Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin announced what she called an “aggressive” plan to address vacant and abandoned properties in the city.
Two bills to address the issue were introduced at a City Council meeting Monday. One would create a “Land Reuse Agency,” more commonly known as a land bank, which would allow the city to hold onto certain properties to use in development. The other would increase fines on vacant properties, and shorten the time it takes to get on the “vacant structure registries.”
“These aren’t going to be small increases folks,” Goodwin said. “In some cases, these will be double what they were in years past.”
With the new bill, structures will be placed on the vacant structure registry after 90 days, instead of 6 months. It also raises the initial fee on an abandoned or vacant property from $250 to $500. Once an abandoned property has been on the registry for a year, an additional $1,000 fine will be added, and then $10 each day after.
Under existing law, a structure would need to be on the registry for four years for the owner to receive a $1,000 fine.
The new bill also would make it a misdemeanor to fail to register the property or fail to comply with the bail in anyway. This could result in a fine ranging from $100 to $1,000 or spending up to 30 days in jail.
City Attorney Kevin Baker said increasing the fees is a must.
“We’re just burning money trying to take care of these vacant properties. If we can just get back a little bit from the owners of those properties, it’s going to defray our costs,” Baker said. “At the same time, if having to pay a little bit motivates them to put somebody in it, that’s all the better.”
The city has spent about $2 million over the past two years just to tear down abandoned structures, Goodwin said.
Baker estimated that about 10 percent to 15 percent of fines are being paid under the existing law. This is, in part, because some owners are hard to find. Often, he said, those who have delinquent payments are deceased and their heirs live out of state.
He said that will change because the city plans to take a different approach to enforcement.
“Every house has a story, and they can all be tracked down,” Baker said. “It might take more time, energy, cost more of the staff’s time, but I think we can find out who is in charge of every single property.”
Baker said more staff will be dedicated to collecting those fines and finding the owners. Ultimately, it’s more work falling on the shoulders of city employees, he said.
Goodwin said the city won’t need to hire more people, initially. Employees in the planning and building departments will have to devote more time to the issue.
“Hopefully, there will one day be an ability to hire more staff,” Baker said, “but we have a long way to go before we hire more staff.”
The Land Reuse Agency bill is aimed at keeping properties from falling too far into disrepair. The agency is to be managed by a seven-member board, which would be a mixture of city employees and members of the public. The group would identify properties that could be acquired through donation, tax sales or other means.
A Land Reuse Agency could have made all the difference for a property in North Charleston, Baker said. It was a house a couple bought in 1977 for $10,000. They retired and moved to Florida in 1995 and left it in the care of one of their children. That family member paid $200 in property taxes each year for more than 10 years.
Eventually, though, the family stopped paying taxes on it. The house went up for tax sale, Baker said, but no one ever bought the property.
Police and fire departments had been to the property on numerous occasions, he said. The city’s building department had done more than 20 inspections, issuing dozens of citations for violations.
“A property boarded up for 10 years hurts the community, hurts it the houses around it, hurts the morale and causes immeasurable damage to the city,” Baker said. “With a better registry and Land Reuse Agency, this house could’ve had a different story.”