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Mayor Harrell Signs Legislation to Expedite Demolition and Remediation of Dangerous Vacant Buildings in Seattle

Seattle – On June 6, Mayor Bruce Harrell signed new legislation that will amend the Seattle Fire Code and allow the Seattle Fire Department (SFD) to order and complete remediation or demolition of dangerous vacant buildings.

The legislation was unanimously passed by the City Council this week and includes an emergency clause to take effect immediately. Under the new legislation, SFD will now be able to take immediate action to abate or make the building safe for neighbors if it is deemed an imminent risk.

“Unmaintained vacant buildings can pose real hazards to our first responders and the surrounding community from fires and trespassing, and we need every tool available to quickly abate and remediate these risks,” said Mayor Harrell. “The deadly vacant building fire that occurred in Ravenna this week emphasizes the need for a comprehensive approach to ensure buildings are well secured and that the City can take swift action if structures fall derelict. This is not just a public safety issue, but also an equity issue as many of these dangerous vacant buildings are in neighborhoods with existing racial and economic disparities. I’m thankful for the partnership with Councilmember Bob Kettle and Councilmember Tammy Morales on this urgent legislation which will help us build a safer city for everyone.”

Fires related to vacant buildings have increased in recent years, with 77 fires in vacant buildings in 2021, 91 in 2022, and 130 in 2023. Three people died in vacant building fires in 2023.

This year, there have been 34 fires related to vacant buildings, including a recent two-alarm fire on June 4 in the Ravenna neighborhood with a fatality and a three-alarm fire at a vacant apartment building in the First Hill neighborhood that required over 100 firefighters for suppression operations, displaced residents in a neighboring building, and shut down a major arterial for several weeks.

“Derelict buildings are dangerous because they often have holes in floors, missing stairwells, structural instability and present other hazards. When left standing or unsecured, they can attract trespassers,” said Fire Chief Harold Scoggins. “As a result, we have seen increased fire and EMS calls to derelict buildings, increasing the risk to neighboring properties and responding firefighters.”

SFD has identified over 40 vacant buildings in the city that are potentially impacted by this legislation and estimates that up to 10 properties may be addressed by this legislation each year. Depending on the degree of damage, the size of the building, the construction type and materials, the presence of asbestos, and other site-specific conditions, fencing and demolition costs will vary significantly.

Property owners will be responsible for work to make the building or property site safe. In extreme cases, the City will be authorized to do the necessary abatement work and then place a title lien on the property to recover costs.

Last year, Mayor Harrell proposed legislation to strengthen vacant buildings’ safety, security, and management. The legislation requires that building owners use stronger materials for keeping buildings secure, creates a quicker path to collecting fees for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection’s (SDCI) monthly inspections of vacant buildings, and improves coordination between departments on problem sites.

Currently, 300 vacant buildings are being inspected monthly by SDCI as part of the program. Approximately 100 of these 300 buildings are on the Fire Department’s list of dangerous buildings. 

What People Are Saying

Councilmember Bob Kettle, Public Safety Chair

The inability to abate or even demolish these hazards has contributed to a permissive environment where government stands by as predictable accidents and crimes occur. Yesterday, City Council voted unanimously to pass this legislation as our commitment to protect our firefighters, to protect our neighbors, and also to address the permissive environment that underlines our public safety challenges in Seattle.”

Councilmember Tammy Morales

“Fires in derelict buildings have become a dangerous hazard across the City, especially in District 2. Between 2022-23 there were over 60 fires between Yesler Terrace and Rainier Beach, and someone tragically lost their life. This legislation marks a turning point. I’m heartened that we passed this bill, as it’s something that I’ve been working on for over a year in partnership with the Seattle Fire Department, Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, and the City Attorney’s office. Thank you to Councilmember Kettle, the Mayor, and my colleagues for supporting this critical, life-saving bill.”

Kenny Stuart, President of Seattle Fire Fighters Union, IAFF Local 27

“Seattle Fire Fighters are grateful to Mayor Harrell, the City Council, and Fire Chief Scoggins for proposing and passing this emergency legislation to demolish and clear dangerous, vacant buildings in our city. Each year we’ve seen an increase in the number of fires and other emergencies emanating from these nuisance buildings but now the fire department has the tools we need to eliminate these hazardous structures. This is a necessary and responsible step to protect fire fighters and our community.”

Ellen Greene, Executive Director, First Hill Improvement Association

“This proactive measure addresses a critical issue impacting First Hill and our city.  We commend Mayor Harrell and the City Council for their decisive action and look forward to the positive transformation it will have on neighborhoods in improving the health and safety of all.”

Erin Goodman, Executive Director, SODO BIA

“Mayor Harrell’s legislation demonstrates a strong commitment to protecting Seattle residents by empowering the Seattle Fire Department to take decisive action regarding unsafe vacant buildings. The prevalence of such buildings in SODO has attracted criminal activity, increasing the danger they pose. Every corner of our city, including our industrial hubs, should be free from these hazardous sites. By permitting the SFD to address these issues proactively, firefighters can better prioritize critical life-saving tasks. We strongly support this forward thinking effort to forge a safer, more resilient Seattle.”

Tom Graff, Chair, Belltown United

“Vacant buildings create unsafe conditions, attract violence, dangerous criminal activity, and are the scene of drug overdose and unnecessary loss of life. Vacant buildings put the lives of first responders at risk. This change to the Fire Code is essential first step to hold property owners responsible for their vacant buildings.”