Squatters, fires plague vacant building in downtown Las Vegas

With an economic revival in full swing in downtown Las Vegas, the sight of vacant, boarded buildings on Fremont Street elicits giddy speculation about what new restaurant, bar or small business might be coming next.

However, a vacant building a block away from the action on Fremont that’s been the site of several fires in recent months has city officials hoping it just doesn’t get any worse.

The three-story structure at 100 S. 14th St. has been the site of at least four fires since September, including two on one weekend this month.

Each time firefighters from the Las Vegas Fire Department arrived quickly enough to extinguish flames before they spread, but that’s no assurance to people who are worried about what could happen next.

“We’ve been pretty lucky nobody has been injured,” said Councilman Bob Coffin, who represents the neighborhood that includes the vacant building. “We have got to get that secured, and we can’t have any more games being played.”

The building was purchased Oct. 24 by VFC Properties 24 LLC, of Waco, Texas, for $1.25 million, according to Clark County property records. It wasn’t listed on the city’s foreclosure registry, which is meant to make it easier to track vacant, distressed properties. The listed sale price is about half the $2.9 million records show the building sold for in 2010 when Fremont Assisted Living, LLC, purchased it.

A woman who answered the phone at First City Financial Corporation, which has the same Waco address as VFC, transferred a reporter asking questions about the building to a property manager who did not respond to a message.

But the ownership change isn’t the only factor that’s complicated the city’s response to problems at the building.

Building and safety officials say city policies allow property owners accused of allowing violations, such as broken windows and tall weeds, ample time to respond before officials take action.

Tony Guarino and Vicki Ozuna, supervisors in the building and safety department, said the case involving 100 S. 14th St. included 10 days for the property to respond to a notice and order to correct violations. When the violations weren’t corrected it took another week to 10 days to collect bids from private companies to fix the problems, then another 10-day period for the property owner to take action.

“We have to allow the property owner their due process,” Ozuna said.

Guarino and Ozuna said commercial property owners can be fined up to $750 per day for violations, penalties that are often reduced by the city council if the owner promises to maintain a safer environment. The owners are also responsible for paying the city’s out-of-pocket expenses for cleanup or securing entrances, and those charges are rarely reduced.

In the meantime the property has suffered damage from fires and break-ins, leaving a blight on the neighborhood and putting people at risk.

Fire Department spokesman Tim Szymanski said there have been four calls to the building since September, including two last weekend.

Szymanski said at least one of the fires was intentional, apparently the result of a dispute between squatters, one of whom sought to settle it by starting another’s belongings on fire.

The others were likely accidents, he said, probably from people using fire for heat or cooking.

While it’s commonplace for squatters to use vacant structures for shelters, the building on 14th Street is especially problematic because it has nearly 90 rooms and can accommodate dozens of people, despite firefighters’ attempts to board up the entrances.

“As we were going in the building to fight the fire there were people coming out,” Szymanski said. “They told us as soon as we leave they are going to tear the boards down.”

Vacant buildings have been a problem throughout the Las Vegas Valley, especially since the onset of an economic recession that resulted in thousands of foreclosures.

In some cases large, commercial structures have become more than mere nuisance. In March a fire swept through the former Key Largo casino on Flamingo Road, causing millions of dollars in damages and resulting in two firefighters being taken to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

Authorities suspect arson in the Key Largo case and are offering a $5,000 reward to anyone who can provide information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the offender.

Despite the danger, there are limits to what city officials can do to prevent vacant buildings from becoming a hazard.

Guarino and Ozuna said there are only 11 code enforcement officers in the city. The small staff means workers mostly respond to complaints and have little to no time for prevention.

Code enforcement workers are also limited to reacting to what they can see from the street. That’s why they say it is important for people who see violations from their back yards, such as green pools or broken windows, to call the city at 229-6615 and report the problem.

“If we had more people in our code enforcement we could do something more,” Coffin said. “We could have people writing up citations every day.”

Contact Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com and follow him on Twitter at @BenSpillman702