A solution for vacant buildings awaiting redevelopment: House the homeless

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SEATTLE - When Marty Hartman drives by an empty building, she sees possibility.

"I could put a hundred family members in there tonight," she said.

Hartman is executive director of Mary's Place, a nonprofit that shelters homeless families. 

"An old grocery store, a gym that's closing down, the Sam's Club on Aurora, I drive by that and think, 'How many people can we fit in there?'"

Mary's Place has 600 beds mostly in vacant buildings slated for demolition and redevelopment.

A Belltown shelter is in a former office space.

There's a shelter in an old Mexican restaurant, and one in a former bank.

"We've been able to make all of them work and call them home for now," Hartman said.

Mary's Place typically moves in for a year or two while property owners wait for redevelopment permits.

It's a strategy the City of Seattle embraces, both for helping people and avoiding the headaches that come with vacant properties.

Such properties often attract crime, including squatting.

Many fires have started in vacant homes. 

"The best thing a developer, or any property owner, can do is just keep people in your houses," said Faith Lumsden, who heads code compliance for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections.

The city now gives developers a flyer saying there are better options for vacant buildings, like keeping tenants, housing a temporary art space, or hosting a caretaker such as Mary's Place.

Lumsden says developers can arrange short-term leases that make it easy to evict tenants when their permits are ready.

"Developers fear getting stuck with a tenant and having to go to court," Lumsden said, adding that the city is willing to be flexible because problems with vacant properties persist.

"We've had a run up in business on vacant buildings and really horrible vacant buildings in the last two or three years," Lumsden said.

The city says vacant property complaints jumped 64 percent from 2014 to 2017.

Updated regulations passed last year make it easier to declare a building a safety hazard and tear it down.

"We've probably more than doubled the number of buildings we can use that process on," Lumsden said.

Mary's Place leaders say they are always looking for shelter space, especially properties on bus lines and those large enough for 40 or more families.

Mary's Place