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Why it’s so complicated for Atlanta to punish scofflaw property owners

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More than a few local leaders think Atlanta’s laws are too lax for folks who sit on properties and let them decay, hoping they’ll one day be worth a pretty penny. 

Blight certainly isn’t rare in Atlanta, especially on the city’s Westside and Southside. It’s also not easy to get these properties — eyesores of boarded-up homes, heaps of trash and rampant overgrowth — cleaned up and put back into use, and punishing the folks who neglect them is easier said than done. 

That’s why folks like Cecil Phillips, an affordable housing developer, say city officials should find a way to really bring down the hammer of justice on those who allow this scourge to endure. Laws should be enacted, the Place Properties CEO told Atlanta Civic Circle, to more aggressively fine property owners who shrug off code enforcement violations, letting nature take its course with their assets. 

But, while multiple Atlanta City Council officials have said they support imposing fines of up to $1,000 a day for the absentee owners of blighted properties — a charge Phillips thinks would force some people to fix their places up — Georgia law makes it difficult to boost fines for such offenses. 

Today, Atlanta law allows for fines of up to $1,000 or imprisonment of up to 180 days for each time a property owner is found by a judge to have violated city code. That’s the most Georgia law will allow for municipal offenses.

But, as Atlanta City Councilman Dustin Hillis noted in 2019, for many investors, writing a check for a code violation is just the cost of doing business. “They pay their fine, and they’re still in violation,” he said. 

Councilwoman Carla Smith echoed that sentiment, saying in an interview with Atlanta Civic Circle, “These slumlords; they don’t care. They’re sitting on the property so they can make the most amount of money they can. But they’re holding the block back.”

“It’s an attractive nuisance,” she added of blight, “in that it attracts people who do illicit activities.”

In many cases, these scofflaw property owners — many of them real estate investors — use shell companies to hold these sites, making it difficult for city code enforcement officers to reach them to insist they either fix the place up or demolish the withering structures. 

But, even when officials can reach the delinquent owners, some of the city’s tools for penalizing them aren’t well utilized, Hillis told Atlanta Civic Circle. Sure, the city can go through the whole rigamarole of citing a property owner for a code violation and ultimately fine them, but then what?

Phillips’ daily fine idea isn’t the first of its kind, either. Hillis, in 2019, suggested fining property owners every day, once they’ve forsaken a site for six months after it’s received a code violation citation. 

Hillis said that option is still legally on the table, but it’s a cumbersome tactic. “You can do either $1,000-a-day or $1,000-a-week [fines],” he said. “The only caveat is you have to send an officer out every day or every week to issue a violation.”

Maybe, Hillis suggested, the city could send out code enforcement officers to regularly cite, say, 10 problematic properties in each council district. He said he’d look into how that could work. 

Dan Immergluck, a Georgia State University urban studies professor, said he agrees that public officials should find better ways to discipline absentee property owners, “if they can and do really foreclose on property tax liens and get the properties into the landbank if the owners don’t pay up.”

He’s referring to laws that allow the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority to seize properties when their owners don’t pay the taxes on them. 

That can be complicated, though, because some blighted, vacant properties in Atlanta still have homestead exemptions — which discount property tax bills for owner-occupied houses — despite no one living in them, according to housing expert Eugene James, who used to work as chief appraiser for Fulton County’s tax commissioner’s office.

“It may be difficult for the tax commissioner office to know if someone’s in the house or not,” James told Atlanta Civic Circle, noting officials might not be alerted by other governments if, for example, a homeowner dies and passes the property on to a relative. James said getting different jurisdictions more in-sync could help alleviate the blight problem.

Though it won’t wipe out Atlanta’s blight issue, more help could be on the way. Councilwoman Smith recently introduced legislation that’s expected to make it easier for the city to foreclose on problematic properties with costly liens. 

If ratified, the proposal would give property owners the choice of either forfeiting their assets to the land bank authority — who would then have Invest Atlanta redevelop them into affordable housing — or enter into an agreement with the city that allows them to pay the cost of their liens into an escrow account, then fix up the property and sell it as affordable housing themselves. If they did so, the city would refund the cost of the liens and wipe the slate clean. 

Atlanta Civic Circle is interested to know if your neighborhood struggles with issues of blight. Let us know in the comments, or feel free to send an email to sean@atlantaciviccircle.org.

(Header image, via Google Maps: A blighted property on Atlanta’s Westside.)

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