Cedartown, Ga. – November 9, 2015: The City of Cedartown has made notable advancements in its effort to clean up neighborhoods marred by blight. In the last three months, two structures – 211 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and 214 Turner Street — have been demolished.
The two recent demolitions can be deemed as successful in more than one way, said City of Cedartown Building Inspector and Code Enforcement Officer Joseph Martin. “Not only did it rid neighborhoods from unsafe and dilapidated structures, but it was done at no cost to taxpayers.” The City of Cedartown had received a court order on one of the properties and legally, the City was authorized to tear it down. However, demolitions can run upwards of $7,000, much more if asbestos is involved. Demolition of blight is an expense that the City would rather not incur. “Demolitions can be very costly; the City always has the bottom line in mind when spending any money, and so, in both cases, we were able to successfully negotiate with the property owner so that the demolition expense was done at their cost.”
WHAT IS BLIGHT?
So what exactly is blight? In it most simple definition, blight is defined as property that is structurally unsafe or displays unsanitary conditions. “A lot of people look at a house or a building and see that it’s unattractive and unkempt and automatically consider that it’s blight,” Martin said. “That is not the case. There are strict guidelines that define what is blight and what is not.”
According to Cedartown City Code 70-127, blight means any urbanized or developed property that meets two or more of the following conditions: uninhabitable, unsafe, or abandoned structure; inadequate provisions for ventilation light, air, or sanitation; an imminent harm to life or other property caused by fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, storm, or other natural catastrophe respecting which the governor has declared a state of emergency under the state law or has certified the need for disaster assistance under federal law; provided, however, this division shall not apply to property unless the relevant public agency has given notice in writing to the property owner regarding specific harm caused by the property and the owner has failed to take reasonable measures to remedy the harm; a site identified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as a superfund site or having environmental contamination to an extent that requires remedial investigation or a feasibility study; repeated illegal activity on the individual property of which the property owner knew or should have known; or the maintenance of the property is below state, county, or municipal codes for at least one year after written notice of code violation to its owner; and is conducive to ill health, transmission of disease, infant mortality, or crime in the immediate proximity of the property.
REMOVING BLIGHT: A LONG AND LEGAL PROCESS
Blight is not something that can be eradicated overnight, Martin says. “There are basically two ways to eliminate a blighted property; either tear it down or go through approved remediation or redevelopment. Some structures cannot be rehabbed and must be demolished. Others can be saved, and that’s what we like to happen.”
Either option is costly and is surrounded by a laundry list of legalities. Once a property is classified as blight, there is a lengthy legal process the City must follow. “We have to notify the property owner, which can sometimes be very difficult to track down, we then have to notify any lenders and anyone who has a vested interest in the property. They must be notified in writing and we have to give them ample time to respond. Once they respond, we then have to take them to court and the judge will usually give them time to see if they will respond and remedy the situation,” Martin explained. “But most times, these folks don’t have the money to bring it up to code or even to have it torn down.”
That’s when blighted properties become an expensive weight on the City and on residents. “In those cases, the judge can grant us the right to take care of the property. That puts a huge burden on the city and taxpayers. “The City wants to explore every option before we obtain court orders to bring the property into compliance. That’s why we consider those recent demolitions as a success. The blight isn’t there anymore and we didn’t need to use tax payer dollars to pay to clean it up.”
FROM BLIGHT TO BEYOND
The two demolitions follow on the heels of several recent initiatives by the City to attack blight aggressively, ensuring not only the safety of residents, but also improving their quality of life. This summer, the City hired an additional code enforcement officer to tackle minor code violations like grass overgrowth and trash on property, allowing the City’s other code enforcement officer to dedicate more time to focus on identifying and eradicating blight.
Cedartown: Selected as a GICH Community
In November of last year, Cedartown was one of five Georgia communities selected to participate in the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing (GICH) program. The objective of the initiative is to help communities create and launch a locally based plan to meet their housing and neighborhood revitalization plans. The Cedartown GICH team, comprised of community leaders and representatives with the City of Cedartown, recently presented their first-year report at a state conference in Tifton.
Getting the message across
In August of 2014, the Cedartown City Commission adopted an ad valorem tax increase ordinance on blighted properties. The ordinance allows the City to leverage a tax seven times greater than the millage rate applied to the property once the property is determined to be blighted. Revenues collected from the increased rate of ad valorem tax is used only for community redevelopment purposes, including defraying the cost to close, repair, or demolish unfit building and structures. To date, the City has not levied a seven times tax on any blighted property. “We really do not want to do that, but this is a good tool to have in the toolbox when we’re trying to combat these situations,” Martin said.
On the flip side of increased taxation, owners of blighted property can see a decrease in taxes if the correct steps are taken to remove the source of blight quickly. When a property has been officially removed from a “blighted” classification through approved remediation, the property then becomes eligible for a decrease in the rate of city ad valorem tax by applying a factor of 0.5 to the city millage rate assigned to the property.
Housing goal: Affordable and attractive
The City of Cedartown has several affordable and attractive community housing projects on deck. These projects aim to “up the ante” in the bigger picture of fighting blight and irresponsible landlords with the expected outcome being that with more affordable, quality housing options available, sub-standard housing and rental properties become less and less prominent.
First up, a $20 million dollar rehabilitation project from the Cedartown Housing Authority (CHA). This project includes the conversion of all CHA public housing units to Section 8 Project Based Rental Assistance properties. It includes acquisition, rehabilitation and equipping of a 100-unit apartment project, and 140 housing units in five Cedartown locations. The start date on the project is projected for early 2016 and will take approximately 8 months to complete.
Second, the Vinings at Oxford Project spearheaded by Vantage Development, LLC. Though still in the planning stages, this project aims to offer 62 townhomes comprised of 9 one-bedroom units, 32 two-bedroom units and 21 three-bedroom units on about 20 acres of property inside the City Limits. This development will provide decent, safe, attractive, well-located affordable housing for low to moderate income families in the Cedartown area. Site amenities will include a covered picnic area with BBQ grills and an outdoor playground and will feature a community building that will include a management and leasing office along with a community laundry facility.
“Every city, every county struggles with blight. It’s not just limited to one neighborhood,” said City Manager Bill Fann. “It is not an easy problem to get rid of, but the City’s focus on addressing it, providing the correct tools for our code enforcement personnel, and our involvement in the GICH program proves that we are serious and committed to improving our communities. It is a slow process, but it has to be in order to do it the right way.