City ‘revving up’ attack on substandard housing

By Tom Joyce

February 28, 2014

Owners of dilapidated housing in Mount Airy will be facing tougher measures from the city government, including foreclosure proceedings in court, under a decision reached Thursday during a planning session.

The majority of members of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners agreed by consensus to ramp up enforcement actions regarding the demolition on what are termed “non-restorable properties” considered a blight on the city’s landscape.

After years of relative neglect, officials decided in 2012 to launch a more aggressive stance for ongoing problems with substandard housing, particularly vacant, abandoned structures. Since then, the board has voted to have five such houses demolished, and several other problem properties in various parts of Mount Airy are now being addressed by the city and could be torn down as well.

On Thursday, during the first day of a planning retreat that ends today, the board explored whether efforts by codes enforcement personnel should be taken a notch further by launching “formal” proceedings against owners of non-compliant properties.

After a lengthy discussion, three of the four members now on the city council agreed that a tougher approach is needed for the problem.

“I’m in agreement with revving it up,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said of the enforcement effort.

“We’ve got our foot in the door — we need to continue making progress,” Brinkley added. “Personally, why start a project if you’re not going to follow through?”

Commissioners Steve Yokeley and Dean Brown agreed.

“What we have started, I think we have made some progress,” Brown said. “I think we need to tighten the strings.”

The concurring board members agreed Thursday to allocate more resources to the issue, including earmarking $50,000 to cover the costs of upcoming demolitions.

Another step will involve having Steve May, a codes enforcement officer who only spends one day in Mount Airy per week, come here an additional day. May is associated with Benchmark Inc., a Kannapolis firm that the city government has contracted to handle planning department functions, including matters involving substandard housing.

Officials also agreed Thursday to spend any additional funds needed for legal and administrative fees resulting from taking owners of problem properties who fail to comply to court. This process would be aimed at allowing the city to seize the land left from demolition, which could then be sold to recoup the costs of the actions.

The new tactics are expected to increase the volume of cases for the city to mitigate.

Up to now, the city government has chiefly relied on trying to work with property owners to get them to comply and tear down structures voluntarily.

However, this approach hasn’t been successful in some cases, as evidenced by the five demolitions initiated by the municipality over the last two years. Andy Goodall, a city planner who updated the board on the situation Thursday, said the process is complaint-driven, through calls from citizens.

“I think you need to work with the people as much as you can,” Commissioner Yokeley said. “But I keep hearing that the complaints aren’t handled fast enough.”

Yokeley referred to some recent situations in which property owners have been given extra time to act. “I think we always need to work with people and make concessions if we have to,” he said, but owners need to know that the city is willing to follow through with the tougher measures.

The process will continue to be complaint-driven, but instead of anonymous contacts someone who wants to report a dilapidated property will need to do so in writing under the new plan.

“I think if you’re going to complain about somebody’s property, your name needs to be attached to it,” Goodall said.

Brown said he thinks a stricter response is needed, pointing out that not doing so conflicts with other recent initiatives, such as Mount Airy becoming a certified retirement community. People who come to visit could be repelled by some of the conditions existing now, he said.

Cawley Concerned

Commissioner Jon Cawley was the lone councilman who did not support the tougher tact with substandard structures. (Jim Armbrister, a newly selected commissioner who is replacing the late Scott Graham, was present at Thursday’s meeting, but has not been sworn in to office.)

Cawley expressed concern about the human factor and the practicality of launching foreclosure proceedings.

“We are talking about people’s lives,” he said. “And we’re doing it too casually, I think.”

Cawley was bothered by the fact the city’s minimum housing ordinance doesn’t taken into account whether someone’s income situation would allow them to take corrective action on their own. “It’s an issue,” he said.

The dissenting commissioner further questioned the value of launching court proceedings against an owner who might be in violation and unable to comply, ending up with their property and trying to sell it at public auction or other means. The buyer might have to fork over an additional $10,000 to cover the demolition, court and other costs, on top of the value of the land, Cawley said, which would undermine sales attempts.

He also questioned whether the process will be undertaken on the basis of safety issues regarding a property rather than its appearance.

“If we were to go on appearance, we’d probably have three times as many complaints,” Goodall said.

The commissioners who support the new plan said the emphasis should be on vacant, abandoned structures instead of those that are occupied. But City Manager Barbara Jones said the latter could result once a formal process began.

This could happen with a rental property where tenants might be moving in and out, according to Thursday’s discussion.

“I’m not talking about throwing people out of their houses,” Brown said of his take on the issue.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.