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When asked what legal changes distressed neighborhoods need, Paul Dodds submitted this essay

Whose private property rights deserve more protection? Deadbeats’? Or their taxpaying neighbors’?

Today, the deck is stacked for the deadbeats.

The cruel fact is that irresponsible, private owners steal the equity of thousands of taxpayers, who watch helplessly while their homes devalue, thanks to their neighbors’ neglect.

Until the state and cities have effective tools to protect law-abiding neighbors against abdicating owners, the quiet pillage will continue.

Little Rock alone has approximately 7,000 former house lots, all still served by utilities, roads, schools, police and fire protection. Many of the missing houses were razed at city expense.

More than 700 existing homes have been declared unsafe and vacant. Many more could be added to the list.

While some of these houses are irreparable, many others could be salvaged. But if irresponsible owners make themselves scarce, properties can languish for years, while the owners face no effective penalties.

Last year, City Director Joan Adcock re-focused attention on the problem by forming a Land Bank Working Group to foster re-investment in vacant properties. The group is developing legislative proposals for dealing with difficult neighbors.

According to Frank Alexander, former acting dean of Emory Law School and advisor to the group, Arkansas’s tax foreclosure procedure is among the slowest in the nation, and even at that it fails to provide would-be purchasers with clear titles.

In Arkansas, it can take seven years from the time a property is declared delinquent until it is freed for sale. Even then, new owners may still have to wait years before all claims from former owners have expired.

In other states, where laws have been revised, problem urban properties can be sold — with clear titles — in as little as two years.

Arkansas’s laws are antiquated and can curse purchasers who need insurance or standard financing. When near-worthless properties pose such tough legal problems, those properties tend to collapse further.

Proposed legislation would encourage deadbeat owners to become responsible neighbors. If they did not, and continued to flout tax laws or building codes, the state would be able to foreclose, move the properties to a “land bank,” and transfer them to more responsible owners.

The legislative package that would accomplish this has been endorsed in principle by the Arkansas Municipal League, the Arkansas Coalition of Housing for Neighborhood Growth and Empowerment (ACHANGE) and the Arkansas Association of Realtors.

Until cities have the tools they need to own and resell vacant and abandoned properties, we will all continue to pay the bill for abdicating owners.

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