BELEN—Dozens of property owners in Belen began receiving letters from the city last month alerting them of the amended Vacant or Foreclosed Structure Registration Fee ordinance, and notifying them of the new rate structure and how much they owe in fees.
Intent of the ordinance
The Belen City Council approved the new rate structure in February, which changed from an annual flat registration fee of $25 to a 25 cents per square foot fee structure. The purpose of the ordinance is to keep a record of vacant buildings in Belen, requires owners to register their vacant buildings — commercial or residential — with the city.
“Everyone is pretty well aware that Belen has had a problem with nuisance, vacant properties going back 20 to 30 years,” said Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova. “The cause of that has been a shaky economy and a decline in the need for retail and office space.”
To better help identify any property that is vacant, an ordinance was put in place nearly a decade ago to inventory these properties.
A vacant property, according to Cordova, is determined if a commercial building doesn’t has a licensed business operating inside of it, or a residence without utilities.
When the city first enacted the ordinance, the annual fee for property owners was $25. The mayor said the city didn’t address strict fines or fees at the time, and there wasn’t a way to enforce the ordinance.
“(Since we approved the amendment) we have been gathering the data we needed to enforce the ordinance,” Cordova said. “In that time, our code enforcement staff was able to assess vacant properties around town and determine who the owners are, where they are located and the square footage of the property.”
The city has identified more than 100 vacant properties in town — about 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial. While the city continues to work on the list, the first 35 or so letters were sent out the week of June 22 by Charles Eaton, the city’s municipal regulations specialist.
The letters alerted property owners of the ordinance, of the fees they owe and asks them to address any violations of the property maintenance code.
“It’s trying not only to enforce the fact that the property is vacant, we encourage them to move it in the direction for the property to be filled with a business or residents,” the mayor said. “It’s also addressing conditions of the property, which may be unsafe or unsightly.”
Property owners’ reaction
At least two of the property owners who received letters from the city are refuting the claim their properties are vacant.
Joan Artiaga, owner of the Kuhn Hotel on West Reinken, received the letter stating she owes the city a $1,125 fee for her 4,500 square foot building.
While she understands the intent of the ordinance and what the city is trying to accomplish, Artiaga says the building is not vacant.
“I’ve had someone living in there for 15 years,” Artiaga said. “I talked to the mayor and I need to give him a letter from me and the tenant.”
While admitting the building looks abandoned, Artiaga said she has had numerous incidents in which people have vandalized the structure, breaking at least 200 windows over the years. Right now, the building has about 23 broken windows, all covered with plywood.
“It appears that it’s vacant, but I explained it’s not,” she said. “I have someone there who takes care of the property — mainly at night when a lot of people come to do drugs or drink alcohol under the bridge. He goes outside at night and chases people off.”
When Artiaga bought the building in 2003, she had a lot of plans for the two-story structure that was once a hotel. She had originally planned to transform it into an artist coop with studios and a gallery.
“I got real busy working on the building and spent a lot of money stabilizing it,” she said. “Then my husband got very sick and he died; I then my health got really bad.”
One of the main problems with the building is the roof, which Artiaga says needs to be replaced. She said the cost of installing a new roof is estimated at $35,000.
While she has been able to put in new plumbing downstairs and has done other necessary work on the building, Artiaga knows more needs to be done and money invested to the Kuhn Hotel.
“I’m getting older and I’m tired — tired of the disrespect,” she said of the constant vandalism. “It’s the same people, and I know where they live, but the police say they can’t do it unless they see them do it. It’s the crime that has me down more than anything.”
When she received the letter from the city, Artiaga cried for two hours, saying she felt hopeless and bad because of the shape she allowed the building to get into.
“I was ashamed it had gotten to the point where people think it’s abandoned or vacant,” said Artiaga, who is the chairwoman of the city’s Historic Review Committee. “I understand the city is trying to clean up its act, trying to get things moving, but I don’t think scaring people and fining them is the right strategy. For me, it wasn’t helpful at all. I had one of the worst days.”
Artiaga said after speaking with the mayor, she felt better, and she just needs to show that the building isn’t vacant.
As for the future of the Kuhn Hotel, Artiaga said she wants to get the roof repaired and hopefully will be able to sell the building to someone who can invest and fix it up.
“The building has good bones, and the floors are wonderful,” she said. “I love Belen, and I want to help. I don’t want to be a hindrance. I just don’t have the money. Hopefully, things will turn around, and hopefully someone will be able to see what it is.”
Pete Armstrong owns one of the most visible buildings in Belen — the old Caldwell building located at the corner of Main Street and Chavez Avenue. He too received a letter from the city stating he owes a $2,475 fee for the 9,900 square foot building.
“They think it’s a vacant, old building and it’s essentially abandoned,” Armstrong said. “It’s not any of those. It’s a working warehouse.”
