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Proposal tightening restrictions on vacant buildings in Seattle's monitoring program passes committee

The proposal comes as the number of unsecured vacant buildings is rising in the city. The number increased by 41% between 2021 and 2022.

SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council will vote next week on a proposal to tighten restrictions on empty properties that are part of the city's Vacant Building Monitoring Program.

The proposal comes as the city has seen an increase in unsecured vacant buildings since 2021. Representatives of the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) said unsecured properties pose an ongoing public safety risk. 

"As a resident, it tends to be a little bit scary," said Bob Luciano, executive director of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, who has seen the problem of vacant buildings firsthand.

Luciano said vacant buildings can become a magnet for crime and vandalism with some properties being burned down.

Between 2021 and 2022, the number of unsecured vacant buildings increased by 41%. SDCI reported a 57% increase in buildings that are secured but otherwise have some sort of maintenance or safety violation. The city is on track to surpass both of those statistics this year. 

"Anything we can do to help prevent things like this, have it addressed quickly, I'm definitely in support of," Luciano said.

The new proposal passed unanimously out of the Seattle City Council's Land Use Committee on Monday. The legislation was drafted to respond to an increase in public nuisance and health and safety risks associated with vacant structures. 

Under the city's current code, owners of vacant buildings are required to be secured against unauthorized entry, comply with all building and safety standards and be kept free of junk and overgrown vegetation. In 2019, the city council voted to create a Vacant Building Monitoring Program, which building owners are entered into if they fail to come into compliance with code violations before a set deadline. 

The new changes will ramp up security requirements, make it easier for the city to enter buildings into the program, make it easier for police and fire to refer buildings for participation in the program, and allow the city a quicker avenue to collect fees from nonpaying participants.

  • Vacant building standards would require solid core doors rather than single or hollow doors, and one-inch rather than half-inch throw deadbolts. In some instances, buildings may be required to have polycarbonate sheets rather than plywood over the windows if the director of SDCI determines it's necessary to secure the building. This would allow police and fire to see inside when responding to calls. 
  • Vacant buildings would be required to be free of graffiti.
  • Any vacant building found in violation of the city's code will be entered into the program rather than just property owners who don't come into compliance within a set period of time. Community feedback indicated property owners would make necessary changes, but then fall back out of compliance relatively quickly after passing an inspection.
  • Police and fire were previously required to keep their own lists of properties that generated calls for dispatch - a metric SDCI already keeps track of. Under the proposal, authorities can report dangerous properties directly to SDCI. 
  • The proposal would allow SDCI to place a lien on buildings where owners have failed to pay the city for fees related to the program without a court order, which was previously required. 

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