Seattle’s proposed vacant building standards update to go before city council

The Seattle City Council is set to vote on a proposal to tighten standards on empty properties as part of the city's Vacant Building Monitoring Program.

Council Bill 120622 would amend the city’s building safety and maintenance standards to strengthen the standards for securing vacant buildings by requiring them to have solid core doors, reinforced deadbolts, and in some cases polycarbonate sheets instead of plywood.

The legislation would also require vacant buildings to be kept free of graffiti, mandate that any building that receives a violation notice enter the Vacant Building Monitoring Program, simplify the process for police and fire referrals to vacant building monitoring, and authorize the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections to file a property lien to collect unpaid vacant building monitoring fees and abatement costs.

Vacant buildings that are part of the program are inspected monthly for compliance with the building safety and maintenance standards. According to a director’s report on Council Bill 120622, approximately 75% of properties enrolled in vacant building monitoring are going through the redevelopment process.

The Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections has reported a 41% increase in unsecured vacant buildings within the city from 281 in 2021 to 396 in 2022. The number of secured vacant buildings with safety or maintenance violations increased by 57% from 480 in 2021 to 753 in 2022. The department anticipates the number of violations in 2023 to exceed last year’s total.

Fee collection rates have fallen from 57% in 2019 to 37% in 2022. The current process for collecting unpaid fees requires obtaining a court order, which the department says is time consuming and resource intensive. Property owners currently pay monitoring fees ranging from $296.75 to $592.30.

The decrease in fee collection rates is partially attributed to leniency during the COVID-19 pandemic and delays between the issuance of an invoice and collection of fees. The majority, however, appear to be simple non-payment.

Seattle’s current process for collecting unpaid fees utilizes a collection agency, which returns very little to the department, according to the director’s report. The process also requires pursuing and obtaining a court order, which is deemed time consuming and resource intensive.

“Because the monitoring program is largely fee supported, nonpayment represents a financial risk to the program,” the report states.

Monitoring of vacant buildings ends after three consecutive inspections without any violations.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed the ordinance in August 2023, with the intention to improve security and management of vacant buildings in the city.

The ordinance was approved by the Seattle Land Use Committee on Monday. It will be sent to the full city council for a final vote on Sept. 26.


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