The Tower City Council took an important step forward this week in the fight against blight. That now gives the city common cause with neighboring communities, like Ely and Orr, where city officials …
The Tower City Council took an important step forward this week in the fight against blight. That now gives the city common cause with neighboring communities, like Ely and Orr, where city officials have been trying to address blight for a number of years.
As those efforts have demonstrated, the fight against blight isn’t easy or immediate. Yet it’s something that cities large and small can’t ignore. Looking the other way may be the route of least conflict for city officials, but it is not fair to the vast majority of residents in our communities who do make an effort to maintain their properties in a safe and attractive manner.
Blight makes everyone in a community poorer, but particularly those who live nearby a blighted property. Numerous studies have demonstrated that blighted conditions reduce the value of neighboring properties by many thousands of dollars. Many blighted residences in area communities are not only eyesores, they are vacant and tax delinquent, meaning they are occupying space that could otherwise be home to a productive, tax-paying family living, working, and shopping in the local area. Every one of our communities is hungry for new residents and short on available housing at the same time. Allowing vacant, blighted properties to continue to exist in our communities is like posting a big “Not Welcome” sign at the entrance to town.
In Tower this week, it was the city’s economic development authority that brought the subject back to the council. The Tower Economic Development Authority (TEDA) has been trying to find vacant residential properties that it could acquire, rehabilitate, and resell to new owner-occupants. It’s Economic Development 101— bringing more people to town, after all, is good for business. There’s clearly demand for affordable housing in area communities, but the supply of acceptable homes is limited. Yet, too many owners of vacant and often blighted properties in the community have been uninterested in selling, preferring to do nothing to address their condition.
Rundown or uninhabitable buildings are just one part of the problem. Some property owners also misuse their properties as unofficial junkyards. Because residential property taxes in our communities are relatively low, some owners have clearly opted to use their yards for cheap storage. One yard located within a half block of Tower City Hall is currently home to eight boats, most not currently licensed, two inoperable and unlicensed vehicles, along with a dilapidated garage and a vacant, unsecured two-story residence that is hopelessly beyond repair.
It’s not that cities lack the tools to address blight. Many, including Tower, have adopted model blight ordinances developed by the League of Minnesota Cities. It’s the political will to consistently enforce those ordinances that has been lacking in many cases.
Yet blight enforcement can yield major dividends for communities. In 2017, TEDA pushed the city to issue a violation notice and compliance order on the Standing Bear Marina, which had become derelict over the years. Within a couple months, the owners had sold the property to Your Boat Club, which has made significant investment in renovating the long-neglected facility. Indeed, for most cities, blight enforcement is one of their most effective tools for economic development.
We recognize that some will bristle at the very notion of blight enforcement, believing they have a constitutional right to live in whatever manner of disorder they choose. That much is true, but if they wish to live in town, ordinances dictate that their disorder be contained, either within a permitted garage, or their own home. When their “treasures” begin to overflow into their yard or the street, impinging on the enjoyment of others and lowering neighboring property values, it becomes a matter of public concern. Folks who can’t abide by that have a constitutional right to move to the country. And even there, they will find that life isn’t a free-for-all.
When it comes to blight, progress doesn’t happen overnight. The effort in Tower will begin with education and encouragement, particularly for residential property owners. But continued violations could eventually lead to substantial fines for the worst offenders. Hopefully, those offenders will get the message that blight matters before it comes to that.