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Dealing with Albany's eyesores

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July 6, 2006

Albany -- Dilapidated homes, abandoned buildings, vacant lots covered in trash -- many south Georgia towns are covered with these eyesores. The unsightly properties are havens for drug deals and gang activity and often become homes to vagrants. So what's the city of Albany doing to crack down on property owners and clean up these eyesores?  

Beer bottles, old tires, condom wrappers. No, this isn't the city dump. It's an abandoned house on Beverly Avenue in East Albany. You can't tell by the way it looks, but it's considered one of the assets in the bankruptcy."

City of Albany Code Enforcement Sergeant Robert Carter says the filthy property is tied up in a federal bankruptcy, tying the City's hands to demolish it.  "We just can't come in and just because it's an eye sore, demolish it. It's still property, and people have their rights."

But homeowners don't have the right to neglect their property and allow it to become a dangerous and unsightly disaster zone. Even so, the city is covered with these eyesores.

"The house just seems to be rotting away." Willie Fowler has lived a few houses down from a Mulberry Avenue eye sore for five years. "The house looked as though it was in good condition when I first moved into the neighborhood."

But Fowler watched the house deteriorate over time. "It seems like it would serve a better purpose if someone was living in it."

The property is one of about 40 on this list of code violators that Sgt. Carter handed over to the city attorney's office. It's their job to bring negligent homeowners to court. The municipal court judge is supposed to force the owners to clean up the property. If they don't comply and bring the house up to code, then the city can take control of the property and demolishes it.

But that punishment just hasn't been happening in years!  Sgt. Carter says, "Some of the processes have fallen through the city attorney's office."

And the houses have fallen into disrepair, making them a haven for crime.    "Drug paraphernalia -- anything from crack pipe to soda cans they use smoke crack through," says Carter. 

So why aren't the city and its attorney cracking down on these homeowners? "We ended up with this gigantic gap." City attorney Nathan Davis say a lack of personnel and a code full of loopholes led to long delays in litigating these cases-- some nearly ten years old.

He recently asked city commissioners to revise and tighten the laws, and they agreed.  "What we're hoping to do with the revision is speed the process up."

Violators will have only one court appearance where a judge will give them no more than 270 days to clean up their property. "If the property is not brought into compliance by that deadline, then the City will be authorized to proceed," said Davis.

Proceed with demolition and clean up. Until these changes, the Judge often granted homeowners time after time to comply dragging out cases for years. The City also hired an assistant city attorney to handle the arduous cases.

Sgt. Carter said, "Hopefully, we will get these resolved in a faster manner." 

Carter says we should see these deplorable properties cleaned up faster now, but it could still take years to bring a box full off old cases to court. But with more staff and tighter rules, there's no reason for these properties to be in this condition a year or so from now.

So we'll just come back and see if the City did its work to get rid of our eye sores.

It costs up to $5,000 to demolish most houses. You the taxpayer must foot that bill, if the property owners can't be found.

But the city does put a lien on the property, so if the owner tries to sell, refinance, or even pay the property taxes, the City can hunt them down and make them pay up.