There are thousands of blighted, abandoned and vacant properties all over Prince George’s County, Maryland. But exactly how many there are, and where they are, isn’t known by the county. And the agency tasked with enforcing upkeep of those thousands has all of four people to handle it all.
That’s some of the information that came out of a county council committee hearing Thursday, as county lawmakers discussed a bill to help crack down on the eyesore properties.
The legislation being pushed by council member Krystal Oriadha starts with the creation of a registry of all the vacant properties around the county. It was assumed there was one, but there isn’t.
Leaders in the county’s Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement (DPIE) said they were aware of about 4,500 properties that would make that list, if one existed, but there’s no organized list.
“When we talk about development in our communities, making sure that we tackle this vacant property issue is part of ensuring that we have better development in the county, and that we don’t have banks or companies sitting on real estate just waiting for the better opportunity for them,” said Oriadha.
It’s change that leaders in DPIE said they would welcome — especially if it provided them with more information.
“It would be helpful for us — I love this legislation, thank you — but it would be helpful for us if we could distinguish between personal owners and companies, and LLCs, and banks,” said Valerie Carey, an associate director at DPIE.
She said over the years many of the properties have become possessed by banks, and the maximum $1,000 fine the county can issue once a year “is a walk in the park for them.”
The issue of ownership was a big theme as the hearing went on.
“One of our biggest challenges with enforcement of the vacant properties that we have within the county is the inability to hold mortgage companies, LLCs, and particular banks responsible for these properties,” said Donald Green, a supervisor with DPIE. “Especially the ones that have become foreclosed on.”
He said those properties tend to cause the most blight around the county, which then struggles to get paid back for maintaining those properties on behalf of the absentee owners.
In some cases, Green said, property owners aren’t even aware they own the property because it was unknowingly inherited after someone’s death. But in terms of the bank- and LLC-owned properties, lawmakers left the hearing convinced county lawyers weren’t upholding their responsibilities either.
The county isn’t able to fine corporations — it has to be someone within that company. But if those records aren’t kept up, the county has struggled to find the right person to cite.
Council Chair Tom Dernoga said that meant the county was missing out on an opportunity to go to court and win a default judgment, potentially giving the county ownership of the property.
In the meantime, it was agreed that increasing the amount an owner can be fined could also spur even corporate and LLC owners into action. That requires a change to state law first. But if the new law passes, it would also allow for daily fines.
Oriadha said doing that would create a “cost burden for these banks and companies that are leaving abandoned properties in the county.”