Fighting Blight with Sarah Toering of the Center for Community Progress

According to a recent study, many of Atlanta’s neighborhoods—including a good number of our acclaimed “Beltline neighborhoods”—struggle with high concentrations of vacant and abandoned properties.  These properties harbor crime and unsafe conditions, contribute to the spread of vermin and other pests, and can depress surrounding land value and development.  They often become sources of frustration for neighbors, who feel powerless to the radiating effects of blight.

On Wednesday, March 25, Sara Toering of the Center for Community Progress (CCP) visited CCI to discuss blight and code enforcement. Toering’s presentation drew from a report that CCP prepared for the Code Enforcement Commission—a body formed by Atlanta City Councilmembers Norwood and Sheperd to explore the city’s options for fighting blight.

Toering spoke to an eager crowd of neighborhood activists, city employees, and curious residents, giving a quick lesson in the Atlanta Housing Code, which empowers the city to address blight through code enforcement. Here’s a brief summary of that lesson:

The City has three ways to address blighted property.

  1. Using Artlcle I, it can issue a criminal citation to demand the owner fix the property.

  2. Using Article III, it can to bring the property up to code at the City’s expense through an administrative process , either by cleaning it and closing it or by demolishing it.

  3. Using Article V, it can to bring the property up to code at the City’s expense through a judicial process, either by cleaning it and closing it or by demolishing it.

Currently, the city only uses criminal citation (Article I) and administrative process  (Article III) to address blighted properties.  

Toering pointed out some problems with using these approaches to address properties whose owners have abandoned them, leaving them to waste. First, in order for owners to comply with a criminal citation, they would have to be present or locatable. This is often not the case with severely blighted properties. Second, the administrative process that allows the city to legally bring a property up to code is very costly and time consuming.  Once the city spends that money—which can total in tens of thousands of dollars per property—it has very little chance of ever recovering those costs.  Toering stated that she did not know of a single case where the City had recovered the cost of the Article III process.

The Article V process, however, offers the city a powerful tool for recovering the costs associated with bringing a property up to code.  Toering emphasized that Article V should only be used in the case of a vacant and abandoned property with an owner that is difficult or impossible to locate.  She noted, however, that such properties are surprisingly common and often found clustered in neighborhoods historically affected by racialized “redlining” practices and, more recently, targeted for questionable subprime mortgage lending practices.

The Article V process differs significantly from the Article I and Artice III processes.  

First, it allows the City to “sue the property” instead of trying to prosecute the owner, which gives it an advantage over the Article I criminal process.  

Second, unlike the Article III administrative process, the Article V judicial process gives the city a very powerful tool for recovering the costs of bringing the property up to code: all of the money that the City spends in the Article V process becomes a “super-priority lien” against the property.  This means that in order for the owner to sell the property, they would have to first pay the city for the costs incurred in the Article V process. This lean is called “super-priority” because it takes priority over mortgages or other judgment liens on a property.  Furthermore, if the owner never appears or refuses to pay, the city can transfer that lien to the tax commissioner’s office, which can foreclose on the property.  The foreclosed property could be sold at auction and the proceeds would be used to cover the Article V costs (along with any outstanding taxes). If the property did not sell at auction, it would be placed in the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank, a public entity formed to use  its holdings “to create vibrant communities, affordable housing and economic opportunity.”

Toering’s presentation led to a lively discussion between attendees, who shared stories of nearby blighted properties and strategies for bringing these properties to the attention of Code Enforcement. When asked what she thought neighbors of blighted properties could do, Toering suggested that they:

  1. Learn about the laws and processes for dealing with these properties, including the code provisions she discussed.

  2. Reach out to council members and local officials in support of their efforts to transform the code enforcement process.

  3. Support the work of nonprofit organizations and Community Development Corporations that create housing stability by providing affordable housing and permanent supportive housing.

Further Resources:

Center for Community Progress’s Report for the City of Atlanta

View the Powerpoint presentation from the session