Armstrong said he uses the building as a storage area for equipment he used for his landscaping business, and also allows his son to store a Jeep inside.
“Through the years, I’ve purchased furniture, which is in there, and I also have two boats stored there,” said Armstrong, who is the vice chairman of the city’s planning and zoning commission. “There’s a lot of stuff in there, and it’s most definitely a warehouse, which means the ordinance they’re citing has no application.”
Armstrong purchased the building in 2015, saying he bought it for that very reason — as a warehouse.
“I have had this discussion with numerous people in the city regarding the building, and the mayor has been in the building,” Armstrong said. “It’s not abandoned.”
Armstrong understands the city is trying to get property owners to clean up their buildings, but said every time the city’s asked him to do something regarding his property, he’s done it.
“The building was boarded up some time ago,” he said. “They said I needed to paint the boards, and I did. I try to keep that building pretty well cleaned up. I bet I’m over there once every two weeks, picking up trash and cutting weeds.”
Armstrong said while he’s kept up the property over the years, he has a concern the city isn’t keeping up with its end of the bargain. He says the city has the responsibility of upkeep on the 5-foot easement on the north end of the building, which he claims hasn’t been done.
“I’m sure that we can come together and work out an arrangement on who has responsibility for what, and how we can work this for everyone’s benefit,” Armstrong said. “I don’t want to make this a pissin’ contest. I want the city to look good. I keep the front of the building to really look good.
“Because my building is on Main Street, it gets a lot of attention,” he added. “I applaud the city for what they’re trying to do. If Belen is going to turn the corner and join the 20th century, there has to be some code enforcement in the city. All you have to do is drive around the city and ask how do they get away it.”
Expectations from the city
Mayor Cordova said he expects every property owner who receives the notice is going to have a different approach in how to address the concerns the city has about their properties. He said some may argue the property is in use, while others will acknowledge it’s vacant.
“But what they’ll have to do is provide us with a plan of filling it with either a business or a resident, whatever is appropriate,” Cordova said.
While the city can’t force a property owner to sell or lease their property, Cordova hopes this will encourage them to keep up maintenance.
“They still will be required to have a plan of what they want to do with it, or keep it vacant and upkeep it,” he said. “We can’t make them list it for sale, but they do have to pay that vacant building fee if they want to keep it vacant.”
The city is giving the property owners a 20-day time frame to address maintenance issues, and the mayor said if they’re seeing progress, they’ll be happy with that.
“We’re willing to work with everyone in town. The goal is to get the best outcome for these properties,” he said. “We’re not trying to be punitive but we’re trying to enforce the ordinance.”
Failure to file the registration empowers the city to file a lien on the property. Failure to comply with the property maintenance code is $100 per day, and failure to comply with the vacant property ordinance includes a written warning for the first offense, $300 for the second offense after 90 days. A $500 fee will be imposed on anyone providing false information. A $100 fee will be charged for anyone who wants to file an appeal.
“What’s really important to me, and I hope everyone understands, is we need these buildings to look good, to have businesses and residents in them, to make our community more robust and lively,” the mayor said. “A lot of these properties are historic and important to the community.”
Belen Councilor Danny Bernal Jr., who is serving his first term in office, said a standard needs to be set by the city for buildings in the Hub City. He said the city is “done waiting and these buildings keep going in disrepair.”
“ … especially on our streets that visitors and tourists will see, such as Becker Avenue and Main Street,” Bernal Jr. said. “They can still be vacant and pay the fees and not do anything with the building, but we can’t have all these boarded-up buildings on Main Street. It just looks awful.”
Cordova said the city is willing to work with property owners to make sure they have a long history in Belen.
“It’s important to me, as mayor, to have a strong economy, and part of that is making sure businesses that need space can find good space in town, and it’s been a struggle,” he said.
The mayor said the longer a property sits vacant, the worse the condition of the building gets and they end up with a structure that’s beyond repair. He also realizes one of the bigger problems in attracting new business to the city is some property owners think their property is worth more than it really is.
“Sometimes the lease prices down here exceed what you can find in Albuquerque,” he said. “It becomes complicated as a city to grow our economy, make our commercial district successful when property owners aren’t being reasonable about the cost of their buildings.
“The property owners need to be accommodating, they need to be helpful they need to be reasonable,” Cordova added. “I can’t force a property owner to do much, other than very basic property maintenance, code enforcement and upkeep. Beyond that, I can’t make them invest in their property.”
The mayor projects if every one of the 35 property owners who received the first round of letters pay their fee, the city will receive $25,000 in direct revenue, and close to $100,000 for the remaining 100 or so properties.
Cordova said the city will invest the funds in its code enforcement program, as well as increase the number of demolitions of condemned buildings and residents in the city.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.