Why aren’t property owners paying to remove blight? Here’s how demo process works

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.

A recent allocation of $1 million to fight blight in Columbus has some citizens questioning why property owners aren’t footing the bill to tear down property they’ve obviously neglected.

An increase in the city’s projected 2020 general fund revenue allowed for the increased funding and was a priority of Mayor Skip Henderson.

Several Ledger-Enquirer readers reacted on social media this week, commenting on Wednesday’s article about the funding that could allow for the demolition of up to 50 vacant and dilapidated properties and asking why taxpayer money is being used.

“Someone owns them or did before they were abandoned,” James Verbowski commented. “That’s who should be responsible for the demolition of these properties.”

John Hudgison, Building Inspections and Code Enforcement director for the city, said he understands the issue some citizens have with footing the bill.

“Every year I take down 10-20 houses and unfortunately it is taxpayer money, it is the money that is assigned to me in my budget every year. It’s just this year it’s a lot, lot more than I normally get,” Hudgison said. “When we started to establish a plan of how we were going to attack this, we wanted to make sure we could be efficient and effective with the money we’ve been given.”

That’s why his office spends at least two years trying to contact the owners of blighted structures and bring them into compliance before any demolition funds are spent.

Here are the steps his office takes.

Step One: Identifying the properties that need to come down

Citizen complaints, emergency situations like fires and reports from building inspectors will determine what properties end up on the department’s radar. Once a property is identified as a potential blighted property, an inspector will visit the site, assess any building code violations and take photos as evidence.

If 50% of the assessed value of the structure is affected, such as a caved-in roof, the property is then moved to the demolition case list as opposed to a property maintenance case list.

Step Two: Contacting property owner(s)

A certified letter is sent to the owner notifying them of the status of the property and requesting their presence at a demolition hearing. The hearings are held every fourth Wednesday of the month in the inspections and code office on the second floor of the Government Annex Building.

Property owners can attend and communicate their plans for the property, and as long as the owner is staying in contact with the department and updating them of the status, the case typically does not go before Columbus Council.

Nine times out of 10, however, the property owners don’t show up, Hudgison said. And that’s the biggest barrier to getting owners to pay for demolitions.

“The only person that can legally respond to us and tell us how they’re dealing with it is the physical owner,” Hudgison said.

The department uses the county tax assessor’s website to identify the owner, tries to locate or contact family of the owner, visits the neighbors of the property and uses online resources like Facebook or Ancestry.com to find someone to notify about the structure.

Hudgison said the process can move faster with the non-responsive owners because they aren’t actively working with the city to improve the situation.

“Sometimes people are on vacation, people are out of town, that’s why we give them two years. It’s not like we do it in six weeks. . .we try to give them as much time as we can but typically it is between two and three years before we will even attempt to take some of these properties because we can say that we looked under every nook and cranny for these people.”

Deceased owners, multiple owners, out of town owners and Limited Liability Companies are the biggest headaches for Hudgison.

“We’ll look up LLCs on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website and the company will be dissolved. It’s like I’m chasing ghosts now, because that company existed for five years, bought 50 properties in Columbus and now they’re out of town and it’s been sold three times,” Hudgison said.

The department will check in on the property every 30 days and review the home ownership to make sure it hasn’t changed. If it has, the process starts all over again.

Step three: Council hearings and demolition

After the hearing at Hudgison’s office, the owners have 45 days to remedy the issue.

If the property owners do not respond to the first letter and don’t attend the demo hearing, and if no work has been done to bring the property into compliance, they are sent another letter stating the case will be taken to Columbus Council.

The office then obtains a price for the demolition. The city has two certified vendors under contract that bid against each other, and whoever bids lowest gets the job.

Property owners will have to provide evidence of monetary ability to tear down the structure and evidence of a contractor willing to demolish the building in order for the process to be stopped.

Council will hold two hearings, and if the property owners do not appear and provide proof they will demolish the building themselves, council can vote to move ahead with the demolition.

Finally, the building is demolished and the owners are billed for the cost. A lien is placed on the property, which accrues monthly interest until the bill is paid. The city never takes ownership of the property.

When does the bill get paid? Sometimes never.

“We’ve got one I know for sure that’s been on there 27 years. So imagine that times the interest that’s been put on that property and someone trying to pay that today. They’re not going to be able to pay it,” Hudgison said.

In September 2018, the city held a period of demolition amnesty, where property owners with liens on their property could pay the city just the price of the demo and the interest would be waived. The city collected nearly $40,000 in that time, but the funds did not return to Hudgison’s budget and instead went back to the general fund.

The city issued a second period of amnesty that will end June 30 of this year. Hudgison said this time it hasn’t been as successful, but it’s a creative attempt to recoup some of the funds the city has expended.

And though demolishing lessens the likelihood that someone will use the property to stash drugs or set the property on fire, the city has to continue to bear the burden of non-responsive and irresponsible owners.

“If I have a non-responsive owner, I go from a demo structure to a (grass) lot I have to cut,” Hudgison said. “So I’m literally just moving it, and now I’m maintaining the grass, or making sure nobody’s illegally dumping on it. It’s perpetual.”