By Ashley Apodaca
Five vacant properties, previously owned by a prominent Richmond-area investor, were auctioned off by the city of Richmond for tax delinquency in late October. The properties, located in Church Hill along a historic stretch of homes, had been owned by property collector Stacy Martin through Premier Investment Properties LLC.
According to the city’s Vacant Building List, released last summer, Martin owned 3 percent of the vacant properties in Richmond – more than any other single owner.
In the registry, Martin was associated with three different investment groups: Clayton Investment Group LLC, Premier Investment Properties LLC and Tower Building Properties LLC. Collectively, these groups owned 68 of the 2,306 vacant Richmond listed on the registry.
Outside of the registry, Martin has also been linked to Hermitage Realty, the real estate firm that Richmond resident Donald Lacey used to channel money from investors in an elaborate and illegal scheme before he was charged with mail fraud and engaging in unlawful monetary transactions in 2010.
Vacant properties were at the heart of Lacey’s scheme. He used the vacant properties to attract investors, who believed their investments were going toward renovation and restoration.
Martin has not been charged with or linked to any such schemes. However, she was the city’s No. 1 owner of vacant properties, according to the registry. Most of the vacant properties owned by the three investment groups she represents are located in the East End.
John Murden Jr. lives in Church Hill and writes for the Church Hill People’s News, a hyperlocal news website. He frequently writes about the vacant property problem in his neighborhood. Murden blames the vacant property collectors for “single-handedly stalling any progress towards rebuilding the physical fabric of the community.”
Urban planning experts say vacant and abandoned buildings cause numerous negative effects on the surrounding areas. While they can be found throughout the city, both the East End and the Southside have especially high numbers of vacant properties.
“The general premise with vacant properties is that if you don’t take care of the property, by virtue of the fact that the building is vacant, it tends to create a perception that really colors how and what people think of a neighborhood,” said Louellen Brumgard, the associate director of community development at the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.
“A vacant, derelict, falling-down structure will tend to affect the willingness of people around that property to make investments in their property. And then it tends to be sort of this downward spiral.”
Amy George, a graduate of the master’s program in urban and regional planning in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, did an extensive study on the vacant building problem in Richmond. She concentrated on the East End because of its historically high concentration of vacant properties.
In that study, George said, “The largest disadvantage to a neighborhood is the missed opportunity a vacant lot or building represents. Unimproved lots generate only a fraction of the property tax even a modest building would produce, and tax delinquent buildings or properties generate no tax income at all.”
In addition, vacant properties can be the targets of crimes, such as vandalism, squatting and the theft of valuable metals and other building materials. Moreover, criminals can move into vacant buildings and use them for prostitution and drug manufacturing and sales.
The city’s Department of Community Development has a section responsible for monitoring vacant and occupied properties and preventing such problems.
The department’s Property Maintenance Code Enforcement Division subscribes to the widely held “broken window” theory that there is a direct connection between dilapidated buildings and an increase in neighborhood crime. The theory states that an unrepaired broken window in an abandoned building will attract vandalism, which in turn signals neglect and attracts more crime.
The PMCED can cite property owners for code violations such as mounds of trash in the yard or alley, excessively overgrown grass and vegetation, structural damage, broken windows, vandalism and other blight.
There was a time when the enforcement division would routinely inspect neighborhoods for code violations and newly vacant buildings. Today, however, inspectors chiefly respond to specific complaints, leaving the responsibility of recognizing and reporting violations largely on the community.
A recent audit of the PMCED found the division to be disorganized and inefficient in numerous areas, including its vacant properties registry and monitoring efforts. As part of the audit, 37 case files were requested from the PMCED but only 18—or 49 percent—could be produced.
Furthermore, “five vacant building cases were noted that did not appear on the vacant property list,” the audit said. “According to the Property Maintenance Inspector Supervisor, the vacant property list is pulled by selecting properties coded in the system as ‘vacant’; however, the five properties identified during the audit were coded as ‘open and vacant’ and were therefore not included.”
The June 2013 Vacant Building List includes more than 2,300 properties. But the real number of vacant buildings in Richmond is potentially much greater.
Of the properties on the list, 1,619 – or 70 percent – were owned by landlords based in Richmond.
For the other buildings, the owners had addresses outside Richmond. In most cases, the owners lived nearby. A computer analysis of the registry showed that 67 vacant buildings in Richmond were owned by someone in Glen Allen; 57, by someone in Midlothian; 40, by someone in Mechanicsville; and 32 by someone in Chesterfield.
For more than 200 vacant properties, the owners were located out of state. Ten properties, for example, were owned by someone in Dallas; seven, by someone in Jacksonville, Fla.; seven, by someone in Silver Springs, Md. Other owners ranged from as far away as California, Alaska and England.
Here is a map of the homes on the Vacant Building List. (We’ve also provided the map as a separate Web page.)