This article was originally published in the August 2017 Trenton Downtowner.

(Courtesy the Trenton Council of Civic Associations Facebook page.)

The Trenton Council of Civic Associations (TCCA) released a report identifying significant weaknesses in the City of Trenton’s implementation of the Vacant Property Registration Ordinance (VPRO).

The report examines data obtained from the City of Trenton through an OPRA request, and finds that in the three years since the ordinance was strengthened as part of Mayor Jackson’s Five-Point Vacant Property Plan, no more than 40 percent of the vacant buildings subject to the ordinance were ever registered, a figure that has dropped to just 12 percent in 2017. Moreover, the city has foregone $3.5 million to date in potential revenue from registration fees due to weaknesses in executing the ordinance.

Trenton’s pre-existing VPRO was significantly strengthened in 2014 following the first citywide vacant property survey of Trenton, conducted by Isles and the Trenton Neighborhood Restoration Campaign. This survey provided the first comprehensive picture of the vacant property problem, identifying 3,500 vacant buildings — of which the vast majority (91 percent) were not owned by the city, and were thus potentially subject to the ordinance.

Effective January 2, 2015, the amended VPRO required non-government owners of vacant buildings to register them each year, providing contact information and proof of liability insurance; post a sign on the property identifying the responsible agent; and pay a registration fee that starts at $250 and increases each year up to 5 percent of the property’s assessed value. There are also substantial fines for failure to register a vacant property.

“The ordinance puts pressure on owners of vacant buildings, and the fee schedule makes it less and less palatable to simply sit on them and let them deteriorate,” says Bernard McMullan, chair of the TCCA committee that issued the report. McMullan further noted that, when the ordinance was initially passed in 2014, a number of absentee owners made improvements and began to maintain or market their properties.

Implementation of the ordinance since then, however, has been uneven and declining. Key findings detailed in the report include issues with:

Registration: Forty percent of vacant properties were registered in the first year (2015). That percentage dipped only slightly in 2016 to 37 percent. In 2017, however, compliance dropped precipitously to 12 percent, apparently because the city opted not to send notices to vacant property owners.

Revenue: The revenue potential from the VPRO was estimated at more than $800,000 in 2015; $1,290,000 in 2016; $2,400,000 in 2017, and $4,800,000 by 2018. To date less than $1 million has actually been collected for all three years combined. In addition to the decrease in registrations, the city’s response to the OPRA request did not include any data suggesting that fees and summonses had been issued for non-compliance, and provided no evidence of follow-up with owners who did not submit registrations in any of the past three years.

Waivers: The ordinance allows the city to issue one-year fee waivers in limited circumstances, provided that the owner provides evidence of meeting certain criteria. Approximately 40 waivers have been granted since 2015, suggesting that the original lists were substantially accurate.

Insurance: The data submitted by the city suggests that owners who do register their properties routinely ignore the liability insurance requirement. This omission represents a potential risk to the city if registrations without proof of liability insurance were accepted without follow-up to ensure that insurance was secured.

Enforcement of all provisions: The city’s response suggests that it maintains no enforcement data on other ordinance requirements, such as signage and insurance.

Data management: Many of the above issues relate to weaknesses with data management. Despite the partial implementation of a new software system to monitor and track vacant properties, registrations, and fees, the city’s data continues to be housed in multiple systems, is not regularly updated, and is inaccessible across departments. In fact, the city requested a 30-day extension to TCCA’s OPRA request in order to get the required data from the database vendor, indicating that critical data was not directly accessible to the Department of Housing and Economic Development, which is responsible for implementing the VPRO.

TCCA offered a set of recommendations for both City Council and the administration to improve implementation of the VPRO. These include:

That the administration issue 2017 notices to all vacant property owners immediately, and begin imposing fines and summonses for non-compliance.

That the administration, working with concerned stakeholders around the city, take immediate action to force compliance on those who have ignored the registration requirement, particularly owners who are local. This should include a comparison of the vacant property list against other registrations (landlord licenses, building permits, etc.), and potentially hiring an outside firm to track down non-compliant owners. This mechanism has been effectively used in other cities.

That the administration create and present a plan for the use of the funds collected through the ordinance’s enforcement.

That the administration be required to submit reports on compliance, enforcement, and the use of fees collected under the ordinance to City Council and the public, at least semi-annually.

That City Council amend the ordinance to clarify certain provisions, such as the consequences of long-term non-compliance, and amend related ordinances relating to property ownership to require re-registration at the time of sale or transfer, to reduce the opportunity of evading the ordinance by transferring the property.

That the administration issue an official abandoned properties list, as it is allowed to do under the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, which would provide it much greater leverage in dealing with vacant and abandoned properties quickly. The city has completed all preliminary requirements, but has not issued an official list.

“The VPRO could again become a key tool in the fight against blight,” says McMullan, “but the administration and city council must urgently address the issues TCCA identified in its report.”

Editor’s Note: The TCCA is designed to improve “the quality of life for the residents of the city of Trenton by supporting its member civic associations, fostering establishment of new civic associations, and supporting the Trenton Master Plan. Its website shows 40 city-based organizations.

TCCA president Rachel Cogsville-Lattimer says the VPRO “was promoted as an important tool for the city to promote the re-conversion of vacant buildings into habitable, useful properties that would no longer be a drag on neighborhoods. To discover that the city is not really using the tool is very disappointing — particularly since the fees are there to give the city more resources to take action against the issues vacant properties cause.”

McMullan agrees and says when after the city delayed meeting the association’s OPRA request, “I realized that the city was in no position to actually monitor the implementation of this ordinance. Critical information required by the ordinance, and by the regulations developed by the Department of Housing and Economic Development, was not being maintained.”

McMullan says the only city response to the story was “reported in the Times (of Trenton) in which (Housing and Economic Development Director) Diana Rogers said they thought they’d done a good job at implementing ‘a new program’ and were looking forward to further implementation in the future.

“Of course, her comment does not explain how dropping numbers of registrations over the three years of implementation comports with good implementation of new program. No other city official (elected or otherwise) has commented on the report or contacted me or any member of the TCCA board.”

The TCCA report was published at collaborationtrenton.com.