When 'Right-Sizing' Vacant Properties Goes Wrong

In Clarksburg, West Virginia, a seemingly successful move to demolish disused buildings and free up land has landlords crying foul. 

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A dilapidated home in Clarksburg, West Virginia, is marked for demolition. (Matt Stroud)

At the end of May, a task force convened by the Obama administration suggested that Detroit needs to "right-size" its housing stock. That’s a phrase often used in reference to cities that have spent decades in the midst of population decline; in Detroit’s well-documented case, it was a city built for more than 1.8 million people that’s now home to about half that number. The task force suggested the city should tear down 40,000 properties left vacant in the exodus.

On its surface, this suggestion seemed like a no-brainer. “Blight is a cancer,” the task force’s leader told the New York Times. “Blight sucks the soul out of anyone who gets near it.” What other way could a city so deeply hurt by population loss rid its streets of vacant, abandoned, and potentially dangerous buildings? And if Detroit's housing stock is really that bad, what could go wrong in a citywide demolition sweep?

The answer to the latter question can be found in Clarksburg, West Virginia. 

An innovative teardown

Clarksburg is a small city midway along the 230-mile stretch of Interstate 79 between Pittsburgh and West Virginia’s capital, Charleston. Built around glass and coal manufacturing, Clarksburg experienced its population peak around 1950. More than 32,000 people called the city home then. Today, it’s population is about half that. Like Detroit, many of Clarksburg’s residential neighborhoods—some lined with gorgeous, multiunit colonial properties—have been pockmarked for decades with dilapidated buildings. But Clarksburg didn’t need a presidential mandate to begin tearing these buildings down. Instead, they needed help from the state of West Virginia. And they got that help from a man named James C. Hunt.

James C. Hunt is the former councilman behind Clarksburg's innovative—and controversial—demolition program. (Matt Stroud)

Though Hunt was a Clarksburg councilman for nearly 30 years, his day job between 1990 and 2007 involved managing the Clarksburg Field Office of the West Virginia Housing Development Fund (WVHDF). That fund was designed to “increase the supply of residential housing for persons and families of low and moderate income.” But Hunt and some of his fellow Clarksburg councilpersons had other ideas about how the fund should be used: They wanted to demolish abandoned properties. As Hunt explained to me in 2011, when I first wrote about the program for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the problem with vacant buildings is not that city leaders are unaware of the problems they can cause. Instead, the problem is paying for demolition. "With city budgets, you almost never gain any traction with big demolition projects," Hunt told me in 2011. "Everyone talks about it and everyone knows that vacant properties are a problem, but there's no continuing reward when you tear a building down, so it's tough to get council to support it."

Hunt’s answer? He simply went around the city’s budget. He lobbied the state to create a housing demolition fund through the WVHDF, seeking to use Clarksburg as a test case.

"It was a leap of faith, but the thinking was that if cities would have these vacant lots”—rather than vacant buildings—the “adjoining houses would rise in value, there would be room for new housing, and these places would rebuild and revitalize," he said.

So the city created a prioritized list: a catalogue of hundreds of properties arranged from most dilapidated to least. The city would then apply for grants through the WVHDF—in amounts between $150,000 and $400,000—and then demolish homes on that list, from top to bottom. Between 2000 and 2010, Clarksburg tore down about 300 properties, Hunt told me. (Other media reports put the number even higher, over 400, with most demolitions occurring after 2005.)

In total, Hunt said the city decreased its vacancy rate by three percent—one of the main objectives for any large scale demolition project. And the state’s housing-demolition fund became a mainstay. Hunt was seen as a visionary. He was asked to give presentations all over the country, and ascended to the presidency of the National League of Cities. A magazine named him “Municipal Leader of the Year,” and he became an author and leadership consultant. Clarksburg—along with the WVHDF—was held up as an example of how a small city could take big leaps when fighting housing abandonment.

Then, a different story emerged.

Revolt

Tom Jacquez isn’t a millionaire. The stocky, dark-featured 53-year-old has lived in Clarksburg or nearby Fairmont, West Virigina, his entire life. After graduating with an associate degree in broadcast communications from Fairmont State University, he spent some time as a radio disc jockey before moving on to other pursuits. Among them: property management and ownership. In 1991, he got a tip about an inexpensive property in Clarksburg and picked it up as an investment. He made a little money, so he picked up another property. And then another and another.

Tom Jacquez holds up a photo of a home he used to own, torn down by the City of Clarksburg. (Matt Stroud)

At his most ambitious, Jacquez owned 13 rental units within the City of Clarksburg. But according to a lawsuit he initially filed against the city in May 2012, its code-enforcement officials started taking a particular interest in his properties around 2005. It began with overzealous inspections: They would cite him for failure to maintain properties, and within a month of him taking care of repairs, they’d carry out new inspections. It was inconvenient but not dire. But soon, those inspections escalated.

“They just plain came after me,” he said.

He gave an example: In the spring of 2008, he received a call from one of his tenants. The woman needed her furnace’s pilot light re-lit. As Jacquez explains it, he went to the house, took a look, and saw that the furnace problem was more significant than an outed pilot light. He wasn’t able to fix it on his own; he needed to call a specialist. So he told the woman he’d do that. In the meantime, he suggested, “Why don’t you stay with your daughter if it gets too cold?”

Within five days, Jacquez said, there was a demolition notice on the front door. The building needed to be vacated, the order read. It required him to show up for a hearing a month later in front of a three-person panel. There, he would need to make his case for why the building shouldn’t be torn down. He didn’t understand: How could a furnace problem so quickly turn into a call for demolition? What’s more, he said, he wasn’t allowed to make repairs on the property while he waited for the hearing. His tenant was gone; he was receiving no rent from the property. He could do nothing.

