As Bette Davis Said...

"What a dump!" How many times has the phrase crossed your mind as you passed vacant lots, a ratty back yard, derelict strips of commercial buildings? Virtually no neighborhood between South Mountain and Squaw Peak is without a share of blight, as the Phoenix City Council finally acknowledged last year when it passed the Property Maintenance Ordinance.

The enormous popularity of the ordinance--city zoning officials get up to 7,000 complaints a month--is an index of its need. There's no question the new rule, which requires property owners to keep their land free of weeds, trash and other basic blight, is making a difference. It has literally transformed some neighborhoods, particularly areas where residents are hit by chronic economic problems, from shabby to self-respecting. Zoning inspectors say they even know of instances where neighbors pitched in to help each other comply with the demands of a warning letter from the city.

The next city council could make it still stronger by giving zoning inspectors authority to act when they see a violation, rather than having to wait for a citizen complaint. The inspectors also need more muscle to deal with scofflaws.

But it will take more than good housekeeping to end the insidious blight that results from having the highest percentage of vacant urban land in the country. Phoenix neighborhoods are pockmarked by vacant land--little spots of ugliness that decrease surrounding property values, generate no taxes or value, and generally blemish the area.

The city council has the power to make it uncomfortable, expensive or impossible for people to hang onto vacant residential lots, year after year, in hopes of cashing in big when somebody comes along claiming he's got Donald Trump's private number.

Leaders of the Willo neighborhood in central Phoenix lit the way a few years back by adopting a rule that vacant residential lots within their special conservation district must be landscaped and surrounded by decorative fencing until developed. But owners of the district's fourteen vacant lots so far have ignored it and zoning officials say they're powerless to enforce it. "The city attorneys tell us that technically it's a zoning stipulation, and those are not enforceable under the current state law," says zoning enforcement supervisor Alton Bruce. "About all we're able to do is send letters reminding people of the rule, and those haven't been very effective."

The city attorney's opinion is subject to serious legal dispute, however, and a courageous council would abandon the passive approach and instruct the city manager to enforce the rule. If some crank wants to sue over having to plant grass on a fifty-by-eighty-foot lot, let 'em--judges have to live here, too.

While they're at it, the councilmembers could jettison the tax breaks that encourage people to keep property vacant while they wait to make a killing on land speculation. Cities across the country are experimenting with tax increments, such as taxing vacant land at its potential developed value rather than leaving it in the lowest bracket. No such inducement exists in Phoenix.

"It's not unusual that holders of empty property in residential areas are asking more per square foot than commercial zoned property with frontage on major commercial streets fetches, but paying taxes at the very lowest rate," says architect Dave Armacost, a Willo resident.


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