Rise in minimum housing cases putting strain on city’s demolition budget

Feb. 12, 2013 @ 05:16 PM

The city’s caseload of decaying and unsafe buildings and houses has surged lately, leaving officials to confront a daunting problem with limited resources.
The city has ordered demolition of an abandoned apartment complex on Meredith Street, which could cost more than $100,000. Building inspectors are working with the owners of two historic properties on Washington Street in the hopes that the owners of each, rather than the city, will shoulder the costs of repairing them.
If the city gets stuck with the cost of remediating all of these properties, it would far surpass what’s been budgeted for demolition. Officials said they would have to take money out of the city’s reserves to be able to fund these projects, as well as resolve other housing cases already in the pipeline.
They said they hope it won’t come to this, however, at least in the case of First Baptist Church on Washington Street. The city declared the sanctuary unsafe and closed it last year because of structural deficiencies in the walls. The church is trying to raise the money to demolish the sanctuary and build a new one.
Officials are less optimistic about the former Kilby Hotel property next to the church. It is near collapse, and demolition may be inevitable, they said.
“With the church, the hotel and the apartments on the potential drawing board, they are way off the top of the charts in terms of dollars,” said City Manager Strib Boynton.
In the meantime, the City Council earlier this month approved demolition orders for three houses: 1100 Campbell St., 1112 W. English Road and 1114 W. English Road.
The story with these properties hits on familiar themes: An owner with no money to make repairs or tear down the properties, which are uninhabitable due to a litany of housing code violations, such as structural issues and missing plumbing, heating and electrical components. One of them, 1114 W. English Road, was destroyed by fire right after it was purchased by the owner, who had no insurance, officials said.
“I can tell you because I just looked at them — they all three need to come down. They’re horrible,” said Councilwoman Judy Mendenhall.
Officials said that, as with all demolition orders, the council’s action on these houses technically directs the property owners to tear them down. If the city steps in to handle the demolition, it places a lien against the property to try to recover the cost.
“I understand the need, but I know we have over 6,000 vacant and dilapidated houses in town. I just don’t want to get in the business of we’re going to tear down 6,000 houses,” said Councilman Jim Davis.
It typically costs the city $2,000 to $4,000 to tear down a house. The city budgets about $50,000 annually for demolitions, so it can tear down only so many blighted properties at a time. In addition to budget constraints, officials said the city often has few means at its disposal in dealing with recalcitrant property owners.
“You get property owners that come in there and they tell you the saddest tales you have ever heard in you life, from they’ve had heart attacks to they’re working four jobs and the whole, ‘Just give me a little more time,’” said Councilwoman Becky Smothers. “And we have little-timed it and little-timed it to 6,000 more houses.”