Mayor Bill Purcell

Cut, Clean, and Lien Vacant Lot Tracking Program


In 1987, the newly elected Mayor of Metro Nashville challenged some of his department heads to develop a program to address the issue of improperly maintained vacant lots. The issue had become a high-priority one for the City for a number of reasons.

At the time, large numbers of vacant and dilapidated properties were clustered heavily in the inner city, where many of the residents were low-income and unemployment was high. Community residents and local officials were starting to work together on redevelopment strategies for many of these neighborhoods, and the State of Tennessee had recently proposed a major new development -- the Bicentennial Mall, which would include State government offices and a new State park -- in the immediate downtown area.

Many of these properties were completely derelict -- overgrown with weeds, filled with trash, and a haven for rats, snakes and stray animals. In addition to being a blight on these neighborhoods and posing potential health hazards for area residents, the properties were also the scenes of drug deals, drug-shooting "galleries" and prostitution, and were a magnet for graffiti, illegal dumping and other acts of vandalism. The number and condition of these properties made many of these neighborhoods look and feel "unsafe." Many of the residents who lived next door to these properties were elderly, and most of them had bars on their windows and doors and ventured outside only during daylight hours and only to buy essentials or to make trips to the doctor.

Scope of the Problem

Metro Nashville's is a metropolitan form of government and its jurisdiction includes both the City and Davidson County, a 525-square-mile area with a total population of 535,000. Prior to 1987, City officials knew that there were a large number of neglected and abandoned properties in Metro Nashville, but there was no integrated system in place for tracking the number and condition of vacant lots over a large area, or for locating absentee owners.

Another problem was that existing City ordinances created no incentive for private owners to keep their properties clean. Based on complaints received (90% of which came from neighborhood residents, and still do) and follow-up field inspections, vacant lots would be cleaned by work crews supervised by the Metro Sheriff's Office. Post-cleanup, Metro Health Department inspectors would place the maximum, $50 lien on these properties, regardless of the scope of the cleanup, the size of the crew needed, or the amount of time that was spent. It was an unbeatable deal for the property owners.

Creating a Vacant Lot Program

In 1987, the three municipal departments that were given primary responsibility for developing and implementing a vacant lot program for the City of Nashville and Davidson County were Metro Health, Metro Parks and Recreation, and Metro Public Works. One of their first priorities was to develop a state-of-the-art computer tracking system that would be a central repository for all relevant information from all departments involved, including the council district, map and parcel numbers; property address; name and address of property owner, and citations issued.

Development of Metro Nashville's computerized Vacant Lot Tracking System took one year. The system included all of the information listed above, as well as updated land-use information from the Property Assessor's Office, referral tracking between Metro Parks, Health and Public Works, and Trustee's Office data on liens filed and paid. Starting in 1988, responsibility for vacant lot program tracking was given to the Metro Beautification & Environment Commission, a division of Metro Parks and Recreation. The Metro Beautification & Environment Commission is an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, Inc.

In order to establish accountability and consolidate management responsibility for the new program, the Metro Council introduced and approved legislation, which was enacted in October of 1988, to give Metro Parks the responsibility for managing the entire Vacant Lot Program. To strengthen the new program even further and streamline the enforcement process, separate Council legislation, enacted in 1989, moved the City's Vegetation Control Board, which was responsible for hearing owner appeals for cited vacant lots, to the Metro Parks Department.

In order to bill private owners for the actual cost of cleaning their property - instead of the $50 maximum fines allowable under existing ordinances - Metro Parks sought enabling legislation from the State General Assembly, which was granted and then approved by Metro Council in 1988. Additional State legislation enacted in 1989 allowed these liens to be billed with property taxes, creating an additional incentive for owners to keep their properties clean and pay liens promptly, or risk losing their properties in foreclosure proceedings. (Prior to this, the only compelling reason for property owners to pay outstanding liens would be if they required clear title to a deed.)

Up and Running

With its computer-tracking system, program structure, and local and state legislation in place, Metro Nashville's "Vacant Lot Program" was unveiled in 1989. Program staff included: one program coordinator and clerical staff from Metro Parks; one field supervisor and two, four-member laborer crews from Metro Public Works, and one supervisor, seven environmentalists and one clerk from Metro Health. The program had a first-year appropriation of $125,000 for cleaning the vacant lots, and the work would be performed by or contracted through Metro Public Works. (Since 1994, the Vacant Lot Program has been funded at $360,000 per year.)

