COVER STORY: DeKalb Court launches initiative to clean up blight in county

Atlanta’s vacant and blighted properties are costing the city between $1.6 million and $2.9 million a year in direct services, according to a report by Georgia Tech professor Dan Immergluck, with even greater effects on property values and lost property tax revenue.
The analysis, “The Cost of Vacant and Blighted Properties in Atlanta: A Conservative Analysis of Service and Spillover Costs,” also estimates the impact of vacant homes on nearby property values. The report provides a “reasonable estimate” of a $153 million loss in single-family property values, with a “conservative estimate” of $55 million. These translate to a yearly decline in property tax revenue of between $985,000 and $2.7 million.
Beyond the scourge on property values, blight, as a form of neglect, is a public health concern.
In 2015, Buckhead speculator Rick Warren was sentenced to 30 days in jail for blighted conditions in one of Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods. English Avenue has long suffered from neglect at the hands of absentee landlords. Warren being one of the biggest on record, had at least 20 housing code enforcement convictions to his name.
The solution seems easy enough: Demolish the blighted properties with reasonable notice and then send absentee landlords the bill.
It’s a solution that a group of Atlanta residents that comprise the group “Blyght” group can get behind. In 2016, they were so upset over the conditions of abandoned homes in northwest Atlanta, they sent a drone up in the air to document the dilapidation. The lobby: They want more money from the city to knock down abandoned homes, to hire code enforcement officers and to create more affordable housing in the English Avenue area and other areas.
Blyght member Alan Holmes, who is also the City of Atlanta’s social media manager, is serving on the city’s code enforcement commission, which is studying ways to make improvements to neighborhoods. He says where there are homes like these, measures of safety and property values go down, and the land can be put to better use.
But the way the code enforcements have been set up throughout the metro area, and with large swaths of blighted areas being owned by small companies and real estate investment firms, the solution has been elusive.
In neighboring municipalities such as in DeKalb County, where blight is looked at as primarily a public health issue, Chief DeKalb Magistrate Judge Berryl A. Anderson announced the formation of a new court effort to improve the quality of life for residents of DeKalb County. In conjunction with other county officials, Anderson has created a calendar that targets abandoned, dilapidated and burned-out properties presenting a danger to the citizens of DeKalb.
Under this initiative, once per month, the judges of the Magistrate’s Court Ordinance Division hear cases in which properties have been cited for multiple citations by DeKalb County Code Enforcement without corrective measures being taken by property owners. Under final orders from these judges, property owners will be required to repair or demolish these dangerous properties.
The key difference with treatment of these cases now is that if the owner does not repair or demolish as required, the county will be allowed to tear down these properties at county expense. DeKalb County can then in turn collect the costs of demolition from the property owner.
Supervising Ordinance Judge Hollie Manheimer, along with Judges September Guy and Matthew McCoyd, will hear these cases. These three judges were appointed by Chief Judge Anderson in May 2015 after the responsibility for ordinance violations in DeKalb County was shifted by statute to the Magistrate Court. The Ordinance Division hears cases involving code enforcement, animal control and ordinance violations, as well as the new cases that are labeled nuisance abatement cases.
“We have long been plagued in DeKalb County with problems created by these troublesome properties,” Anderson said. “In the past, there was not much that could be done unless the properties’ owners could be found. This initiative allows the county to move forward with taking down these properties regardless of whether the owners respond to court orders. We can protect the rights of homeowners while making sure the neglect of their property does not undermine the quality of life in DeKalb.”
Anderson notes that the ordinance judges are particularly sensitive to the rights of property owners. In each instance the judges will follow a strict procedural safeguard checklist to ensure that property rights are protected. In each instance, a notice is sent to all interested parties, including property owners, homeowners, mortgage holders and renters.
The first of these calendars took place on Aug. 24. Three of the 10 cases heard resulted in orders for the demolition of those properties unless the property owner takes immediate steps to make improvements. Another three cases revealed the owners had remedied some of the cited violations; in one instance the property was so improved that the Code Enforcement Officer recommended the action be dismissed.
The hearings will be held on the third Thursday of each month and the Court anticipates that as many as 25 cases will be reviewed at any of these hearings. The court approach comes in tandem with the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners approval of the county’s 2017 operating budget of $1.3 billion, which funds DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond’s top priorities of addressing the county’s water billing crisis, employment and blight.
The board approved $2.6 million for Operation Clean Sweep, a year-round initiative to target blight, litter, illegal dumping and cleaning up debris in county storm drains, streets, sidewalks and rights-of-way. As part of the $2.6 million approved, the county plans to buy four street sweepers, a front loader, dump truck, trailer and other equipment.
“Anyone who lives, works or who visits here should be able to walk and drive along the streets of DeKalb County free without encountering excessive litter and debris,” Thurmond said. “Residential blight did not appear overnight and will not be easily remediated, but I am convinced that a more focused, multi-departmental blight remediation strategy, in cooperation with civic groups, faith leaders and the private sector, will result in improved quality of life for us all.”


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