The Slumlord’s Golden Egg

This post was originally a December 2018 letter to the Vinton Town Council.

Vinton Town Council

311 S. Pollard St.

Vinton, VA 24179

Re: Community Improvement Grant

Dear Council:

That somebody cares about Vinton and wants to clean it up I gather from the amount of money spent on development and the efforts at branding the town. The following two sketches, drawn from life “#invinton,” suggest that these efforts have been ineffective.

On a warm October day (several weeks ago) my wife and I walk the greenway with our 8-month-old child. Near the Dale Avenue entrance we encounter an evidently homeless person, barefoot, wonderfully inebriated, bleeding from a wound to his calf, clumsily circling a shopping cart, and occasionally kicking at a pile of socks which he has set ablaze.

On any day you might choose to view it, the property neighboring mine is choked with weeds and fallen branches, the dilapidated residence almost wholly obscured by Virginia creeper and poison ivy, the subsided yard covering curb and sidewalk. As a habitat for breeding mosquitoes, rodents, and opossums, it is perfectly adapted. When my wife and I resume our complaints each June, the puzzled zoning office invariably remarks that they thought the property vacant since it has long been without water and sewer service.

The charms of the greenway are lessened by sock fires. Vinton’s new eleven-million-dollar library (albeit resembling a monstrously ambitious Bojangles) is less engrossing than the question of where exactly my neighbors are pooping. Rather than money, grants, development, or a Macados, Vinton urgently needs enforcement of the law and of its municipal code.

The town’s letter and survey of October 23rd regarding its application for a “Community Improvement Grant” has given me new reason to consider this conclusion. The letter expresses hope that, by means of grant money, “housing rehabilitation will be available to properties whose residents qualify, based on income and family size, as low or moderate income,” and that every resident “will benefit from infrastructure and blight removal as well as overall neighborhood revitalization.” The assumptions behind these statements are as incoherent as their syntax.

Vinton’s blight has not been caused by poverty, but by perverse incentives created by the inactivity of our municipal government. When the town’s maintenance code is not enforced, properties deteriorate, and landlords buy cheap. Again, when the town’s maintenance code is not enforced, landlords are spared the trouble of upkeep. A cheap investment which produces rental income without labor and expense: The Slumlord’s Golden Egg.

The town evidently contemplates making these incentives much worse. The final number on your October survey queries whether landlords would be interested in a “financial assistance program for rehabilitation of housing.” Landlords! The countryman in the fable presumably learned something when he killed his goose and there were no more golden eggs. The Vinton landlord gets a fresh goose to abuse. What’s the moral of this story?

The procedure set forth in Vinton’s municipal code is much less to a slumlord’s taste. Chapter 14, Article V, opens with the town council’s sensible determination that “deteriorating properties, including the improvements and the land on which they are built, have a deleterious effect on property values and the quality of life in the area surrounding them,” and the subsequent section numbered 14-141, asserts the town’s authority to “clear or repair any blighted property…in order to abate blight…[recovering] the cost of any clearing or repair of such property from the owner of the property.” Section 14-142 notes that, among the conditions which will merit a property’s designation as “blighted,” are the following:

(1) It has been vacant and/or boarded for at least one year;

(2) It has been the subject of documented complaints;

(3) It is no longer being maintained for useful occupancy;

(4) It is dilapidated or lacks normal maintenance and upkeep;

(5) It has been the subject of nuisance abatement actions undertaken by the town or County of Roanoke;

(6) Any buildings or improvements which, by reason of dilapidation, obsolescence, overcrowding, faulty arrangement of design, lack of ventilation, light and sanitary facilities, excessive land coverage, deleterious land use or obsolete layout, or any combination of these or other factors, are detrimental to the safety, health or welfare of the community.

Also relevant to our purposes is section 62-2:

It shall be unlawful for the owner of any property within the town to permit the accumulation thereon of any trash, garbage, refuse, litter, debris, materials or inoperable machinery, machinery parts, equipment, appliances, motor vehicle tires (four tires or more), or any other substances which might restrict the ingress or egress from any exit door of a structure, attract or harbor varmints (snakes, skunks, rats), and/or mosquitoes, and might endanger the health or safety of other residents of the town.

With Vinton’s code in mind, let’s add some detail to my sketch of the property with which I began my letter. Like every other blighted property on the street, it has an absentee owner, in this case, [name redacted], who owns maybe fifteen rental properties in Roanoke City and County. His Vinton property, despite occupying a double lot and being improved by a two-storey home of 1,750 square feet, has an assessed value of only $52,800; $26,400 for the house, $26,400 for the lots. The house is almost one hundred years old, and the quality of its construction was never very good. Animals have been living in the attic for several years now, and trees have been allowed to grow out of and to damage the foundation. The sidewalks, curb, and probably more than one hundred feet of retaining wall, all need to be restored or replaced.  The entire property is covered by tall, diseased, and brittle trees, the numerous fallen branches of which provide ample shelter for varmints of every kind. I am attaching several photographs for your review.

While every one of these defects was preventable by routine maintenance, they cannot now be remedied without great expense. That the town would consider meeting any part of this cost, even with grant money, is appalling. What more could the owner do to demonstrate indifference to his property’s condition, or to signal that grant-funded rehabilitation would not long delay the property’s return to decrepitude?

No more geese please.