Denver Dealing With More Abandoned Buildings, Irresponsible Owners | Westword

Neglected and Derelict Buildings Sit Idle in Denver

"Lately, we have seen many owners not taking the steps necessary for maintaining their properties."
There's currently 127 neglected and derelict buildings in Denver right now, including the abandoned property seen above at 749 Lincoln Street on June 16.
There's currently 127 neglected and derelict buildings in Denver right now, including the abandoned property seen above at 749 Lincoln Street on June 16. Chris Perez
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Does the City of Denver have an abandoned buildings problem?

The data certainly says so.

Between 2016 and 2019, Denver's Department of Community Planning & Development (CPD) closed 210 cases of neglected and derelict buildings (NADB) through compliance improvement or demolition. The department was able to do this thanks to fining mechanisms and owner responsibility, according to CPD communications director Ryan Huff.

In 2020 and 2021, the city closed 88 NADB cases combined, a dip that was expected during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the rate of addressing abandoned homes has continued to decrease, with just thirty cases closed in 2022 and twenty in 2023, according to CPD data.

"Lately, we have seen many owners not taking the steps necessary for maintaining their properties," Huff says, adding that abandoned buildings are on the rise in Denver.

With a little over six months to go in 2024, the city has closed thirteen NADB cases, despite there being 127 neglected and derelict buildings scattered across Denver right now, Huff says.

"Each property has its own unique circumstances," he tells Westword. "The most common way that properties end up on our list is that they have been unoccupied for three consecutive months, boarded up and have not shown evidence of construction."

According to Huff, the city has seen an increase in neglected and derelict properties since the pandemic. Before COVID, interest rates were more favorable and many property owners were redeveloping buildings and improving their neighborhoods, he says.

In order for a property to be found in compliance and an NADB case closed, violations must be "abated" or cleared up with CPD so that the property can be deemed "legally reoccupied" again, according to city code. They can also be closed when a building has been demolished and its lot cleared in accordance with the city code.
click to enlarge A chart showing numbers for the amount of neglected and derelict buildings closed in compliance in Denver.
Denver's twenty NADB cases closed in compliance last year were the lowest in nearly a decade.
Department of Community Planning and Development
This is what happened on Bail Bonds Row in Civic Center last month, where a decaying property at 1303 Delaware Street was knocked down after repeated calls for service due to trespassers and people using drugs inside. The Denver Police Department worked with CPD and its Neighborhood Inspections team to coordinate the demolition with the owner, who had been forced to leave the property abandoned after a fire led to structural damage. First responders reported feeling unsafe when entering the property to carry out service calls.

In West Washington Park, neighbors of 749 South Lincoln Street have been complaining about a boarded-up home that is currently on the NADB list. Neighbors claim the property is a "disaster waiting to happen," according to a Denver7 report, because of squatters and unsafe conditions.

A little farther north, remains of a fourplex at 457-461 South Lincoln Street have sat for nearly a year after the building exploded in August. Although a CPD spokesperson said the owner of the property wasn't "as responsive as the city would hope,” the department was able to get in touch with the owner, who eventually applied for proper demolition permits. The city issued a permit to the owner in early June, shortly after the building's demolition plan was approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment. According to CPD, the property owner can now move forward with the demolition.

Huff says CPD has heard different excuses for why houses like these remain neglected and derelict. Many owners have said they had planned to remodel but then lost funding. "Historically high interest rates factor into this, too," he adds.
click to enlarge Destroyed house with warning signs
Since exploding last August, the building at 457-461 South Lincoln Street has been considered unsafe and hazardous by the city.
Catie Cheshire
"We have recently revised the remedial plan packet to hold owners more responsible to a maintenance plan if they are waiting on funding for redevelopment," he says. "Our ultimate goal is for the owner to devise a plan for compliance, execute that plan, and during that progress actively maintain the property."

As for the currently abandoned properties, Huff tells Westword they're visited on a monthly basis by the Neighborhood Inspections team to ensure they're boarded up and secured to prevent trespassing.

"Owners need to be responsible for maintaining and securing their property," Huff emphasizes. "Blight begets blight. The more abandoned and deteriorated a property is, the more we see an attraction of other negative elements such as individuals trespassing and staying on the property, accumulation of trash and debris, drug use and public health violations."

When looking at CPD's neglected and derelict property list for June 2024, it's easy to see where Denver's abandoned building problem has festered.

Council District 3 — which includes the neighborhoods of Auraria, Barnum, Barnum West, Lincoln Park, Mar Lee, Sun Valley, Valverde, Villa Park, West Colfax and Westwood — has 36 NADB cases right now, or double what all the other districts have, with the exception of District 9. In District 9, made up of the City Park, Clayton, Cole, Elyria-Swansea, Five Points, Globeville, Skyland, Whittier, North Park Hill and South Park Hill neighborhoods, there are 21 cases.

District 7 — which comprises Athmar Park, Alamo Placita, Baker, Speer, Rosedale, Overland, Ruby Hill, Platt Park, West Washington Park and parts of Capitol Hill — is the next highest, at eighteen, followed by District 10 with eleven. The Central Business District, North Capitol Hill, South City Park, City Park West, Civic Center, Cheesman Park, Union Station, Capitol Hill and Congress Park neighborhoods make up District 10.

At least two properties are currently scheduled for demolition, according to Huff. They include 3191 West Custer Place, which went through the city's receivership process and is expected to be torn down in the next couple of months, and 539 Bannock Street, which experienced a fire of unknown cause and had a demolition permit issued in early June. 
click to enlarge An abandoned home in Denver.
The neglected and derelict property at 539 Bannock Street that's set for demolition.
Chris Perez

One of the main focuses of the NADB Program in 2024, Huff says, is to stay on top of property owners so they can bring the number of closed cases up.

"We are pleased that in January 2024, we hired a full-time staff member to only focus on neglected and derelict properties," he notes. "This provides a targeted effort to identify and rehabilitate neglected properties, and is another reason why we have a higher number of identified neglected properties and related inspections this year compared to prior years."

Asked to give advice to people with neglected and derelict properties, Huff says owners must "first and foremost" understand Denver's municipal code expectations and the things they can or cannot do.

For instance, it is legal to have a vacant property in Denver as long as the owner does the remedial plan, maintains the structure and surrounding land, stays code-compliant and pays any outstanding fees or fines. If they don't do these things and fail to comply with registration requirements, the city is able to fine owners $500 per day — up to $15,000 — and then issue daily civil fees of $999 for each day a property is considered neglected and derelict.

Huff suggests that owners take the easy route and perform necessary measures to avoid city penalties.

"If your property is boarded, take measures to secure the property in a different way," he says. "If your property is waiting on redevelopment, then focus on the demolition of the building first so that you can avoid code violations."

At the end of the day, CPD wants to protect the "safety, prosperity, health and welfare of all city residents," according to Huff. For the department to do that, property owners must also hold themselves accountable or face penalties, he says, and those penalties extend into taxpayer dollars, too.

"If property owners aren’t properly maintaining their yards and structures, CPD will remove weeds, clean up debris, board up windows, etc. And then we add that bill onto their fines and/or put a lien on the property," Huff explains. "We want to ensure that taxpayers are not on the hook for what should be the responsibility of the property owner."
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