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News / Northwest

Seattle mayor seeks to act on ‘public nuisance’ buildings

Vacant structures are dangerous, a drag on firefighting resources

By David Kroman, The Seattle Times
Published: April 18, 2024, 8:25pm

SEATTLE — In 2023, emergency crews responded to 130 fires in vacant buildings in Seattle. That was an increase from 91 the year before and 77 the year before that. Most were small, but several were catastrophic, killing three people and forcing evacuations and street closures.

A new bill from Mayor Bruce Harrell would put more power in the hands of the Seattle Fire Department’s chief to “abate” such buildings deemed dangerous and derelict. If passed by the Seattle City Council, the law would empower the chief to do everything up to and including demolition, on the property owner’s dime.

“When these fires happen, it’s a large resource draw to put these fires out,” fire Chief Harold Scoggins said. “It becomes very challenging.”

Seattle monitors roughly 300 vacant buildings in the city. Of those, the fire department has identified 42 as dangerous. A little more than half of those deemed dangerous are single-family residences, and a quarter are commercial buildings. A smaller number are apartment buildings.

A building is tagged as derelict when the department has received multiple calls for response because of a fire, medical response or structural damage. About half of the buildings on the city’s list — often dotted near busy arterials like Rainier Avenue, Aurora Avenue or Lake City Way — have previously had a confirmed or suspected fire.

In best-case scenarios, property owners are cooperative with fire officials about securing possibly unsafe structures. Scoggins recalled a fire on Lake City Way rendering the building at risk of collapse. The owner agreed to work with the city to tear it down.

Slow process

In other cases, property owners are less responsive. Current practice means fire officials going through the Department of Construction and Inspections to fence, reinforce or tear down dangerous buildings. Scoggins said getting to take action can take a year and a half.

The proposed bill gives authority to the chief to declare a building a “public nuisance” and immediately act. Property owners would receive a letter from the fire department, requesting they secure their building. If they don’t, fire officials could move forward with putting a lien on the building and tearing it down.

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The owner would be responsible for the cost of the work, plus 15 percent. If the city can’t collect, it might sell off the property to recoup expenses.

The cost of responding to building fires can be enormous, in both fire department resources and impact to the surrounding neighborhood. A massive fire in a vacant building on Madison Street — formerly home to Vito’s bar — elicited a response from nearly 100 firefighters, closing the busy arterial for weeks.

Three fires the year before resulted in deaths, and a host of others prompted large responses from the fire department: a warehouse fire near the Chinatown International District, a vacant building on Aurora, a two-alarm fire off Ninth Avenue and more.

“Our focus is on community safety and on firefighter safety,” Scoggins said.

Deputy Mayor Tim Burgess said he thinks the increase in fires correlates with fentanyl’s prevalence in Seattle. “As the synthetic narcotics have been more widely available and extremely inexpensive, we see a surge in this type of activity: the fires, the illegal trespassing,” he said. “Can we prove that correlation? No, but it seems that’s often the case.”

The city already has a “chronic public nuisance” code on the books, which empowers the police chief to respond to buildings used consistently for criminal activity. The police chief rarely resorts to demolition or a lien due to criminal activity; Burgess said a letter is usually enough to spur action by the property owner, and the hope is the same will be true when fire officials reach out.

The proposed bill includes an emergency clause putting it into effect immediately when the mayor signs it, rather than the customary 30 days. As a result, fire crews could act swiftly on roughly 10 properties if the bill is passed, Burgess said.

Vacant buildings end up in the city’s monitoring system via complaint or if a construction permit has been filed. The city then conducts monthly inspections. A building is dropped from the monitoring program if it’s shown to be fully secured after three inspections.

“Vacant buildings require consistent oversight and maintenance, so it’s not uncommon for a vacant building to end up back on our monitoring program,” said Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the Department of Construction and Inspections.

A bill passed last year increased security requirements for vacant buildings and made it easier for the city to enter empty buildings.

Harrell’s proposed bill now goes to the council for consideration. Councilmember Bob Kettle, chair of the public safety committee, called the bill a “commonsense measure (that) will substantially address the issue of dangerous vacant buildings.”

Councilmember Tammy Morales said in a statement that she appreciated the proposal. “Derelict buildings pose a significant danger and strain to not only our city employees but also the general public,” she said.