Cities across the nation face a growing problem. Foreclosed and abandoned buildings dot the landscape, blighting neighborhoods, pushing down the value of nearby properties and taking a bite out of tax rolls.
Dalton isn’t immune from such forces.
“I have a listing over on the east side of town right now. It’s a Freddie Mac property, and we take good care of it,” said Carolyn Roan, a Realtor with Caldwell Banker Kinard Realty. “But the property next door is obviously in foreclosure. It has all the markings, all the things on the door. And it’s in such disrepair. It looks terrible, and it’s on a nice street.”
Dalton officials announced a plan last week to deal with such properties. They call it the “Carpet Capital Makeover.”
The plan grew out of a seminar that Mayor David Pennington took part in during a recent meeting of the Georgia Municipal Association.
“All cities have a problem with foreclosures and abandoned houses, as well as empty commercial and industrial buildings. That session was on how best to get a handle on that problem, how to make sure that the owners are held responsible, and how to try to get those properties sold and redeveloped,” Pennington said.
The City Council appointed City Administrator Ty Ross the point person on the effort and he developed a plan with three elements:
1. Increased building code enforcement to keep minor issues from developing into large ones.
2. Keeping a close eye on foreclosed and abandoned properties and maintaining a list of priority properties.
3. Abatement and redevelopment. Ross said the General Assembly passed a law earlier this year giving local governments greater powers to create “land banks” and use them to redevelop surplus properties.
The first part of the plan calls for the Dalton Police Department to step up its code enforcement efforts. The city merged its building inspection and code enforcement with that of Whitfield County four years ago.
Pennington said city officials aren’t unhappy with how building inspections have turned out. But they aren’t happy with code enforcement.
“They are reactive, and we need to get proactive,” he said. “And if you look at the most successful code enforcement programs — in places such as Gainesville, DeKalb County — it’s through the police department.”
Pennington says people may take a visit from the police more seriously than a visit from a code enforcement officer.
Dalton Police Chief Jason Parker said the department has long been involved in code enforcement.
“For instance, over the past 18 months our agency has acted on about 340 instances of code enforcement,” Parker said. “We address issues when we see them or when they are reported to us. More often than not, successful crime prevention has a code enforcement element.”
But Parker admits the city’s plan calls for a little more than officers handing out citations for code violations when they spot them.
“This calls for dedicated personnel. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that we can spot just riding around. But this has to be a systematic effort of doing a triage, finding the worst examples, figuring out how to deal with them and working our way down the list,” Parker said.
Ross said he expects the police department will likely play a large role in determining the priority list of abandoned and foreclosed properties to keep an eye on.
“That is still to be determined. But someone in public safety will probably take the lead on that. We’ll work with the Realtors, work with the banks. We get updates from the courthouse when foreclosure notices are filed, so we can add those to the list and say these are properties we need to keep an eye on,” Ross said.
He said the plan calls for a civilian oversight commission to help develop and monitor action concerning the list.
The city tried to create a similar list five years ago. The council created a “50 to Fix” program that invited members of the public to suggest properties that could potentially hurt public safety or health or the area’s quality of life. The plan was to spur the owners to fix those properties or to condemn them and tear them down if necessary. Despite a good deal of publicity only a few properties were suggested.
“I don’t know how many buildings were involved, but it was only a handful. And when we took care of those the program just sort of withered away without any new suggestions,” said Dalton Public Works Director Benny Dunn.
Identifying a problem property doesn’t guarantee it will be fixed.
Roan says she called the bank that owns the house next to the one she is trying to sell, told them it was an eyesore and asked them to clean it up.
“That was several weeks ago, and nothing has happened,” she said.
City officials say they have ways to address those issues.
“We’ve gone onto foreclosed properties in the past and cut the grass or made repairs to make them safe and put a lien on the property,” Pennington said.
Ross said if a property becomes a public nuisance the city can condemn it. But he says that’s a slow process and one he hopes to avoid by using the land bank.
He says other cities have been able to convince banks and others who hold abandoned and foreclosed buildings that it may be cheaper to donate them to the city than to pay to maintain them. Ross says the city could place donated properties into a land bank and then have developers bid on them to rebuild them.
“If the city continues to hold them, that takes them off the tax rolls. But if they are redeveloped, they come back on the tax roll,” he said.
But Ross acknowledges that banks aren’t likely to donate any property to the land bank if the city isn’t successful in making them bear the costs of maintaining those properties.
City officials say the next step is to get feedback from the public, particularly those in the real estate industry, and fine tune the plan before putting it into action.