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Seattle mayor proposes emergency legislation to tear down unsafe vacant buildings

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(The Center Square) – Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell is proposing “emergency legislation” to amend the Seattle Fire Code to allow the fire department to conduct demolition of unsafe vacant buildings in Seattle.

Harrell’s emergency legislation comes as a result of the number of fires in vacant buildings surging in recent years. According to Harrell’s office, there were 77 vacant building fires in 2021, 91 in 2022, and 130 in 2023. Three of the 130 fires were deadly.

Through April 15, there have been 30 fires in vacant buildings in 2024. One of those fires occurred at a vacant apartment building in First Hill that required more than 100 firefighters for suppression operations, displaced residents in a neighboring building, and shut down a major arterial roadway for several weeks.

“While the city has taken steps to encourage adaptive reuse of vacant structures for new purposes, we cannot allow these unmaintained structures to put lives and property at risk from trespassers, arson, and other crimes,” Harrell said in a news release.

Property owners will be responsible for the costs to make the building or property safe. If property owners do not pay, the city will place a title lien on the property to cover abatement work costs, which can vary significantly depending on the size of the building, degree of damage, the presence of asbestos and other conditions.

Vacant buildings that do not meet city standards or are in the development process currently get placed in a vacant building monitoring program. If the city cleans up or closes a property on behalf of the property owner, they are billed for the costs. Fees for monitoring vacant buildings range from $271.85 to $542.60 per month, depending on condition.

The Seattle Fire Department has identified more than 40 vacant buildings within the city that could be impacted by this emergency legislation. The department estimates that up to 10 properties may be addressed by this legislation each year.

“The inability to demolish these hazards has contributed to our permissive environment – a culture where the government stands by as the most predictable types of accidents or crime happen – it’s time for that to end,” Seattle City Councilmember Bob Kettle said.

Harrell’s legislation will be considered in the Seattle Public Safety Committee. If it passes through the committee, it will go to the full city council for a final vote.

The legislation includes an emergency clause so it would take effect immediately following passage by the city council and Harrell’s signature.

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