city was well within the scope of its authority to remove the hazards.”
After the demolition was complete, Roberts placed an additional lien on the property for the $14,700 cost to taxpayers of taking the building down and disposing of the debris. She points out that there is almost no chance of recovering this money.
“We can place a lien on the property for the cost of this demolition, but these kinds of liens are only payable if the property is sold and they would be cancelled in the tax-lien auction process,” says Roberts. “We can also take the owner to court, but it doesn’t matter how much a judge awards the city if the owner can’t pay. And in this case, we can’t even find the owner.”
What’s next for 201 Graham Street? Although neighboring property owners might be interested in purchasing the lot, it won’t be the city’s to sell until it is finally transferred to the city’s ownership, either by the owners of record or through a court order. Until then, all officials can do is monitor the property—and wait.
New Law Streamlines Tax Sales, Creates Demolition Fund
Although a new law passed during the 2022 legislative session won’t affect 201 Graham Street, it has the potential to simplify the process of dealing with similar properties in the future.
The state has yet to publish rules implementing the new law, so the specifics are not yet known, but state officials have said that one big change will be a reduction in the time allowed for redemption of delinquent properties from 18 to 12 months. Cities will also have more options for obtaining these properties outside of the auction process.
In addition, the law sets aside $10 million from the state’s ARPA funds to cover the costs of demolishing such properties, costs that—as in the case of City of Elkins and 201 Graham Street—have not usually been recoverable.
The state says it will use this money to bid out large contracts for many demolitions throughout different regions, in hopes of obtaining volume discounts. No matter how large those discounts are, however, $10 million will only go so far. By some estimates, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to demolish all dilapidated and unsafe residential structures statewide, never mind commercial and industrial properties.
Roberts is hopeful, nonetheless.
“This is the first major change to a process that hasn’t been working at all in a long time,” she says. “It’s very encouraging to see the legislature supporting cities in tackling this issue, and I just hope the state will see fit to continue and perhaps expand funding for the demolition program in future years. It could really make a big difference for West Virginia.”
Elkins, W. Va., May 25, 2021: The City of Elkins Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Department has launched a public online tool for exploring data about dilapidated structures in Elkins.
The new Dilapidated Structures Dashboard presents the address and map location, condition, and status of properties that have been evaluated by the city building inspector for violations of the property maintenance code.
“The building inspector uses a structure evaluation survey to determine the severity of a structure’s condition,” says Ben Martin, the city’s GIS technician. The survey is based on a tool created by West Virginia University’s BAD Buildings Program. “These evaluations basically help to determine whether the city should seek repair or demolition of the structure.”
On the dashboard map’s Structure Status tab, users can click on a property on the map and see a range of information, including the structure’s address, survey date, evaluated condition, and—if demolished—the date of the demolition and any cost to city taxpayers.
“The Structure Status tab is meant to communicate progress, whether toward demolition or toward convincing the property owner to address the building inspector’s concerns,” says Martin. “The Structure Status tab shows what a lengthy and costly process it can be to get a structure demolished, whether by acquiring the property or seeking a court order forcing action by the owner.”
In addition to providing the cost of each individual demolition, the dashboard presents a running total of demolition expenses incurred by the city and the average cost of demolishing a property, currently $134,653and $17,873, respectively.
“When spending public funds, it’s important to look at how much it costs to achieve policy objectives, like dealing with unsafe buildings,” says Martin. “We wanted the demolition costs front and center so users can easily see how much this kind of neglect is costing all of us.”
Another feature charts the location of the owners of dilapidated structures. According to this feature, only 55 percent of listed structures are owned by Elkins residents, with 32 percent owned by a single resident of Lake City, Florida.
“Ownership location data is also important to display because the farther away property owners live, the harder it can be to motivate them to address the issues with their buildings,” Martin explains. “This is good information for users to have so they can understand why the process of dealing with one structure might take a long time compared to others.”
The dashboard began as a grant-funded project managed by the West Virginia Region VII Planning & Development Council, which shifted the project to Martin after his hire by City of Elkins earlier this year. Optimized for use on desktop computers, the dashboard does not currently support use on mobile devices, although this capability is planned for a future update.
The Dilapidated Structures Dashboard may be accessed here: www.bit.ly/Elkins-Dilap-Dashboard.
House was posted as uninhabitable with entrances sealed
Elkins, W. Va., March 10, 2021: Two people died last night in a fire that occurred in a house on River Street. The house had been closed and posted as uninhabitable by city fire and code enforcement officials. The decedents have not been identified, and the W. Va. State Fire Marshal is investigating.
The house, at 5 River Street, had been offered for sale at auction in 2019 for unpaid property taxes but did not sell. The State of West Virginia now holds a lien against the property for the unpaid taxes and associated fees.
This property came to the attention of city officials last year because of a large refuse pile in the backyard and signs of entry and occupation by unauthorized persons. Because there was no water service to the house, it was considered de facto uninhabitable under city code. The front porch was also missing, and the house was in a general and advanced state of disrepair.
City Code Enforcement Officer Phil Isner ordered the unauthorized occupants to vacate the premises, requested electrical power be disconnected, and—on June 1, 2020—posted signs on the front and back doors informing that the house had been determined to be unsafe. The signs prohibited occupancy until such time as an official finding that the identified hazardous conditions had been corrected.
At the time of the posting, Isner sealed the back door with plywood and screwed the front door shut. He also closed and locked the building’s windows. Isner and Elkins Fire Department Chief Tom Meader included the property on their near-daily rounds monitoring properties of concern.
Lacking title to the property or a court order authorizing further steps, the city had at this point exhausted its options for enforcement actions against this property. After the posting, the city offered to redeem the tax lien, take title of the property, and shoulder the cost of demolishing the decrepit structure, but this offer was declined by the owner of record.
The Elkins Fire Department responded to the fire and attempted to make entry, but the building was fully engulfed by the time firefighters arrived. Because the fire occurred in a building with no electrical power or gas service, it seems to have resulted from human activity. As is always the case when fires result in deaths, the W. Va. State Fire Marshal is investigating and will be the only source of any further official statements regarding this matter.
Last modified on December 9th, 2020 at 06:51 pm
Elkins, W. Va., November 20, 2020: On Wednesday, a demolition crew contracted by City of Elkins tore down a derelict structure at 506 South Randolph Avenue in Elkins. The demolition was authorized by a Randolph County Circuit Court order. The city does not have title to the property and so cannot auction it, but a city lien against it seeks to recoup approximately $40,000 in demolition costs at the time of any future sale. (more…)
Last modified on December 16th, 2020 at 01:47 pm
Elkins, W. Va., November 10, 2020: At 10 a.m. this Friday, the City of Elkins will offer three residential properties for sale by auction, as-is, in the lobby of Elkins City Hall. Winning bidders will need to immediately remit 10 percent of their winning bids in the form of cash or a certified check and must pay the remaining balance within 30 days. (more…)