Improving Dilapidated Buildings

Many communities around the state have dilapidated buildings. These buildings are in various stages of vacancy and/or disrepair – some may be falling down while others can still be restored and used in the community.

The challenge to all communities is timing – when to recognize that a building is dilapidated so that active planning can be initiated either for its removal, deconstruction or rehabilitation. This timing generally does not coincide with having the available funds for restoration or having an alternative use or user for the building.

Under the nuisance abatement process used in some communities, such buildings are addressed only when they are in such a state of disrepair that they are beyond rehabilitation or even proper deconstruction. Further, the presence of asbestos in such buildings, which is fairly common, can add significant expense. Cities may want to consider adopting a program or regulation wherein the owner of a dilapidated building would be requested or required to enter into formal discussions with the city and to take action to address the condition of the building. In most cases, whichever process is used, a safety, environmental and asbestos evaluation needs to be made as a first step. Certified inspectors can be found by contacting the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Whatever process is used, follow-up and tracking of action of the buildings in question are critical.

Vacant derelict buildings can be dealt with in several ways:

  • Conversion of use to an acceptable use – possibly facilitated by the city and/or local private investors.
  • Deconstruction with a process of saving as much of the material as possible and recycling it back into other uses.
  • Re-construction and re-modeling to upgrade the building to a safe and energy-efficient facility that can be marketed.
  • Demolition of the building, salvaging what can be salvaged and removing the waste to the landfill, with the empty site restored for new development or landscaped to become a community green space.

Whichever choice is made by the community, any program dealing with dilapidated buildings will require community support, often DNR assistance, financial resources and the active involvement of the city attorney.

Keep Iowa Beautiful and the Iowa DNR Solid Waste Alternatives Program (SWAP) have a Derelict Building Grant to help communities with fewer than 5,000 residents. Keep Iowa Beautiful also has a beautification grant program providing funds for communities of 5,000 and smaller for beautification proposals ($5,000 limit).

Every community is encouraged to take an aggressive role regarding buildings that become vacant and seem to be headed in that direction on a permanent basis. The quicker action can be taken by the community to plan for their future, the lower the cost and associated problems and the higher the potential for conversion.

Buildings that have played a strong role in the community’s heritage may possibly be saved and converted to another use. At a minimum, the materials in the building may be saved and used in other buildings helping to recycle rather than taking the material to the landfill. Information provided by Keep Iowa Beautiful.

Tax Sales and Abandoned Properties

Cities might also be forced to deal with properties where the owner has abandoned the property and stopped paying property taxes, resulting in the county treasurer putting the property up for tax sale. Chapter 446 of the Code allows cities to negotiate with the purchaser of the tax sale certificate for voluntary assignment of a tax sale certificate.

Cities can also purchase abandoned residential properties at tax sales and assign the certificate to someone who demonstrates the intent to rehabilitate the property or build a new structure. There are various options for cities when using Chapter 446, and cities should carefully review how they wish to proceed before beginning the tax sale process.

Cities also have the ability to petition for title to an abandoned nuisance property, as allowed under Section 657A.10B of the Code. This process is initiated by the city filing a petition in district court alleging that the property has been abandoned (is vacant and has remained in violation of the city’s codes for six consecutive months). The petition is served on the property owner by certified mail and by posting the notice on the house. A hearing on the petition can be held not less than 60 days after the petition is filed with the court. If the court finds that the property is abandoned, the court can award title to the property of the city “free and clear of any claims, liens or encumbrances held by the respondents.”

Please see the Nuisance Abatement Manual and the Nuisance Abatement webpage for more details on these processes and other helpful nuisance abatement strategies.

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