At the hearing, he presented a plan for repairs. But the panel rejected it. The furnace, they said, wasn’t the only problem with the property. So they asked him to come back in two months with a better plan. He did. They rejected that, too. And with that, it was over. In three months, a property Jacquez had managed for years went from an inhabited rental property to a vacant building slated for demolition.

Many of Jacquez’s other properties were targeted, too. As he explains it, one necessary repair on one property snowballed into a landlord’s nightmare all over the city. By 2012, his rental units would all be gone—either torn down or foreclosed upon. Jacquez went from being a multiunit property owner to where he is now: recovering financially from bankruptcy and working as a caregiver for people with special needs.

“These were not vacant properties,” he told me in mid-July, showing me the empty lots where some of his properties once stood. “They weren’t dilapidated properties. They had tenants.” The City of Clarksburg had it out for him, he said. The city “vacated the properties; they weren’t vacant properties.”

Others join in

Jacquez wasn’t alone in his complaints. At least two lawsuits have been filed against the City of Clarksburg alleging similar actions, and Jacquez says more are in the works. Discovery documents handed over by the City of Clarksburg showed that, in total, more than $1.45 million in WVHDF funds had gone toward demolition of hundreds of Clarksburg’s supposedly abandoned properties. But Jacquez and others say the houses were not abandoned; they were snatched away from property owners and torn down.

A bulldozer clears the remains of a Clarksburg house razed in the city's aggressive demolition sweep. (Matt Stroud)

Bolstering these allegations are statements made by former Clarksburg councilman Martin Shaffer, who held elected office between 2007 and 2011. After leaving office, he told the Charleston Gazette that the city was "abusing [its] demolition program to target their enemies and help their friends." He continued: "Our code enforcement is being used as a political arm of our administration."

Jacquez and the others filing suit against the city are hard-pressed to prove these last allegations so far. But they’ve been able to gain traction by digging into the qualifications of the code inspectors themselves. In June, the West Virginia Fire Commission filed a complaint against the city alleging—largely based on documents handed to them by Jacquez and other landlords targeted by the city—that its code enforcement officers had “misrepresented qualifications to obtain certification as a Building Code Official” and "submitted false and misleading information" that led to "notices of violations, condemnations, and demolitions of properties...." It also alleges that Clarksburg code enforcement officials used "the power of [the] office to financially benefit" from demolitions.

Brett Offutt, an attorney representing Greg Hall, another landlord who claims he was unfairly targeted by Clarksburg’s demolition program, told me about North Central West Virginia (NCWV) Investments. This was a company founded by Martin Howe, Clarksburg’s City Manager, and Howe’s brother.

“When new properties are built as rental properties, presumably, the builder and owner is going to profit from those,” Offutt told me. “Those are being built [by NCWV] on lots that were vacated by homes that the city demolished—that [the city] declared dilapidated and condemned and had them demolished. And now the city manager and his brother, through the company they form, are building new rental properties on those lots.”

Martin Howe is no longer listed as a principal in that company, Offutt told me. But Howe’s brother is. And the company is still mentioned as a partner on the Clarksburg city website.

Those allegations and others were enough to bring West Virginia’s Attorney General into the discussion, too. On July 1, Assistant Attorney General Stephen R. Connolly issued a cease and desist letter to the City of Clarksburg. It "has come to the attention of the [Attorney General’s office] that agents of Clarksburg have been retaliating against property owners, revoking issued building permits without valid stop work orders, and generally continuing to engage in conduct in violation of the State Building Code." It orders all building code enforcement—including the demolition program—to stop immediately.

What now?

Hunt, the visionary behind the demolition program, is being sued over his involvement, so he declined to speak in detail about allegations by Jacquez and others. But he did tell me outside a city council meeting in mid-July that his involvement with the demolition program was on the conceptual and funding side rather than with enforcement. And “if someone made a mistake” on the enforcement side, “they’re going to have to deal with it.”

“I stand by the program,” he told me.

It seems that the Clarksburg city council is doing the same. At the July 17 council meeting, members agreed that things needed to be done to amend certain aspects of the program—and council needed to file meaningful responses to both the West Virginia Fire Commission's complaint and the state Attorney General’s order. But like Hunt, they, too, still believe in the program.

“We haven’t done anything wrong,” said councilwoman Margaret Bailey.

That remains to be seen. Resolutions are far off in both the lawsuits and action taken against Clarksburg by state officials.

Sabina Deitrick, an associate professor of economic and community development at the University of Pittsburgh—as well as co-director of the Urban and Regional Analysis Program there—says there are lessons here for Detroit and any other city that finds itself with an abundance of blight.

“You need to look at vacant property as part of a big picture,” she told me. “There’s prevention, reuse, reclaiming, and redevelopment. So tearing them down, that’s supposed to be a final option.”

“If you’ve got a functioning block and one house that’s a problem and it’s foreclosed and abandoned and it deteriorates—and a house next to it would benefit from a side lot—then yeah, that’s a case where demolition can be a really good idea,” she said. Where problems arise, however, is in cities where demolition is looked at as a solution rather than step toward something else.

One question about Clarksburg's demolition program is whether or not the homes it targeted truly needed to be torn down. (Matt Stroud)

“Demolition shouldn’t be the end game, generally,” she said. “Demolition should be part of a larger plan. Like land-bank legislation being used in many cities, where demolition is part of a strategy of redevelopment and reuse. But in a lot of cities, demolition is it: Tear it down and forget about it.”

“That’s not the best idea,” she said. “In some places, they tear down the buildings and they go into a landfill. That’s not the best way to deal with abandonment. That’s not what you want.”

As for Jacquez, questions over redevelopment are moot. The problem in Clarksburg, he told me, is much simpler.

“It’s just corruption, plain and simple,” he said. “And it needs to stop.”

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