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Atlanta aches for crackdown on absentee property owners, blight contributors

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While luxury high-rises sprout like weeds in Atlanta’s wealthier neighborhoods, many of the city’s underprivileged communities remain littered with run-down, boarded-up residences. 

Concentrated on Atlanta’s Southside and Westside, many of those dilapidated properties are uninhabited not to mention uninhabitable. Sometimes, that’s because those homes belonged to longtime Atlantans who have passed away and perhaps left the houses to family members. All too often, though, these properties are owned by investors and developers — people who are content to sit on the land while the property values rise. 

Regardless of how properties might become vacant and blighted, the city needs to crack down on the causes of this urban scourge to protect its most vulnerable communities. So say Atlanta leaders like City Councilmembers Antonio Brown and Carla Smith. 

Brown, who says his Westside council district is “plagued by blight” said in an interview with Atlanta Civic Circle, “The only people who suffer from this problem are the neighboring residents. The owners of these investment properties can just sit on them, and no one holds them accountable.”

He’s referring to the mental, physical and financial burden of living in a community pockmarked by houses and apartment complexes that are withering away, costing the city and its taxpayers millions and creating unsafe environments for neighbors. 

In 2019, Brown launched the Blight-Free Advisory Board, a group dedicated to identifying blighted, vacant properties and figuring out how to deal with them whether that means repairing them so they’re up to code or knocking them down. 

Remedying these issues, however, is far easier said than done, in part because these absentee property owners can be difficult to track down. In some cases, the name of a deceased homeowner might be on the deed, and a family member who might have inherited it is tough to reach; in others, an investor might be using the name of an obscure LLC to hold the property. 

When code enforcement can locate the property owners, though, they need to be held accountable for contributing to the decay of a community, Brown said. “We have rules that allow for nuisance properties to be demolished,” he said. “It’s insane to me that some of these properties have looked like this for over 20 years. How is this allowed? There’s not an efficient process in place to address them.”

Right now, if someone complains to the city about a potentially unsafe vacant property, code enforcement personnel will go out to inspect the place. If things aren’t up to par, the homeowner — assuming they’re able to be reached — will be asked to make repairs. If they don’t, they could be fined up to $1,000 or jailed for up to 180 days. 

And if none of that gets the property restored to a livable condition, the city could seize it and do the rehab or demolition itself. But that’s a cumbersome process that often doesn’t result in remediation. 

Cecil Phillips, CEO of affordable housing developer Place Properties, told Atlanta Civic Circle that he thinks repercussions need to be swifter and more severe. He suggested fining absentee property owners $1,000 every day until either they bring their buildings up to code or run up a tab of, say, $60,000. If the bill hits that amount, Phillips said, the city could foreclose upon the property and find a way to turn it into affordable housing. 

Brown said he’s on board with Phillips’s idea. “I think we should be taking a more aggressive approach in addressing blight in the city,” he said. “We need to hold property owners and developers accountable for contributing to this problem. We’ve got to increase the fines because that’s the only way to hit them where it hurts, their wallets.”

Additionally, Carla Smith, a city councilwoman who represents a Southside district also troubled by blight and vacant properties, told Atlanta Civic Circle she worked with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s administration to draft legislation that could help further address the issue. 

The legislation would “authorize the Mayor … to execute any agreements concerning Abatement Properties” — properties subject to code enforcement liens — “that she deems necessary to further the objectives of the One Atlanta Initiative and create or preserve workforce affordable housing units, including, without limitation, agreements with Developer Owners of Abatement Properties requiring the construction of workforce affordable housing made available to qualifying individuals and families in exchange for lien cancellations,” according to the current draft. 

Essentially, the proposal would make it easier for the city to foreclose on problematic properties, and it gives the owners two choices: They can forfeit their property over to the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority, and Invest Atlanta would redevelop it as affordable housing, or the owners can enter into an agreement with the city that allows them to pay the cost of their liens into an escrow account and promise to create affordable housing on the site. If they do — and sell it to someone in need at a price that fits the city’s affordability requirements — the city would refund the cost of the liens and let bygones be bygones. 

It’s not the be-all, end-all to Atlanta’s vacant housing problem, and realizing such a goal — ridding the city of blight replacing it with housing — is no small chore. Additional robust legislation will likely be required to tackle the daunting issue the city has grappled with for decades.

(Header image via Maggie Lee.  Map of vacant residential parcels. Data available via Fulton County GIS – Tax Parcels for 2021 tax year. Accessed March 30, 2021.)

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