Here’s the $1 million plan for tackling blight in Columbus

Here’s how properties get on the city’s demolition list

John Hudgison, city building inspections and code enforcement director, explains how properties get on the city's demolition list.
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John Hudgison, city building inspections and code enforcement director, explains how properties get on the city's demolition list.

There is no time like the present to rid Columbus of 150 eyesores, according to John Hudgison, Columbus Building Inspections and Code Enforcement Director.

That’s how many rotting, vacant, burnt down and abandoned homes are on his department’s list to be demolished, and a recent allocation of $1 million from the Columbus Council will help him remove some of them.

The council voted Tuesday to approve the $284.8 million city budget for fiscal year 2020, including $1 million for demolitions that were proposed by Mayor Skip Henderson.

The $1 million allocation is nearly 18 times larger than the department’s average demolition budget of $56,000.

Henderson said in April that the large increase in funding will “rid some of the neighborhoods from having to look at these burned out, skeletal remains of trailer parks and also take down some of the homes that have been marked for demolition that (the city) just never had the funding to do.”

The funding will be available to Hudgison once the budget takes effect July 1.

“I’m very excited the mayor has been willing to tackle this issue and give me a little bit more teeth in my enforcement,” Hudgison said Tuesday.

With the average city-paid demolition costing around $8,000, getting around to all 151 with the $1 million won’t be possible. But it will make a huge dent and, hopefully, a huge difference in how Columbus citizens view the city.

The problem

Blight is an issue in every district in the city, according to Hudgison, though it is more prolific in some districts than others.

Vacant and abandoned properties can have a negative impact on the entire community by decreasing surrounding property values, drawing crime and drug activity and reducing local tax revenue, as well as affecting the sense of pride homeowners have in their neighborhood.

Hudgison said homeless trespassing, arson, illegal dumping, junk vehicles, prostitution and scrap metal theft are also issues that plague abandoned properties.

He has identified a list of 50 properties that he wants to tackle with the new funding to help show citizens who have reported blighted properties that the city is listening to their complaints.

“People want to know that what they’ve said has gone somewhere and someone is doing something with it,” Hudgison said.

Six of the properties have already dropped off the list since the end of April, when the mayor proposed the large budget allocation, due to owners paying for their own demolitions.

“One of the things that’s been positive about this is that because the mayor has put an emphasis on this, some people that we’ve been dealing with for years and years and years were like ‘I don’t want a lien on my property’ and (they’ve) seen the city is serious about this — we’ve had probably in the last week four properties come in for their own demolitions,” Hudgison said. “That’s money the city doesn’t have to spend, the eyesore goes away and everyone is happy.”

The properties often start as property maintenance and special enforcement issues that escalate into blighted structures, and knowing where those trouble spots are makes it easier to keep track of potential demolition cases.

“Ideally, if we’re having an issue with special enforcement, say there’s high grass and things like that, we know that the owner is not taking care of the property,” Hudgison said. “That can get worse because the owner doesn’t live there, or because the owner is deceased, or because the owner has sold the property or because the house has been foreclosed on.”

The department is currently keeping tabs on 205 property maintenance cases and 427 special enforcement cases.

The demolition plan

Now that the budget has been approved, Hudgison will send letters to the 50 property owners, notifying them that their cases will be taken to council for two hearings. Those hearings should begin in July or August, after which council could vote to move forward with demolition.

In the meantime, he will be getting prices from vendors, and plans to concentrate the vendors by council district to help cut down on costs.

First on the list are four trailer parks that would cost taxpayers over $432,000 to demolish.

One located at 988 Farr Road will cost over $180,000 alone, and after limited response from the out-of-town owners, Hudgison has procured a court-ordered abatement from Recorder’s Court to level the property.

“There is not any buildings left, it’s just stuff, just trash,” he said. “The intent there is to just clear that whole site and get all that stuff out of there.”

Another trailer park at 2631 Cusseta Road has a new owner, and two more at 527 Farr Road and 4325 Old Cusseta Road are potentially under new management.

“I told them they had until July to work it out because it’s on our radar,” Hudgison said.

He’s targeting the trailer parks first because of the number of complaints they draw and the amount of money they take to demolish.

“Those have normally been the ones I didn’t have the financial ability to do,” he said. “Being able to actually have the money to take care of those, we don’t want to short-sight ourselves, we want to make sure we take care of those first.”

After that, any properties identified by the Columbus Police Department as concerning, such as properties being used to stash drugs, will be addressed, followed by properties near schools and properties that have been on the list the longest.

“The intent there is that each one of you all’s districts have some long-standing properties that have been there for a while that should have been torn down and we just haven’t had the ability to do it,” Hudgison told the city council at a May 28 meeting.

Hudgison made sure to point out that the city never takes ownership of the property after a demolition.

“We’re just abating the nuisance,” he said.

The future of blight mitigation

Even though he’s excited about the progress this windfall of funding will bring, Hudgison knows that it’s not a fix-all.

Apart from limited cash and an always growing list of dilapidated properties, Hudgison’s department also faces issues with contacting owners, which can stall the process for years at a time.

“Every time that new owner comes in, we have to give them the same notifications we gave the previous owner, because a lot of times that owner is walking in and doesn’t know (about past issues,)” Hudgison said.

Results he’s already seen, where property owners are demolishing their own homes, make him hopeful of the message the city is sending regarding blight.

“Once the money has been spent, I’ll know we’ve hit the big ones, the ones we’ve been getting calls about for years and years and years,” he said. “But I think at that point. . .it would send a message to the community or people that own these properties to know that the city is serious about it, and the city is doing something about it as opposed to just taking complaints and just writing citations.”