Should Atlanta slow down or speed up demolitions of vacant homes?

It’s a question the City Council is set to explore this week.

Amanda Kemery remembers the frantic call.

It was early March, and a demolition specialist working on behalf of the city of Atlanta had just shown up to the building on Sylvan Road where Kemery runs a pop-up space hosting small local businesses. It’s currently home to Cafexito, a Mexican coffee shop that uses an open-air patio surrounded by concrete walls for extra seating.

The coffee shop’s owner called Kemery to pass along the news: The specialist said they were there to inspect the patio space, with an order to tear it down.

“We just don’t understand why now we’re getting this notice when the property has clearly been fixed up,” said Kemery, who had spent months cleaning up and painting the run-down space. She hopes to eventually turn it into a beer and wine garden and host community events.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The demolition order stems from an October 2020 inspection that took place before Kemery leased the property. Neither she nor the property owners said they heard anything from the city for over a year, until the specialist showed up.

Hers is one of dozens of properties tied up in the city of Atlanta’s complex demolition process, in which the city can legally tear down properties deemed uninhabitable and unsalvageable.

Some property owners have spoken out in recent weeks against the tactics of the city’s code enforcement division, saying officials are threatening to demolish their properties despite their attempts to rehab them. But many government officials want the city to speed up demolitions, saying residents are eager to see blight torn down.

That tension is likely to be on display Thursday at a City Council work session focused on the city’s “In Rem” process — Latin for “against a thing.”

The city can bring properties that have been subject to code complaints before a five-member board, which votes on whether they should be demolished. After getting a number of clearances, the structure can be torn down through a contractor, with the cost passed on to the owner.

During any given monthly meeting, there can be over a dozen properties the board considers for demolition. It can then take months, if not years, for the demolition to occur.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

After the demolition specialist showed up at Cafexito in March, John Mangham, one of the owners of the property, emailed the city and sent photos of the patio that had been fixed up in the 18 months since the demolition order was issued.

Code Enforcement Manager Jocelyn Lyles wrote back that it was her opinion the structure should still be demolished due to structural integrity issues, prompting Mangham to say he was getting an engineering report done.

“That’s fine. Our process will continue,” Lyles wrote in response. “You may want to remove all the benches and tables.”

Kemery later said the engineering report showed no major issues.

Since last July, nearly 60 structures across the city have been slated for demolition and are awaiting contracts, according to documents obtained by the AJC.

Councilman Dustin Hillis, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, has been pushing for code enforcement to streamline the demolition process for years. Open and vacant properties can be hotspots for crime or fire, he said, with some owned by investors trying to hold on to run-down properties until they can flip or sell them for a quick buck.

“Many of these properties have been on code enforcement’s radar for four or five-plus years,” Hillis said.

He acknowledged there can be a disconnect in some cases, and he wants to ensure due process is still afforded to owners.

“It's such a Kafkaesque, dystopian situation."

- Swapan Kumar, owner of a home in southwest Atlanta with a demolition order

At a City Council meeting last month, a handful of owners said code enforcement officials, who work under the umbrella of the police department, haven’t properly communicated with them.

“It’s like they’re not willing to listen,” said Swapan Kumar, who has filed a complaint in Fulton County Superior Court seeking to stop the demolition of a house he owns in southeast Atlanta. “It’s such a Kafkaesque, dystopian situation.”

Freshman City Councilman Antonio Lewis introduced legislation last month requesting an audit of the demolition process, and officials may consider adding additional safeguards.

“It’s one thing to deal with a derelict and irresponsible land owner,” Councilman Michael Julian Bond said. “It’s something else to browbeat, harass or … be indifferent toward citizens and their plight as they try to hang on to their properties.”

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At a public safety committee meeting in mid-March, Lyles said her division follows a detailed and legal process.

“There’s been ample time provided for the owners to bring (their) property into compliance,” even after the demolition order is issued, Lyles said.

But Kumar said information about his options never reached him. He bought a house on Browns Mill Road from the Metro Atlanta Land Bank in 2020 with plans to renovate it and rent it out at a subsidized rate. City officials were aware of Kumar’s intent to renovate the home before they sought a demolition order, records show.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

In a September 2020 email obtained by the AJC, the program director of the land bank told code enforcement officers that the organization had just sold the home to Kumar, who intended to redevelop it.

A few weeks later, Kuman was hit with a notice that the property was under consideration to be demolished due to its poor condition.

Kumar has since cleaned up debris and overgrowth outside the house, though the inside remains in bad shape. He wanted to apply for building permits, but was unable to do so because of the demolition order, on top of what he described as a general lack of communication from the city.

Police department officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The new City Council hopes to start ironing out the issue during this week’s work session.

“We’ve got some blighted properties around the city of Atlanta … I’ve got constituents that want those properties gone because they’ve sat vacant for so long,” said Councilman Jason Winston, who represents a southeast Atlanta district. At the same time, he said, “we don’t want to use code enforcement as a predatory tool.”