Under Metro Nashville's Vacant Lot Program, Metro Health inspectors survey properties that are the subject of complaints and refer violations to the Metro Beautification & Environment Commission, which issues certified compliance letters to the last-known property owner of record. The letters place owners on notice that they have 10 days to clean their property or to request an appeal before the Vegetation Control Board.

Re-inspections are conducted by Health Environmentalists, who are in the field from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., spending some 55% of their time on the Vacant Lot Program during the "growing season" (the summer months) and 35% during the "off-growing" season. In addition, a staff member from Metro Beautification & Environment spends three days a week touring the communities and reporting potential violations. Any vacant lots that are not "cut and clean" are flagged on the tracking system. Private owners who either fail to abate the conditions or who do not file for appeals have their properties referred to Metro Public Works, which has the legal authority to enter private property. Following the City's cleanup, liens are placed on the property equal to the cost of the cleanup and are billed with property taxes.

From the beginning, monthly computerized reports were distributed by Metro Beautification & Environment staff to the Mayor, the 40 Metro Council members, department heads involved in the program, Parks and Vegetation Control Board members, Metro Beautification & Environment Commissioners, and to Tennessee Department of Transportation officials. (Through a litter grant, TDOT provides funds to assist with Program computer costs.) The monthly reports list vacant lots that have been reported by anyone -- citizens, community groups, local elected officials, neighborhood audits, or Health environmentalists in the field. Citizens reporting vacant lots do not have to give their names, which accounts for the large number of citizen referrals.

The Vacant Lot Tracking Team -- comprising staff from Metro Parks, Metro Health, Metro Public Works, Metro Trustee's Office, Metro Legal and the Mayor's office -- meets monthly to review operational issues and implement new procedures as needed.

Results of Metro Nashville's Vacant Lot Program

From the beginning, the goals of the Vacant Lot Program have been to eliminate conditions in vacant lots that are a source of litter and neighborhood blight, to have 100% of the vacant lots cleaned by the owners, and to achieve year-round compliance with City ordinances requiring that vacant lots be properly maintained. Since 1989, Metro Nashville's Vacant Lot Program has achieved the following results:

From 1989 through July of 1999, the Program has tracked 28,778 vacant lot reports, averaging approximately 3,000 lots tracked per year.

The Program is tracking an estimated 85% of all vacant lots in the Metro area. (Some vacant lot properties in outlying areas are zoned "agricultural," and are not held to the same standards.)

By the end of 1989, the Program was tracking 1,680 lots. The number of lots tracked peaked in 1994 (3,367) and is currently 1,329 (as of July 1999).

Of all lots reported, over 90% have been cleaned by private owners or have been cleaned by the City and had liens placed on them.

From 1989-1999, the average lien placed was $500.

Since 1989, 68% of liens have been paid. (State legislation allows for collection of liens that are outstanding for more than one year through the Environmental Court.)

From 1989 through July of 1999, the City has placed a total of $1,191,107 in liens on vacant lots, and has collected $693,137 in lien payments.

The Program continues to have a significant, visible impact on the community. A case in point is Council District 20, an inner-city neighborhood where the Bicentennial Mall is now located. During 1994, with the enthusiastic support of the 20th District Councilwoman, 600 vacant lots were tracked and all were cleaned by the private property owners or by Metro Public Works. As a result of the Bicentennial Mall's development, many of the formerly abandoned lots have now been incorporated into the beautiful, new State park, or are now the site of the Farmer's Market, new commercial properties or fast food restaurants. In addition, with the help of Metro Housing and Development federal funding, a new neighborhood -- Hope Gardens -- has been created in this council district, with newly constructed affordable housing and a neighborhood park, on the former sites of some of the most derelict abandoned properties.

The Nashville Housing Foundation reports that a total of 120 properties to date - most of which were vacant lots - have been transformed into affordable housing for families and, at a market value of $70,000 each, been returned to the property-tax-paying rolls.

In addition to the $693,137 in lien payments already collected by the City from private owners -- and the new homes and businesses that have replaced once-decrepit vacant properties -- Metro Nashville's Vacant Lot Program translates into $1 million a year in "cost avoidance" for the City, the result of private owners who now clean up their own properties instead of municipal labor crews having to do the work. Using Keep America Beautiful's Photometric Index measuring tool, the Metro Beautification & Environment Commission recently reported a 90% decrease in litter in vacant lots in 1999, compared to their baseline measurement in 1989.

For more information, please contact:

Metro Beautification & Environment Commission

Centennial Park Office

Park Plaza at Ornan Street

Nashville, TN 37201

Phone: (615) 862-8400

Fax: (615) 862-8414

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