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Mayor Harrell Announces New Legislation to Enhance Safety and Security of Vacant Buildings, Improve Building Monitoring Program

Seattle – Today, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced his proposal for new legislation to strengthen the safety, security, management, and monitoring of vacant buildings in Seattle. The proposed legislation responds to an increase in nuisance, health, and public safety risks associated with vacant structures.

“Vacant buildings can present real health and safety risks to the surrounding community and our first responders who may have to enter the structure in the event of an emergency,” said Mayor Harrell. “While we want to encourage new development and adaptive reuse of vacant buildings so that they do not fall derelict in the first place, these stronger standards will help us ensure that buildings left unoccupied are secured and maintained, along with efficiently inspected and monitored by the City so that they do not pose any dangers or hazards to neighbors and first responders. Thank you to Councilmember Dan Strauss for recognizing the need for action to strengthen and enforce vacant building rules and on our continued partnership to streamline the permitting process so that once-vacant structures can be quickly transformed into desperately needed housing or new small businesses.”

The proposed legislation would:

  • Strengthen the standards for securing vacant buildings by requiring solid core doors, stronger throw deadbolts, and, in some cases, polycarbonate sheets rather than plywood.
  • Require vacant buildings to be kept free of graffiti.
  • Require any building that receives a notice of violation to enter the vacant building monitoring program, rather than just those buildings that fail to correct a notice of violation by the compliance deadline.
  • Simplify the process for Police and Fire referrals to vacant building monitoring.
  • Authorize the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections (SDCI) to file a property lien to collect unpaid vacant building monitoring fees and abatement costs.

“I have been working to address vacant buildings across our city and district since I took office because vacant buildings can become a public nuisance. Our current code does not give us the ability to keep vacant building secured and this bill fixes just that with stronger requirements and enforcement capabilities,” said Councilmember Dan Strauss (District 6 – Northwest Seattle).  “Thank you to Mayor Harrell and Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections for bringing this legislation forward because the updates in this bill give us the tools needed to keep vacant buildings from being a blight on our community and ensures vacant buildings aren’t derelict buildings.”

The number of complaints about vacant buildings in the city with safety or maintenance violations has increased from 556 in 2021 to 694 in 2022, a 25% increase. Violations where SDCI had to pursue formal enforcement action increased to 345 cases in 2022 compared to 284 in 2021. 2023 violation cases will exceed last year if trends continue.

The Seattle Fire Department (SFD) has responded to 29 vacant building fires so far this year compared to 19 over the same period in 2022. These incidents include a fire in Columbia City, a fire in the University District in a vacant commercial building, and a fire in First Hill in a vacant apartment building in July. There have been three fatalities this year involving vacant building fires.

The Housing and Building Maintenance Code (HBMC) includes provisions for the maintenance of vacant buildings, requiring the owners of these buildings to keep them secured to prevent unauthorized entry and maintained to be kept free of garbage and overgrown vegetation.

Vacant buildings that do not meet the standards are placed in the SDCI’s Vacant Building Monitoring Program and are inspected monthly. Property owners may be charged fees depending on the condition of the building. Last year, SDCI worked with the Conservation Corps to clear and close 70 vacant building sites where owners had failed to do it themselves.

The proposal is consistent with relevant goals and policies in the Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan to encourage use of vacant or underdeveloped land for housing or mix-used development and promoting turning vacant housing back into safe places to live. It also aligns with the goal of providing programs, regulations, and enforcement to help ensure that all housing in the city is healthy, safe, and meets basic housing maintenance requirements.

To increase production of new housing and streamline the permitting process so that buildings undergoing redevelopment are not left vacant for extended periods of time, Mayor Harrell has advanced changes to the design review process – a program focused largely on building aesthetics – to provide a permanent exemption for affordable rental housing and affordable home ownership projects.

Additionally, under new state law, more residential and mixed-use developments are now exempt from SEPA review, expediting the review of projects that include housing.

What People Are Saying

Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins

“Fires in vacant buildings can present some of the most dangerous conditions for responding firefighters. The risks are often too great, leaving us to fight these fires defensively. We welcome the Mayor’s efforts to strengthen requirements that may prevent fires in vacant structures and provides a quicker path towards demolition or refurbishment.”

SDCI Director Nathan Torgelson

“Property owners have a responsibility to keep vacant buildings secure and free of outdoor debris. Vacant buildings are not illegal but can quickly become a blight on the community if not kept secured. This legislative proposal offers my department more tools to enforce our vacant building rules, will add more vacant buildings to our monthly inspection program, and require owners to install stronger materials for keeping these buildings secured from entry to reduce trespassing and related safety concerns.”

Chris Leverson, Project Manager, Build Lake City Together

“On behalf of Build Lake City Together, I strongly support Mayor Harrell’s proposed legislation that would create stronger requirements for vacant buildings. Tougher standards on properties left in blight and unoccupied will create safer neighborhoods and business districts for families and all residents to prosper.”

Erin Goodman, Executive Director, SODO BIA

“Vacant commercial properties can become targets for arson, trespassing, and vandalism that threaten the safety and economic vitality of our district where many manufacturing and industrial facilities are located. Some of these facilities contain combustible materials, making a fire at a neighboring building particularly dangerous and damaging. We are hopeful that these strengthened standards for security, maintenance, and monitoring of unoccupied buildings will improve public safety for the community.”

Doug Holtom, Executive Director, First Hill Improvement Association

“First Hill has seen numerous fires and even a murder at abandoned properties these past few years, so we are pleased to hear that Mayor Harrell is working to directly combat the blight and safety issues associated with vacant and abandoned properties. It is our hope that this new legislation will help streamline the process of entering abandoned buildings into the vacant building monitoring program and allow SDCI to keep a closer eye on these properties for any violations. Simplifying the process for SFD and SPD to report problem properties will also be critical to speed up referrals to the vacant building monitoring program.”