Charleston changes ordinances but West Side still struggles with abandoned structures
By Jed Sammons
In early April, the city of Charleston, West Virginia began imposing tougher fines on the owners of properties listed on the vacant structures registry. The city has added a $1,000 fine for properties that have been on the registry for six months on top of the previous $1,000 fine that was assessed at 12 months. Additionally, the $10 per day fine that was charged after a property was on the list for more than 12 months has jumped to $20.
Two other changes the city made include adding a processing fee to the initial fine of $250 to $500 for having a property added to the list, and a $750 charge for properties that are added to the list as unsecured or open to intruders.
“Right now, throughout the whole city, we have 526 on our vacant structure registry. Most of them are on the West Side.” – Tony Harmon, Building Commissioner for the City of Charleston
“Right now, throughout the whole city, we have 526 on our vacant structure registry,” said Tony Harmon, Building Commissioner for the City of Charleston. “Most of them are on the West Side.”
For years the West Side of Charleston, which has an area of just over one square mile, has been littered with abandoned homes and other abandoned structures.
Boarded up, abandoned houses on one lot at 1640 Washington Street are listed for private auction on April 11, 2022. The houses had previously been listed and sold through the city’s tax sale system. The majority of abandoned homes, like these, are on Charleston’s West Side. Photo by Jed Sammons
“On the West Side, you can be on one block and the structures are well-cared for,” said City Planner John Butterworth. “And you can go right around the corner and things look pretty bad.”
As there is such a high concentration of abandoned structures in the area, the City of Charleston has begun exploring what it can do with the buildings.
If a building is believed to be abandoned, then according to City Code, the building commissioner is able to add the structure to the City’s vacant structure registry within 30 days of posting a notice.
For buildings that are structurally unsound and present a health risk, the City’s plan is to tear down the structures. According to Harmon, the city has torn down over 100 houses a year for the past three years. Of those, a majority were located on the West Side.
“Folks for whatever reason, they’re homeless or unable to have a place to be, are attracted to break into these structures for shelter or for criminal activity.” – John Butterworth, City Planner
As the City of Charleston continues to push with its initiatives to address the large quantity of abandoned buildings on the West Side, the people of the West Side are still struggling to deal with issues these structures present.
This high number of abandoned buildings has led to various problems within the community, as these structures serve as hideaways for individuals to conduct illegal activity in, or refuges for the homeless population.
“Vacant buildings can be an attractive nuisance,” Butterworth said. “Folks for whatever reason, they’re homeless or unable to have a place to be, are attracted to break into these structures for shelter or for criminal activity.”
As individuals break into the abandoned houses the threat of fires sparking in the neighborhood spikes. Fires, whether the result of arson or accident, are fairly common in abandoned structures on the West Side.
“There was a couple of months where we had about three (fires) a week,” Harmon said. “You can’t predict it. It just happens quite often.”
The frequent outbreak of fires is a major concern of individuals living in the community. In a community like the West Side, where a majority of the homes are only a few feet from the neighboring houses, fires have a very real possibility of spreading to homes that are inhabited.
An abandoned house at 1048 Garden St. in Charleston, West Virginia is only a few feet from neighboring structures on March 25, 2022. There was a notice from the city posted on the front door condemning the structure as structurally unsound. The proximity to other structures could be a serious hazard in the event that it were to catch fire. Photo by Jed Sammons
“The neighbors don’t really want (abandoned homes) there because they are concerned about fires starting,” said City Councilman Larry Moore, who represents Ward Four, located on the West Side, and grew up there. “It’s not safe.”
Outside of the physical dangers, the abandoned buildings create scenery that influences how people feel about the community.
“It is very depressing, frankly, to live in a community where dilapidation is tolerated. Where it becomes the norm,” said Marylin McKeown, a West Side resident and vice chair of the Charleston Land Reuse Agency. “It’s a disincentive for people to take care of their property when the property next door is left to rot, and owners are not held to account for maintaining their properties.”
Others, like Moore, feel that having so many abandoned structures and properties in the area hurts how outsiders view the area.
“It gives the neighborhood a bad reputation,” Moore said. “You ride through a neighborhood and see a bunch of burnt out houses and dilapidated structures… Assumptions are made.”
While the neighborhood deals with the issues brought about by the abandoned structures, community members want to see change come out of city initiatives.
Many of the abandoned buildings go through the tax sale process. In this process, there is a chance new owners can step in and take over the title to the structure. However, the likelihood of this happening is low, and the buildings can continue to deteriorate while sitting vacant.
Some properties that have the potential to be renovated, built upon or reused for the community are acquired by the Charleston Land Reuse Agency (CLRA). Through this newer agency established in 2019, the city is able to recycle vacant land and structures into community resources by finding developers and groups that can convert the properties into parks, housing, or commercial buildings.
“Most people in the city want to see them torn down, repurposed, sold and remodeled or given back to the community,” said Martec Washington, a lifelong West Side resident and community activist. “The Land Reuse Agency is trying their best, but I don’t think we give them enough money, support or encourage them to think outside the box.”
Washington said most people in the neighborhood are unaware of the existence of the CLRA and its efforts in the community, which he believes dampens the effects the agency can have in the community.
City commissioner Harmon said that if the city continues doing what it has been and pushes on with new programs like the CLRA that great improvements can be made in the near future.
“In the next two years I can see a big difference,” Harmon said. “Instead of tearing down 100 a year, we’ll probably be tearing down 35 a year. Maybe we’ll have a handle on it. I’m hoping.”
In reporting on Charleston’s West Side, I became familiar with a very tight knit community. It’s a neighborhood where everyone knows their neighbors, there’s no lack of community support and activism, and there’s a possibility that you might find a local councilman DJ-ing at a community event.