Cities target eyesores

​It was a phone call no city official would want to receive, and it came on a Friday afternoon.

City of Manning Administrator Scott Tanner told the story during the October meeting of the South Carolina Community Development Association during a session about blight.

"I think the call was from one of our police offers," recalled Tanner. "He said, 'You better come over here. This guy is saying you're tearing down the wrong house.'"

But Tanner's story ended well.

"Ultimately, we got over there, and we figured out it was just an address issue, and we were thankfully tearing the right house down," said Tanner.

Bottom line: Cleaning up blighted property can bring unexpected challenges.

Hurdles and unexpected finds
In the process of razing a structure or clearing land, residents may complain or officials may learn that a seemingly vacant structure was actually occupied.

Officials from Manning, Sumter and Hartsville urged Community Development Association members to keep several things in mind: the amount of money a city must provide as matching funds to a grant award; the grant's paperwork and compliance demands; budget overages on a project; and the importance of keeping blight-abatement ordinances up to date.

In the City of Hartsville, a demolition project caught the community's interest because there was an abandoned, historically significant African-American cemetery on the land.

"In light of a recent grassroots effort to save the cemetery by concerned community residents and volunteers, we decided to use the sensitive clearing of the cemetery to satisfy part of our match requirement for our open Community Development Block Grant," said Mary Catherine Farrell, assistant to the city manager.

"This grant funded the demolition of the adjacent apartment complex, so this marks a concentrated effort to stabilize this area of the neighborhood while celebrating the neighborhood's history and cultural identity."

Due to the overwhelming challenge of addressing blighted properties, Hartsville officials sought help from the American Planning Association's Community Planning Assistance Team.

"If you're selected, they send in a team of experts in planning and community development and neighborhood revitalizations," said Farrell. "They fully immerse themselves in the neighborhood and they interview residents, a long list of stakeholders, and they really spend time getting to know the neighborhood."

City Council adopted the team's comprehensive revitalization strategy, which covers the built environment as well as community engagement and intangible, quality-of-life concerns.

Leaders see the problem
Cities have limited ways to curb blighted property. Options include a Community Development Block Grant, and programs such as the Neighborhood Initiative Program, supported in part by state and federal agencies. The latter awarded its last funding, but Farrell urged officials to seek similar opportunities that may arise.

Hartsville allocated some of its funds to a nonprofit foundation through the city's Residential Demolition Assistance program, which allowed blighted houses to be torn down at lower cost with the property owner's contribution of $500 – $1,000. The owner would retain ownership of the land. Since 2013, more than 50 houses and a small apartment complex have been demolished under the program.

Sumter officials have wielded an array of tools, said John Macloskie, codes enforcement director. Among them: Penny for Progress, a city/county program that devotes some capital sales tax revenue to blight reduction. Sumter has also used a portion of hospitality tax revenues for removing blighted structures in the course of completing a hospitality-focused project.

Macloskie also pointed to strong code enforcement. A survey of vacant properties in 2014 revealed a stark reality — "That if we aren't taking off more than we're adding to the list, we're losing ground."

It's also helpful when a city's elected officials and leadership prioritize anti-blight efforts.

In Manning, a project the city implemented through the competitive Community Development Block Grant program called for certain crime-watch measures, including installing security cameras, funded by the city's matching dollars. The grant was intended for low-to-moderate income areas and high-crime areas. The tricky part was finding a useable utility pole as a place to attach it. The quest revealed the importance of partnerships.

"Farmers Telephone was nice enough to give us permission to put the camera on their pole," said Tanner. "It took one email and one phone call."