Wednesday, July 5, 2017 | 2 a.m.
The city of Las Vegas is strengthening its effort to identify homes at risk of becoming blighted or taken over by squatters.
Last month, the city council quietly expanded the types of properties that can be added to the city’s registry of vacant properties. Rather than waiting for homes to fall into default before flagging them and subjecting them to fines if they fall into disarray, the city will now use an expanded definition of “abandoned residences” to identify potential problem properties earlier along in the foreclosure process.
The new triggers that can lead to a home being placed on the registry include unpaid taxes, nuisance abatement liens and other official legal notices, which are often red flags that a property will soon be abandoned or foreclosed upon. Those things didn’t factor into the city’s registry when it launched in 2011. City staff said that over the last four or five years, banks have become more reluctant to put homes into default, so these expanded registry will help the city keep banks and other property owners accountable by forcing them to name a property manager responsible for maintenance.
The effort goes hand in hand with a new data portal the city is putting together to predict which of the city’s homes are likely to become vacant or abandoned.
These subtle shifts of data gathering won’t provide immediate relief for residents currently dealing with squatters next door. But city officials hope it stops the problem from spreading further.
Since the recession, empty homes across the valley have become commonplace. Sometimes they are eyesores with overgrown lawns and mosquito-infested pools. Other times, they become havens for squatters and illegal activities. Bored kids break windows and trash interiors. Drug dealers use them as storefronts. Full families move in and steal power or water from their law-abiding neighbors.
Councilman Steve Ross championed the expanded registry effort. He represents Ward 6, which encompasses Centennial Hills and the far northwest part of Las Vegas. It was the fastest-growing part of the city through the recession and was therefore hit hardest by the housing crisis.
“We are trying to maintain property values and the good nature of neighborhoods,” he said. “It means that when a property falls into disrepair, we can get those properties back up to speed (sooner) instead of waiting until for the foreclosure process.”
Over the years, state legislators have worked with local municipalities to help empower them to better deal with these issues. For example, in 2015, they passed legislation that criminalized the specific act of squatting or aiding squatters. However, with limited resources in code enforcement departments and police departments, criminal crackdowns have been difficult to sustain over the long run.
Vacant properties and the problems they sometimes bring with them is an issue valleywide. Clark County commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Marilyn Kirkpatrick have been outspoken about the need for better coordination across municipalities.
More specifically, Giunchigliani said she been looking to North Las Vegas, which has been fine-tuning its own registry efforts for years. That city keeps a registry of homes that are at risk of being in foreclosure, regardless of whether they are vacant or not, or whether they are officially bank owned or still the responsibility of a person. The city also has a dedicated squatter task force and coordinates data sharing with utility providers, which can flag a home that’s had power or water turned on by unauthorized occupants.
“It allows us to get ahead of the game,” explains Tom Martens, North Las Vegas code enforcement manager.
North Las Vegas has flagged about 2,500 homes through its robust system, and though success is difficult to quantify when it comes to vacant properties, he believes neighborhoods are experiencing the benefits.
“Initially we had repeat offenders,” Martens said of squatters, who often use fake leases to attempt to get utilities turned on at vacant residences. “Once they figured out which homes they shouldn’t be in, and that we would remove them, that info goes through the bad-guy network. I don’t think we’ve had a repeat violator in nine months now.”
Which brings the topic back to the need for coordination across municipalities.
“That is the part I struggle with,” added Martens. “Where are they going? They’re going to Clark County, Vegas, Henderson…”