Large number of vacant buildings encourage squatters

November 17, 2018

For many years, Huntington has had a problem with people trespassing in and living in vacant and dilapidated structures. It became more noticeable recently when squatters took over a vacant hotel-turned-apartment building on 4th Avenue a couple of blocks from the campus of Marshall University.

Now the Huntington City Council is taking steps to correct the situation.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, City Attorney Scott Damron said the city’s existing trespassing ordinance is weak in that it only allows police officers to issue citations for people found to be squatting or living in uninhabitable conditions. This was not a deterrent because people would not pay their fines and they would continue to trespass, he said.

The council on Tuesday gave first reading to an ordinance updating local trespassing laws. The ordinance gives police an option to jail first-time offenders for up to three days and issue them a citation not exceeding $100. Officers may jail repeat offenders no more than 30 days and issue a citation up to $500.

Council member Joyce Clark said updating the ordinance is overdue and could help the city deal with problematic properties such as the Flats on 4th apartment building, which is frequented by squatters and creates a public health hazard.

Clark said she knows of people living in her neighborhood in a house where a “Do Not Occupy” notice is posted, barring them from living in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Police have issued citations with little success.

“The people left and about an hour later they turned right around and came back, and they’ve been doing that,” Clark said. “They have been given a citation. ... They don’t care. They are not paying it anyway.”

It is indeed a problem, and something must be done.

Ah, yes, something must be done. The easiest thing to say, but which always raises the question of what must be done or what can be done. Squatting and similar problems are found in just about every city of Huntington’s size or larger. It comes into the public consciousness when a result of the problem becomes too big to ignore, and then it fades into the background until the next mini-crisis.

The late Bob Evans told a magazine writer that when he was a boy growing up near Rio Grande, Ohio, the countryside was full of wild turkeys, but as he got older, the turkey population dwindled until they were all gone. He wanted to bring them back to the area, but instead of importing turkeys from elsewhere, he recreated the habitat that turkeys needed. Sure enough, wild turkeys returned to Rio Grande.

It’s the same with Huntington. An excess supply of vacant and dilapidated buildings attracts the kinds of people who live in them along with the problems they bring.

Maybe the tougher ordinance on trespassing will work. Maybe it won’t. It’s at least worth a try until the city can find ways of removing blighted buildings more quickly. Progress is being made, but it’s frustratingly slow at times. It takes resources the city doesn’t have, and it will take help from the Legislature in terms of laws that can speed up the process and perhaps even some financial assistance.

The ordinance before the city council will cost the city money. When people are arrested or convicted on city ordinances and are placed in the regional jail system, the cost of their stay is the responsibility of the city. The ordinance would cost the city money, but something must be done.

In this case, something is being done. Let’s see now if more can be done.

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