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West Virginia's abandoned and dilapidated building problem
(Editor's Note: This is from a copyrighted article by Coalfield Development printed 2013. Follow the link for the full article.)
West Virginia is a gorgeous state, with its iconic mountain skyline and lush greenery and diverse mixture of lively cities and relaxed rural communities. However, rotting, dilapidated, fallen-down houses and other buildings in both rural and urban locations alike are stains on this beautiful state. The contributors are declining populations and, in many cases, pure neglect. This problem is causing communities plagued with abandoned and dilapidated structures to encounter new societal ills as a result. These include increased crime, declining property values, declining tax bases, and having huge health and safety hazards.
This problem must be addressed immediately for the sake of the state’s literal and economic health alike. It is not a reality we must accept. With statewide action and cooperation, we can restore our state to its full natural beauty.
High Numbers, High Hazards
Abandoned and dilapidated housing is a massive problem in West Virginia. McDowell County has reported more than 500 abandoned structures (Marshall University n.d.). In Huntington, more than 170 abandoned residential structures are on the city’s current list for eventual demolition, with several hundred more to go, even though dozens of structures have been demolished in recent years. In Nicholas County’s city of Richwood, more than 110 abandoned structures have been documented in the city of about 2,000 people. Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh said about 180 residential properties in the city would qualify for demolition (Personal Communication). About 30 have the legal hurdles cleared for that demolition. Pugh also noted this problem is likely “Issue Number One” for cities across the state. He further said:
It’s the Number One thing, dilapidated properties, for both cities and counties that we have right now. Overall, we receive more complaints from taxpayers — more complaints on that than anything else (Personal Communication).
Towns, cities, and rural areas that have experienced significant declining populations in the past 20 to 40 years are most vulnerable to abandoned and dilapidated properties being a nuisance (Marshall University n.d.). Extensive community blight, reduced home values of occupied residences, reduced tax bases, and increased crime and drug activity are all associated problems. Regardless of whether it’s a larger city, smaller town, or rural area, abandoned residential structures, which in some locations are of epidemic levels, are causing widespread economic downturn throughout West Virginia (Marshall University n.d.). Addressing this problem is of utmost importance for future economic development and community revitalization throughout the state. This is also a national problem, with about three million buildings being added to the country’s list of vacant properties between 2000 and 2010 (Roberts 2012). That was a 51 percent increase, with 10 states seeing increases of 70 percent or more.
The mere sight of these structures is enough to scare away a potential new resident or business owner. At King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., blighted buildings near the campus were hurting enrollment and recruiting efforts (Fischer 2008). On more than one occasion, prospective students and their parents cut campus visits short after seeing the buildings. In letters to the president, parents expressed doubt about student safety. Administrators acknowledged their institutions were affected by the city’s overall bad aesthetic condition. In surveys, prospective students who had chosen not to attend said Wilkes-Barre itself was a primary reason for their decision.
Vacant properties have also led to high-profile lawsuits against building owners and bad press for cities failing to address the problem (Roberts 2012). The family of a deceased Chicago firefighter filed a lawsuit against the owner of a vacant building where he died in December 2010 while searching for people. The building had been vacant for five years, and its owner was cited 13 times for non-compliance of city code regulations.
Dunbar city officials said the vacant buildings, particularly those that are abandoned and dilapidated, are a significant problem affecting all residents and the city budget (Pridemore 2013). Mayor Jack Yeager pointed out the impact to all taxpayers. City firefighters must extinguish any blazes at the buildings, and city police have to investigate any crimes that occur there.
These buildings are also prime targets for criminals. Lt. Gant Montgomery, chief of detectives for the Beckley Police Department, said drug dealers commonly use abandoned structures as a place to both sell and stash narcotics and weapons, plus use it as a place to drink and hang out at all hours of the night. He recalled an investigation with which he was involved during his previous experience as a narcotics detective. He said:
We were doing some investigations on some marijuana dealers. There were two abandoned homes in particular — but there were several on one street. There was one with cocaine and firearms in the attic, and the next had a pound or more of marijuana in a thermos container. They were using these homes as stash houses. We couldn’t tie anyone to the home to charge them (Personal Communication).
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