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This old (run down) house

This abandoned house at 145 Second Ave. NW is one that the city attorney is working on to locate all of the legal heirs.

Abandoned houses and properties come with their own unique issues, according to Oelwein’s City Attorney Pat Dillon. At a recent City Council meeting he had reported searching for heirs and property owners literally from coast to coast, and beyond.

“Some property owners voluntarily admit their property is abandoned and consent to its acquisition by the city,” Dillon said. “Sometimes this is because they inherited property that they cannot repair or put to use. Sometimes it is because of a failed plan of rehabilitation, too much debt owed against the property or other factors that would lead to a voluntary surrender.”

Dillon said the city uses Iowa Code Section 657A to address abandoned properties. He spends a lot of time providing notice to all owners and lien holders of the city’s belief that the property in question is abandoned. The end result of this district court action is to award title to the city.

“We want people to fix them up and have them on the market,” said City Administrator Dylan Mulfinger, who also serves on the City Council Housing Committee. “Improving a home is 10 times better than taking one down.”

Mulfinger said there have been instances where a property is deeded over to the city. He said certain procedures apply for the city to accept a property in this manner, including making a plan with the city and funding.

“If we acquire a home and it can be fixed up, we try to get that to a private contractor or bidder and out of our hands,” Mulfinger said. The money to tear down houses comes from local option sales tax.

City Attorney Dillon said he has six open 657A proceedings on file right now.

“We use inspections, police reports and citizen complaints to identify abandoned properties that need to be addressed,” Dillon said. “We also now have a vacant property registration program, which helps identify properties and who is responsible for them.”

While taking down a dilapidated house improves the look of a neighborhood, Mulfinger said, the next step is reselling the properties. It has been a struggle to get some of the properties sold.

“The city has 10-plus properties for sale. Some are too small for building on and some are in commercial zones,” Mulfinger said. He added that the city tries to get adjoining property owners to incorporate a small vacant lot to their existing property, but some owners don’t want to take on the extra yard maintenance.

The good news is the cost is very reasonable on city-owned vacant properties that are large enough to build upon. If a buyer builds within one year, the property is free.

Mulfinger said people looking to purchase a building lot can check the city’s website. At the bottom of the page there is a link to click on “properties for sale.”