Demolition is only beginning of problems concerning property neglect

The highlighted lots are all adjudicated. Some have been maintained by the city for decades.

Nathan Wilson | Reporter
When it comes to rehabilitating blighted property, the city’s last resort is to demolish an unsafe structure and recoup the cost from the owner. In many cases, the properties are then sold in a tax sale or relinquished to the city or parish government in a process known as adjudication.
Natchitoches Planning and Zoning Director Shontrell Roque described the tax sale and adjudication process for blighted properties, noting that expenses her office incurs along the way add to the delinquent taxes. “If we have to demolish a property or we have to cut grass, we’ll notify the property owner,” she said. “If they don’t pay the bill, then we put that charge as a lien against their property and it’s placed on their tax roll.” If the taxes and fees are not paid on the property by the next year, the city attempts to find a buyer during a tax sale. Properties become adjudicated if they go unsold during the scheduled tax sale.”

This article published in the March 26, 2022, print edition

When a property is adjudicated, the city or parish government has the right to sell it and keep proceeds equal to any taxes, fees and other expenses owed, but cities like Natchitoches don’t gain ownership of the property. Similar to a mortgage lender, city representatives are restricted from accessing the property and the owner remains legally liable for maintenance. Except in cases of emergencies, law enforcement activity or maintaining site safety, the city is barred from accessing the property, while the original owner enjoys access until the property is sold.
Local governments may conduct a tax sale a year after property taxes become due, but buyers receive a tax title, which gives the original owner the right to redeem the property for up to three additional years by reimbursing the new buyer, plus fees and penalties. In some cases, tax sale buyers must enter legal proceedings to evict the previous occupant, whether the previous owner or a tenant.
Since not all adjudicated property is demolished or blighted, the original owner may continue to use the property until a buyer is found. These factors create hurdles for both local governments and prospective buyers. St. Landry Parish President Jessie Bellard expressed frustration last year when his office discovered multiple landlords who continued collecting rent on property while delinquent on the property taxes. While Bellard didn’t specify the status of the properties, he indicated that the delinquent owners would be given 30 days before his parish would attempt to sell the properties
Local governments usually don’t want to see properties relinquished because of unpaid taxes.
Roque said property abandonment is a leading cause when there is no one to assume responsibility. “The (owners) who died really haven’t left the property to anyone, or they’re in their elderly years and can’t maintain the property.” When the city gets involved, the cost of maintenance becomes an issue for both residents and her office. “Nobody wants to take responsibility to take care of the land, so when that cost is given to them for us to take care of it, they pretty much just wash their hands of it.”
Natchitoches contracted with a private entity called Civic Source in 2017 to catalog and market its adjudicated properties. In exchange, Civic Source is allowed to keep much, or all, of the proceeds from each sale. Civic Source’s rationale is that local governments are slow and inefficient at selling adjudicated properties and that by streamlining the process they allow local governments to generate more tax revenue. Despite Civic Source’s efforts, their website shows 56 adjudicated properties, including a lot on Sabine Alley in Natchitoches which was adjudicated in 1992, and another on Jordan Street that has gone unsold since 1995.
Roque stated the price of maintaining adjudicated properties continues to grow. “Every year we’re losing more and more money because every year it costs more and more money to maintain them.” She provided insight into the amount the city directs toward demolishing and/or maintaining those properties. “We budgeted $33,500, so far this year we’ve spent $32,700.”
Roque indicated the city’s goal is to return its adjudicated properties to private ownership. “We want to get them back on the tax rolls, because right now with them sitting there adjudicated, it’s not benefiting anybody. We’re not making any money on it. We’re spending money on it,” She explained. “We’re losing money on it year after year, especially this grass issue.”
Facing similar issues, other municipalities have implemented creative solutions. Cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans have implemented “Mow to Own” programs, which give adjacent landowners the opportunity to make offers for adjudicated lots without an auction if the prospective buyer has tended the lot for at least a full year. Lafayette has addressed housing scarcity by partnering organizations like Habitat for Humanity to redevelop adjudicated properties. Other towns, particularly in the Midwest, are implementing a solution to a different problem that could be adapted to Natchitoches. Seeking to grow their populations, towns such as Lincoln, Kan., offer new residents free land with the requirement they build a home within specific time frames. This last idea is no stranger to Natchitoches, both France and Spain used land grants to populate the Natchitoches area centuries ago.