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Battling blight
City council approves ordinance intended to regulate owners of derelict properties
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It was an effort that took several months of work by city employees and Savannah City Council members, but the Derelict Rental Property Ordinance is now on the books.

Under the ordinance, approved Aug. 14, the city has the authority to regulate owners of derelict rental properties and enforce stiffer penalties to punish them when they refuse to comply.

Most council members were jubilant, but with an 8-1 vote, the decision wasn’t unanimous. Alderman Cliffton Jones Jr. gave the lone dissenting vote.

“I just want to clarify my position on it,” Jones said. “Ever since we started to discuss this, my concern has been about the tenant.

“I find in my mind we still need to address personal responsibility,” he says. “That did not happen in this ordinance. I do not think the tenant is being addressed in the ordinance as I think they should be.”

Before, derelict property cases went before the Recorder’s Court. Now, they can go before the Property Maintenance Board, a new three-member board whose members will be appointed by the council.

On Aug. 15, one day after the council meeting, a call for applications from citizens interested in serving on the board went out. The board will meet monthly to hear facts presented during appeals by property owners and determine whether proper procedures were followed by the property maintenance hearing officer, as outlined in the new ordinance.

Property owners who refuse to comply with the ordinance can be fined up to $1,000 per day. Property owners also can be cited for health/safety of a third party violations, with penalties of more than $1,000 per day.

“It has been the priority of the city council to obliterate blight in the city,” City Manager Michael Brown says. “A lot of the blight is associated with rental property. This ordinance will reduce blight.”

“I hope we have enough people on the streets to help enforce this,” Alderman Mary Osborne said. “Ordinances written without any enforcement are useless. We need inspectors to go out and find these properties.”

Alderman Edna Jackson said the council’s action will be noted in other communities that will be watching to see how the city handles rental properties. “This ordinance will make the city one of the first to take a stand to ensure quality of life in the community,” she said.

Mayor Otis Johnson said that the passage of the ordinance is the second of three priorities the council has addressed. The first was the city’s alcohol ordinance and the third will be a parental responsibility ordinance, which the council has already begun work on. He said hopefully there would be enough applicants for the new property management board that the council cab=n take action at its Aug. 28 meeting and appoint members to the board.

The board will be busy. “We already have cases in mind,” Brown said. “We’re not going to be picking on anybody. We’re going to be dealing with egregious, flagrant violations. We should be able to take cases through in a matter of weeks.”.

At its July 31 meeting, council members outlined some of the more troublesome violations. Savannah has slumlords, Alderman Tony Thomas said. “Whether they want to be called slumlords or not, they make people live in substandard conditions we can’t believe are occurring,” he said.

Alderman Van Johnson recounted two cases. “One lady was living in the dark, taking her bodily waste and throwing it in the back yard,” he said.

In the second case, the top floor of the house had no utilities. “When the dust came down in the apartment downstairs, you could hear literally hundreds of bats above your head,” Johnson said. “It was a scary feeling. It was a victimization of the very people we’re sworn to protect. If they complained, the landlord put them out. If we don’t advocate, it affects everything we are.”