Have you noticed more boarded-up windows around town than usual? It could be because Seattle’s cracking down on empty buildings, forcing absent property owners to take steps to secure their property and prevent fires, rodents, and cave-ins. The city’s also taking steps to control how people who are experiencing housing insecurity find shelter in vacant structures — more on that in a minute.
Until recently, there were only two part-time inspectors responsible for making sure empty buildings weren’t about to collapse, and they only had the resources to track about 40 to 50 properties. But following a surge in complaints from the public over the last few years, the whole system got a massive overhaul in mid-2019. The department started implementing monthly inspections for repeat-offenders and imposing steep new fines for owners who let their buildings slowly rot away.
The Department of Construction and Inspections just issued their first status report since the changes. In the last year and a half, they’ve inspected nearly 2,000 properties and conducted over 3,000 follow-up inspections to make sure issues were fixed — a huge leap from the handful of buildings they were previously keeping an eye on.
Those issues can take a wide range of forms: There’s the risk that a burst pipe could go unnoticed and spill millions of gallons, or old unmonitored electrical fixtures could spark a fire. Animals could take up residency. Chimneys can collapse. In the event of a fire, emergency responders can be injured by rotting floors. And of course, nervous neighbors may be alarmed to see squatters claiming the property as their own — although sometimes squatters can be better tenants than those with permission to be there.
Thanks to that recent overhaul, the city issued about 400 violations in 2019 — nearly double the rate of 2018. (Reduced inspections due to COVID has the city on track to issue around 200 in 2020.) Complaints are now trending down for the first time in nearly a decade, and the program has so far paid for itself from the fees levied against violators.
And while it’s nice that these empty buildings are being maintained, it’s hard not to note that one of the code requirements is that landlords prevent unauthorized access — in other words, keep out people in desperate need of shelter. A nonprofit called Weld helps temporarily place some people in buildings that are slated for demolition, but it’s obvious that there’s still a lot of unmet need for housing.
A truly compassionate, progressive city would secure or construct adequate facilities to house everyone in need of a home, rather than punishing them. Seattle’s not that city, at least not yet. A more efficient inspection program is great, but there's something truly bleak about watching construction crews board up otherwise-habitable houses across the street from another encampment.