Jun 4, 2024 - News

City acts to hasten demolition of derelict buildings

Vacant derelict buildings in Seattle.

A new bill passed by the Seattle City Council targets vacant buildings that pose an imminent danger. Photo: Courtesy of the city of Seattle

A bill that would allow the city to demolish vacant, unsafe or abandoned buildings faster if necessary was approved unanimously by the Seattle City Council Tuesday.

Why it matters: Because fires in vacant buildings have risen over the past three years — including one on Tuesday in which one person was killed and three injured — the city has been looking for more effective ways to deal with such buildings.

By the numbers: ​​Over 100 buildings in the city are currently deemed derelict, unsafe or a public nuisance, according to a report by Ann Gorman, a public safety analyst for the city.

  • Over 40 are both vacant and unsafe and have required a visit from the Fire Department at least once, according to the bill.
  • There were 130 fires — and three deaths — in vacant buildings last year, up from 77 in 2021.
  • There have been 30 fires in such buildings as of April 15 this year.

What they're saying: "Fires in derelict buildings have become a dangerous hazard across the City ... this legislation marks a turning point," Councilmember Tammy Morales said in a written statement after Tuesday's vote.

State of play: Currently, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) monitors vacant buildings, doing inspections as a condition of some permits or in response to a complaint.

  • The department can declare a building "unfit for human habitation or other use" and require the owner to secure, repair or demolish the building.
  • The Seattle Fire Department can also issue orders to remove or remedy dangerous conditions related to a building and refer a building to SDCI, which can declare it unfit, possibly leading to demolition.
  • Currently, 300 vacant buildings are being inspected monthly by SDCI as part of the program. About 100 of these are on the Fire Department's inspection list, informally known as the "Dangerous Building List," per the legislation.

How it works: ​​Under the new bill, the Fire Department will have the authority to require remediation or declare a building a public nuisance if it poses an imminent danger to life and property and to order abatement if the owner, agent, operator or occupant of a building fails to fix it.

  • Abatement actions can range from the removal of debris that poses a fire risk up to demolition, per the legislation.
  • The bill requires property owners to pay for necessary work to make dangerous buildings or sites safe, and if the city has to do the abatement, the city can bill owners for the costs.

What's next: The bill heads to the mayor's desk for signature and, because it includes an emergency clause, will take effect immediately once signed.

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