City raising penalties on abandoned, neglected properties

Las Vegas officials first heard about 613 W. Monroe Ave. from the Metropolitan Police Department in October 2006.

The house was vacant and open, attracting vagrants and constituting an "attractive nuisance" -- which is bureaucratese meaning "something that's gonna cause problems."

And it did.

Initially, the company trying to sell the property, which was owned by a Henderson real estate company, complied with city orders to board up windows and clean up trash and weeds. People, however, kept dumping trash on the property and breaking in to squat in the house or use it for parties.

The trespassing reportedly squelched efforts to sell the property, and then in early 2008 a fire gutted the house so badly that it had to be demolished.

In cleaning up and inspecting the property, which is now bank-owned, the city tallied $10,854 in expenses. Those attach to the property as a lien that has to be paid before the property can be sold.

And in a continuation of a policy meant to scare the owners of vacant properties into dealing with problems themselves, the city assessed $500-a-day civil penalties for the 716 days the property had been found with code violations, bringing the total lien to $366,400 and change on a property in a struggling, lower-income neighborhood that last sold for $90,195.

Mayor Oscar Goodman makes no apologies for the policy, which has led to the council assessing more than twice the amount of penalties in the first 10 months of this fiscal year than were charged in 2001 to 2008, combined.

The number of liens is increasing as well. The city placed liens on 29 properties in the 2006-07 fiscal year and 26 properties in 2007-08. From July 2008 through May, though, liens have been placed on 65 properties.

These properties can be found throughout the city, although they tend to concentrate in the older parts of town in Wards 1, 3 and 5.

Goodman says the approach is working -- property owners are cleaning and securing their properties rather than face a hefty fine.

For those that have a lien attached, though, the approach often wipes out all or most of the property's value, and it's usually a bank that ends up taking the hit.

In fiscal years 2001 through 2008, Las Vegas assessed a total of $1.57 million in fines on problem properties.

From July 2008 through May, the fines assessed were more than twice that much -- $3.7 million, according to a report recently submitted to the council.

The amount of those fines actually collected, meanwhile, has fallen sharply. In 2001-08, the city collected $1.1 million of the fines assessed. So far this year, only $51,900 has come in.

The city will be paid as properties are sold, although in many cases the council is forgiving the heavy civil fines.

"It's very hard to get it," Goodman said. "The fine goes on as a lien, and not until the property is sold -- unless the property owner wants to come and negotiate with us -- do we get the money."

The delay is probably because lenders are foreclosing on the properties, which takes six to eight months, said Kipp Cooper of the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors.

"By the time they're made aware and take possession, all these fines and fees have been amassed," he said. "They're upside down on the properties."

The lien is the responsibility of the property owner before the sale is completed -- a sale on which the bank is already losing money.

"They think they're getting rid of the properties, and getting kicked in the shorts ... on top of the already big losses they're taking from people walking away from the property," Cooper said.

Council members have been flexible about the penalties, though, when property owners contact the city and demonstrate that the property is clean, secure and being maintained safely.

In those instances, the civil penalties have been waived, with the city only recouping the cost of the work that was done on the property.

"Let them come to us. Let them fix up the situation," Goodman said. "Let them tell us that they're not creating a blight, and we'll be reasonable.

"If not, I don't feel sorry for them."

Contact reporter Alan Choate at or 702-229-6435.