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Intern helps Greenwood find, deal with blighted buildings

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Austin Lathren has seen run-down and dilapidated houses throughout the 19 years he's lived in Greenwood.

Now, as a junior at Lander University and the City of Greenwood's administrative intern, he was given the chance to pave the way for dealing with these blighted properties.

"From Day One since I got here for my internship, they said this is your task," he said.

The job was to take stock of the properties in city limits deemed unsafe for habitation, according to the International Property Maintenance Code. After that, city and code enforcement staff would help him draft a new process that would give the government more bite when clamping down on code violations.

"Let's identify properties that are actually problems," Lathren said. "We went ward to ward and really just identified what we saw as, according to the IPMC, as either unsafe or an imminent danger. Once we identified these properties, it's been full-go on how can we get these houses remediated."

Unsafe structures are properties that aren't safely habitable: They have no power running to them, or have open access points. The key, Lathren said, is they present some type of risk to anyone living on the premises.

A property that presents an "imminent danger" is at risk of collapsing or otherwise failing, structurally. Greenwood Building Official James Whittaker said the city often learns about these when they actually fail, such as when the roof collapses or an abandoned building catches fire.

The city has a backlog of about 110 such properties that are either unsafe or an imminent danger. The process of dealing with these issues can drag on for years.

Currently, the city gives two notices, each with a set grace period for the property owner to respond. After that, an owner can board up a property to buy additional time, and getting a building permit can buy them an additional year. Often, these steps get taken, but no work gets done on these buildings.

At most, an owner could drag this process out 850 days before the city is finally able to take action to demolish the building or otherwise remediate the issue.

Assistant City Manager Draper Carlile said the IPMC doesn't provide a timeline for this process.

"It only requires that you give a reasonable time," he said. "We were looking at how long it was taking to get from sending out a notification, sending out another notification, trying to get through this process. It's taking two-and-a-half, three years to get through this process. Too long — or just not at all."

So a new process, recently presented to Greenwood City Council and approved in first reading, would shorten this timeline. If approved, the city will give just one notice to property owners, and the timeline will be cut down to a maximum of 455 days.

It also puts into law a structure for civil penalties and fines for people who don't respond to the city's notices. Whittaker said many of these 110 properties have been sitting on a list at the city for years, but owners can't be readily contacted or don't respond to communication by the city.

Fines will incentivize owners to sit down and work with the city to create a plan for fixing the property, Wilkie said. A new part of this ordinance is the voluntary remediation agreement, something Whittaker brought to Greenwood from his experience working in Anderson's buildings department.

The VRA would allow property owners to sign an agreement with the city that gives them flexibility in the remediation process but holds them to an agreed-upon timeline to act on the issues identified.

"I know our code enforcement officers have been frustrated the past years. They file all the paperwork and the process just stops," he said. "I want to work with them if a house is repairable, but placing one brick at a time is not repairing it in a timely manner."

"If we have buy-in from the property owner and they want to keep using it as a rental property, a voluntary remedy agreement is a vehicle to allow us to come to the terms necessary that they can get the time to fix up their property," Carlile said.

Out of the about 110 properties in this backlog, Whittaker said maybe one of them is currently legally occupied. But Wilkie said many of these abandoned structures house trespassers who are using these unsafe structures as shelter, which means getting rid of these potentially dangerous buildings can be a matter of public safety.

When a property is too far gone to repair, city officials won't issue the building permits needed to do that work. In cases when demolition appears to be the only option, City Manager Julie Wilkie said the city often puts a lien on the property when the owner isn't willing to demolish it themselves.

In order to avoid a lien, the city has opened up the possibility of donating these blighted properties to Greenwood. If city officials want the property as a potential site for re-development or neighborhood enrichment, they can accept the donation and demolish the property the previous owner left on it.

"If the city just sits back and waits for the private sector to decide what happens, then I think we end up with 110 blighted houses," Wilkie said. "Maybe the residential component of re-development hasn't been one that we've focused on in the past, and I think we have a unique opportunity to say let's get rid of some blight, and at the same time let's decide if we can go back in here with some infill housing and start to re-develop some neighborhoods and increase property values."

The federal American Rescue Plan Act has given Greenwood flexibility it didn't have before to tackle this issue, Wilkie said, and this one-time cash infusion can be used in part to help facilitate these long-overdue demolitions.