‘The system is broken’: Officials search for fixes to city demolition process

DeKalb County officials demolish a home as part of their efforts to address blight in Stone Mountain on Friday, April 1, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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DeKalb County officials demolish a home as part of their efforts to address blight in Stone Mountain on Friday, April 1, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Members of the Atlanta City Council pressed city officials Thursday about the steps they take to demolish vacant buildings across Atlanta, searching for solutions to improve a complicated and sensitive process.

“The system is broken,” said Councilman Byron Amos, who represents a Westside district. “It’s broken because we still have open, dilapidated housing and structures in the city, rampant throughout the city. … What do we need to change?”

Community members have complained for years about how long it takes for the city to tear down abandoned structures that have been subject to numerous code complaints. Many of those buildings are owned by investors who, officials say, have sat on them for years without proper maintenance.

In other cases, though, some property owners said they’ve struggled to protect their properties from demolition, saying city officials haven’t properly communicated with them. That disconnect has sometimes occurred when properties switched hands in the midst of the long code enforcement process.

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

At a City Council work session Thursday, deputy code enforcement director Daphne Talley said the city has torn down about 200 properties since July 2019. About 50 of those were in the last 10 months.

Approximately 600 additional code enforcement cases are in the pipeline, she said.

The city contracts out the demolitions to a private company, with the five-figure cost passed on to the homeowner. It can take years after an initial code enforcement complaint for demolition action to occur. Even after a demolition order is issued, it can take over six months for the house to be torn down.

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Swapan Kumar stands in front of of home he owns in southwest Atlanta home that the city has marked for demolition Friday, March 25, 2022. Kumar got the notice it was being considered for demolition just weeks after he bought it. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Swapan Kumar stands in front of of home he owns in southwest Atlanta home that the city has marked for demolition Friday, March 25, 2022. Kumar got the notice it was being considered for demolition just weeks after he bought it. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
Swapan Kumar stands in front of of home he owns in southwest Atlanta home that the city has marked for demolition Friday, March 25, 2022. Kumar got the notice it was being considered for demolition just weeks after he bought it. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Much of the issue ties back to funding and staffing with in the code enforcement division, which works under the umbrella of the police department.

“We will never have enough funding to take care of every code violation in the city of Atlanta,” Talley said.

“Are you staffed properly?” Councilwoman Andrea Boone later asked.

“No,” Talley immediately responded. She said a team of two handles the housing demolition cases, with 13 additional employees working as code inspectors.

ExploreMore Atlanta City Hall coverage from the AJC

Code enforcement officials said they give ample time for owners to bring their properties into compliance, but some say that information never reaches them. Boone said she is “concerned about those that may fall through the cracks,” especially properties that are passed down to heirs who may not live in Atlanta but want to keep their family’s house.

Councilmembers tossed around a number of potential solutions, including:

  • Instituting term limits or changing the appointment structure of the In Rem Review Board, which votes on whether properties should be demolished. The five board members were all appointed by previous mayors to three-year terms that automatically renew; most have served for more than a decade.
  • Adding additional protections for older residents or other unique cases.
  • Partnering with nonprofits to provide additional funds for low-income homeowners to fix up their homes.

Some of the ideas discussed could be formally proposed as legislative sessions in the coming weeks.

“We need to do something,” Amos said, “because the process is working for the process, but it’s not working for the people.”