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Foreclosure ordinance has a loophole

The Medford City Council is finally getting tough on the owners of derelict houses — crumbling, boarded-up eyesores that blight neighborhoods and attract squatters. The council voted unanimously Thursday to approve an ordinance giving the city the power to foreclose on residential properties boarded up for at least six months, but the new law doesn't apply to commercial properties — a loophole the council should consider closing.

The First United Methodist Church on West Main Street has seen a sharp increase over the past couple of years in vagrants using its front porch and flowerbeds for a toilet, posing a health risk and a fire hazard when the night-time visitors toss cigarette butts on the carpeted porch.

Marinel Baker, the church's information liaison, says the property next door, an abandoned funeral home, attracts squatters as well. The building has a breezeway that offers shelter from the weather, and the walls are now covered in graffiti.

Baker says the building is owned by a bank, but Jackson County Assessor's Office records indicate the property is owned by SCI Oregon Funeral Services Inc., a subsidiary of Service Corporation International LLC, the largest funeral services company in the world based in Houston, Texas. Determining the true owners of vacant properties can be difficult; that's one of the obstacles city officials face when trying to get out-of-town owners to clean up the properties.

The former funeral home is not boarded up, and appears to be in relatively good condition except for the graffiti. But if it has become a magnet for vagrants, there is good reason to encourage its owners to take action.

The new city ordinance is a positive step, but it applies only to residential properties. The council did authorize Building Department staff to send out code enforcement officers and cite the owners of commercial properties found to be in violation. But that won't necessarily resolve situations such as the one facing First United Methodist if the owners don't respond to city enforcement actions.

Citations are better than nothing, but the threat of foreclosure would be much more persuasive. The council should consider adding derelict commercial properties to the list of those subject to foreclosure.