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Clearing blight with code enforcement

A concern echoed at every Regional Advocacy Meeting this fall was the challenge of blighted properties that cities and towns of all sizes struggle with daily. Blight has many negative repercussions. Dilapidated and unsafe buildings affect residents" physical and emotional well-being and compromise a city's ability to ensure public safety. Maintaining property values and fostering economic development opportunities are also more difficult in blighted areas.

"Before clearing blight from their communities, town officials must first be committed to the effort," said Scott Slatton, the Association's legislative and public policy analyst. "Dealing with blighted buildings often causes conflict within the community, but adopting code enforcement as a council priority sets a clear tone for improvement."

Also training city staff who are responsible for code enforcement is essential. Training offered by the Building Officials Association of South Carolina and Palmetto Property Maintenance Officers Associations are recommended.

About the Loris town council's renewed commitment to clear blight, Mayor David Stoudenmire said in an interview with The Loris Scene, "It is something we need to do ... it is going to be a tough road. It is not going to be a popular road. ... But, we have got to stand together on it."

City officials need to make sure they have the proper ordinances in place to clear overgrown lots, remove abandoned vehicles and get rid of other street-level blight, Slatton noted. "Councils should adopt maintenance codes to ensure buildings are maintained to prevent blight. Without ordinances like the International Property Maintenance Code, a town has no legal authority to clear blight."

Enforcing ordinances is the next, sometimes difficult, step to clearing blight; however, it does not necessarily have to mean increased expenses for the city. 

From code enforcement officials to police officers to town administrators, towns across the state use a variety of personnel to achieve their goal of clearing blight. A 2007 study on code enforcement by the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina found that cities used 13 different city departments to help clear blight. The Town of Kiawah Island contracts with a private company while the City of Marion contracts with the county. The cities of Liberty and Central share a part-time building official. The City of Hanahan uses police officers for nuisance abatement.

A common theme city officials voiced during the fall Regional Advocacy Meetings was the lack of funding for code enforcement efforts to help clear blight. If towns need additional funds, several options are available. The City of Laurens collects a community improvement fee that funds demolition of dilapidated structures. The City of Conway adopted the Rebuild Conway Program, a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization effort that recently won an Achievement Award from the Municipal Association.

Some towns bill property owners directly for lot clearing. Others attach liens to property, which is allowed by state law. None of these funding strategies fully cover the costs of clearing blight, but these investments have a multiplying effect in neighborhoods and across cities.

Realizing that cities need more tools are needed to clear blight, the Municipal Association continues to advocate the passage of the Dilapidated Buildings Act. This legislation would add a new option to a city's existing tools to deal with blight when all other available options have been unsuccessful.

Clearing blight is difficult, necessary work that ensures a community's safety and viability. However, with the right strategies in place and passage of the Dilapidated Buildings Act, cities and towns can be successful.