Dealing with a new law, again.

Recently the City of Omaha passed an ordinance with a name that should make property investors cringe, the “City of Omaha Vacant and Abandoned Property Ordinance.” To anyone in the business this can sound a lot like…REGULATION, which, of course, lends itself to crony capitalism, higher prices/costs and usually lower quality services.

I was completely against it at first. My initial reaction as a Republican is to fight it, but, I think, fortunately my Localitarian bent got the better of me and I reached out to the stakeholders.

First, the City. Being on the Zoning Board of Appeals has exposed me to the belly of the beast as it were. I run into and work with policy-makers and city employees all the time. One thing I’ve noticed is they they are not collaborators of grand conspiracies to make money, or take power from ‘the rich.’ They are, generally speaking, good people working hard everyday to make Omaha better. Many city employees are Democrats that default to government involvement first, but that’s why it’s important to have an open dialogue.

Property owners have an obvious stake being that they are a potential target of such an ordinance. An ordinance that could potentially take their property from them. This group, to which I belong, had good reason to be the most skeptical (especially if you know the history). The introduction of the ordinance caused a bit of an uproar and the lines became pretty clear, the city wanted to do something about the problem and the property owners were nervous about being victims of the city galavanting on their rights.

And so this story could easily be one of ‘government overreach’ or ‘evil business’ which is where these things typically go…and did go, of course. The big difference is that in this case we actually ended up with a law everyone will benefit from.

I am a property rights guy, and as antithetical as it may seem the reason I am FOR this ordinance is ironically to protect property rights.

We have a tendency to view issues through the lens of our own experience and so the phrase ‘property rights’ to me, originally, meant my rights as a property owner to have freedom to do whatever I want with my property. However, if you step back and look at this from 1,000 feet you will see that there are other stakeholders…the neighbors of the vacant/abandoned property.

If a property owner decides to depreciate the value of their own property, that’s fine, but they cannot harm others in the process. When a property starts to show signs of neglect it isn’t only that property whose value goes down. The neighboring properties also get taken down with it.

So, it stands to reason that just as a shoplifter cannot decide to take someone’s property for their own gain neither can a property owner decide to take equity from neighboring properties to meet their own objectives. And just like a store will use the police to enforce the laws on shoplifting so too should a citizenry have access to a law protecting them against this thievery of equity.

The details of this kind of ordinance can vary widely so it is up to the citizens and civic groups to be watchful of abuse, but there is a point where a city getting involved is perfectly legitimate. One owner’s property rights does not usurp the property rights of the neighbors, the community.

It’s taken many years since the great recession for cities to develop strategies to bring about an equitable solution to vacant and abandoned property issues. As property managers (and homeowners) we as a city have a tool available to us that can help us protect the assets at our charge. We do, after all, have every right to protect our property.


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