Blight Reduction Program
Baldwin County, Georgia
Carlos Francisco Tobar, ICMA-CM, County Manager
In January 2018 Baldwin County, Georgia, had more than 300 properties on record that were dilapidated, abandoned, and unsafe for living. These properties were lowering neighborhood property values, depressing the local housing market, attracting illegal drug activity and squatters, and negatively affecting community health and safety. Many of the dilapidated homes were in mobile home parks whose owners often were extremely negligent, maximizing their profits by minimizing spending on property maintenance in already deteriorating communities.
To address the issue, the new county manager created a special task force of the county attorney, solicitor, code enforcement officer, and magistrate judge and asked it to develop procedures to communicate with residents about condemned properties and provide incentives for them to act. Previous efforts had faced roadblocks. For example, county leaders had tried to get a property maintenance code adopted, but it failed, as residents were concerned about government overreach and infringing on private property rights.
Nevertheless, the county manager realized they needed a stronger program in order to create effective change and reviewed the Unsafe Building Abatement Ordinance that had been passed previously but never enforced. It was not enforced because it has severe consequences for noncompliance. The manager came up with a plan and procedures that were firm but compassionate. The plan had to be accomplished within the existing budget, which had no allocation for cleaning up and demolishing these abandoned properties. The elected officials approved of the county manager’s plan and allowed him to proceed.
County leaders hired a new code enforcement officer (a position that was already budgeted) and began drafting a series of enforcement letters. These letters notified owners when their property was condemned, gave specific instructions on how to proceed, and outlined the penalty for noncompliance. After notification, the homeowner had 30 days to start making progress on compliance without any penalty. Progress was defined as making any step, such as taking out a demolition permit or removing windows or siding from mobile homes. The code enforcement officer checked on progress frequently. As an incentive, the county lowered the demolition permit fee from $100 to $10 and allowed owners to “cluster” multiple demolitions and pay a single fee. The county also recommended private demolition companies that had affordable rates. Community members and churches also stepped up to help their neighbors demolish properties.
By creating clear and attainable procedures, the Blight Reduction Program was enforceable and successful in motivating homeowners to demolish or renovate their dilapidated properties without the county having to take legal action. As a result of the program, 164 residential and commercial properties were demolished in twenty-seven months. These accomplishments can be attributed to the leadership of the county manager, the collaboration of multiple parties, and the clarity and consistency of the measures taken by county leaders, specifically the code enforcement officer. Baldwin County is starting to see additional fruit of the project as negligent mobile home park owners who had refused to pay for improvements have been motivated to sell parks entirely to more responsible and civic-minded owners.
In implementing the Blight Reduction Program, the county learned valuable lessons about the importance of collaboration and planning to make programs clear and effective without the need for legal action. Leaders also discovered the importance of working with each individual property owner and his/her own circumstances. In sum, this program shows how government leaders can unite people for a common cause and create effective change, increasing the health and safety of the entire community.