This article appeared in the January 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
A number of Georgia cities, including Jackson, Newnan and Macon-Bibb County, have successfully started to reduce blight within their cities.
When Kay Pippin campaigned to be mayor of Jackson, three years ago, clearing the city of blight was one of her main talking points.
Pippin won the position and has made good on transforming many of the city’s deteriorated sites into more aesthetically appealing properties, but it hasn’t been a simple or overnight process.
Pippin said that after taking office it took her about six months to get a handle on the scope of the problem and the steps needed to correct it. She asked the city’s police officers to drive around town and compile a list of the worst-looking properties. They came back with a list of 100.
Pippin and city officials then went to work culling that list as well as tightening and establishing city ordinances that address unsightly properties. In its current nuisance ordinance, unsafe and dilapidated buildings are covered as are litter control, noise, junked motor vehicles and more.
Pippin said she and other officials realized that the existing system of relying on the county to handle all aspects of code enforcement wasn’t working. She said Jackson officials told the county it would be better if they partnered with them to move things along. Also instead of going through superior court to request condemning and demolishing a property, Jackson officials decided to move those cases to municipal court, which Pippin said dispatches the cases quicker.
Property owners were notified that efforts were underway to improve the appearance of the city and asked for their help cleaning up their properties. Follow-up letters used stronger language, eventually telling some of the property owners that if they took no action the city would demolish the property and they would be billed for the work.
“We asked them to step up and do the right thing and get rid of the blight,” Pippin said. “A lot of people did the right thing.”
The mayor said Jackson, which has a population of 5,000, had dilapidated structures where drug and criminal activity were taking place and had also become gathering spots for teens.
Since the efforts began three years ago, 68 blighted properties have been taken down in a six-and-a-half-mile radius. In addition to razing the structures and removing the debris, grass was planted on the sites, she said.
“It makes a huge difference in a small town and a big difference in a neighborhood,” said Pippin, adding that improving how the city looks will help with economic development and attracting new businesses.
“It’s been a tremendous success,” she said.
In Newnan, the term “blight” isn’t used widely in official circles, according to Mayor Keith Brady, noting that generally “substandard housing” is what structures in poor condition are called.
“There’s not an agenda that goes by—and we [city council] meet twice a month—that doesn’t have some report on it,” he said. Those reports usually list six to eight houses that require repair or demolition.
“It’s an ongoing process for us,” Brady added. “It’s not a one-time issue.”
Brady said after code enforcement determines a property meets substandard housing criteria, it’s determined whether the property is owner occupied or investor owned. Both are required to make improvements, however those that are owner occupied are generally given more leeway to bring the property up to code.
“We are more willing to give homeowners, someone moving into a house trying their best with the means they have, to make into livable condition more time than someone who’s going to rent it,” he said.
In Newnan substandard housing rates a five on a 1-10 scale, according to the mayor.
“It’s something we work on diligently. We don’t let a day or week go by that we don’t address it.”
In Macon-Bibb County, the significance of blight is reflected in the numbers. Officials have 2,500 properties identified as qualifying as unsafe and being in such poor shape that acquisition, clean up and/or demolition are necessary.
According to Cass Hatcher, a consultant working with Macon-Bibb County, 16 properties have been demolished so far and 12-15 are likely to be demolished in January 2017. He said that the total number for 2016 was 250-280 properties.
Hatcher said Macon-Bibb officials studied the problem extensively, even traveling to Detroit at one point to assess how leaders there were dealing with their deteriorating structures and to gather ideas. The public has shown its support for the efforts, voting to approve a $10 million Special Local Option Sales Tax to address blight.
“People are encouraged by the action the city is taking,” Hatcher said.
Macon-Bibb prioritizes properties for demolition that are in areas where positive development is taking place. For example, some properties on the list are in a neighborhood where a new fire station will be built and another is an area where a former school is being turned into affordable housing units.
Macon-Bibb acquires the properties through foreclosure—a process that can take six to eight months. He added that making a property available to a responsible end user who will turn it into an asset for the area is also critical. Prospective end users are required to submit proposals with financing information and a timeline that are reviewed by the board of a land bank that determines whether to approve the proposal.
“We want to put the properties in the hands of good end users,” Hatcher said.