The ideas for regulating the use of private property never seem to end. The latest is an idea that has already been implemented in such places as Wilmington, Delaware and Albany, New York, and is now under consideration by the City of Tucson.  It’s called a “vacant property registration fee.” The idea sounds pretty simple: if your property is vacant for more than one year, you must pay an annual fee to the City. The City assesses the fee based on a sliding schedule according to how long the property has been vacant.

Now, I suspect that the driving force behind this type of fee in the places where it has been implemented is the presence of significant numbers of vacant buildings that are unsightly, magnets for crime, etc. The Wilmington, Delaware code provision imposing the registration and fee requirements expressly refers to “a building that has been vacant for more than forty-five days….”

That crucial aspect of this concept seems to not be a part of the conversation in Tucson, however.  The information I have seen from the City so far makes no mention at all of any differentiation between vacant buildings and vacant land.  The Arizona Daily Star, in a recent editorial about the proposal, criticized it in part because the editorialists did not see why a property owner who “decided to buy a vacant lot adjacent to his home to have more open space or greater privacy… should be punished with a fee.”

Perhaps the apparent lack of differentiation between land and buildings is due only to insufficient detail in the information that has been published to date.  In a city where there are lots of abandoned buildings, the idea of giving the owners of those buildings some incentive to get them occupied does make some sense.

I’m not sure the idea makes much sense in Tucson, though.  The only place I can think of where there is any significant concentration of vacant buildings is downtown.  While some of them are not in particularly good shape, few if any are abandoned and open to illegal activity or vandalism.

One of the reasons that the fee is being proposed is as a way to raise money for the City’s Tucson Housing Trust Fund, which is intended to subsidize affordable housing.  A laudable goal, to be sure, but I doubt that the fee will raise much money if it is applied only to vacant buildings.  Applying the fee to vacant land as well as buildings, on the other hand, could raise a large amount of money for the trust fund.

There are undoubtedly some folks who think imposing a penalty for leaving vacant land in the City is a good idea, despite the Star’s criticism.  After all, isn’t “infill” supposed to be a good thing?

The program in Wilmington, Delaware, requires an owner of a building that has been vacant for more than 45 consecutive days to file a notarized statement with the city department that enforces the registration fee. The code allows a one-time waiver of the fee if the property owner can prove that he or she is in the process of demolition, rehabilitation, or other substantial repair of the vacant building and work will be completed in a reasonable time, or that he or she has been actively attempting to sell or lease the property during the vacancy period.

If a similar program is implemented in Tucson, the City will then of course have to hire more staff to locate properties that aren’t registered, as well as hear requests for waivers from owners who can’t comply for some reason, and appeals from owners who claim that their buildings really are occupied.  No matter how good an idea a new regulation may be, those proposing it never seem to consider the cost of implementation and enforcement.

We’ll see if this proposal gains any traction.  If it is limited to vacant buildings, it probably won’t generate much opposition.  If it is applied to vacant land, then it could certainly be characterized as simply a new property tax on vacant land. Is an improvement in the supply of affordable housing a community goal that should be paid for only be owners of vacant land?