FOR MANY of us, the big takeaway from last week’s City Council meeting was Alderwoman Estella Shabazz’s embarrassing and needless confrontation of Mayor Eddie DeLoach because he called Alderman Van Johnson by the wrong name at a recent City event — a faux pas the Mayor admitted.
Responding to Shabazz, DeLoach said, “I tell you what: If that’s all I do wrong between now and the time I get off here, I’m gonna be happy. If I misstate a person’s name and use the wrong last name... I’m gonna be all right.”
It’s refreshing to see the juvenile, narcissistic antics we had become so accustomed to on the previous Council now becoming so obsolete so quickly.
Of more import was an issue scheduled for a vote but actually tabled for another two weeks: the proposed Blight Ordinance, aka the “Community Redevelopment Tax Incentive.”
If you’ve been in Savannah longer than a couple of days you’ve seen the local phenomenon of formerly grand properties in some of our most historic neighborhoods literally falling apart, with people living in them as they disintegrate.
And those are some of the lucky houses. They’re often situated next to similarly grand residences which have in fact fallen completely apart and are uninhabitable.
It’s frustrating how a city which prides itself on its history so nonchalantly allows some of its most historic neighborhoods and valuable housing stock to fall into such disrepair, while spending tax funds on dubious real estate speculations in the name of “affordable housing.”
Of course, the reasons for this are complex. They have to do with our stubbornly high poverty rate. They have to do with Savannah’s high ratio of renters to owners. They have to with the maddening issue of absentee slumlords.
The reasons also have to do with racism and “white flight” from the city center in the 1960s and ‘70s, a trend now reversing. And they have to do with the financial incentive of new development as opposed to investing in things already built.
The City’s Blight Ordinance is as precisely and carefully written as it is long overdue. (Find it at www.savannahga.gov)
Long story short, it boils down to raising property taxes sevenfold on offending properties, until the offenses are addressed, after which the millage rate returns to standard.
“Tax incentive” in this case is a euphemism for “tax disincentive.”
City of Savannah spokesman Bret Bell tells me, “The proposed ordinance is really focused on the truly unsafe structures whose owners are completely negligent or can’t be found. These owners likely have been fined multiple times already in court.”
To qualify as blighted a property must show two or more of the following qualities, and I’m paraphrasing and simplifying:
• Uninhabitable, unsafe, or abandoned;
• Open to the elements or unhygienic;
• And the kicker: “Repeated illegal activity on the individual property of which the property owner knew or should have known.”
(Note the ordinance does not penalize property owners for “esthetic reasons,” i.e. not mowing the lawn.)
Penalizing landlords for illegal activity on their property is something many of us in Savannah have literally prayed for, when we’re presented, as one so often is here, with a rented property being used as an illegal drug market and the landlord is seemingly impossible to find or contact.
Here’s the rub:
Savannah City Manager Stephanie Cutter last week asked that Council’s vote be tabled because she is concerned that some blighted property owners will be unable to afford the increased taxes.
Her position seems to be that if someone is financially unable to make needed repairs, adding to their tax burden won’t help them come up with the money.
The answer in the City’s mind seems to be to provide some sort of avenue for public assistance to blighted property owners who can’t afford the tax hike.
In other words, the tax burden would simply shift to you and I. And we’d pay for blight, yet again. Disincentive gone.
Bell, however, counters that “The hope is this heavier tax burden will force the owner to sell, or push the debt to such a level that the property would be sold at tax sale.”
He stresses that the total number of severely blighted properties is comparatively small and includes really only the worst examples — less than 100 citywide.
It will be interesting to see how these competing dynamics—the clearly stated punitive aspects of the increased tax vs. the drive to provide public assistance to offending parties—plays out politically in City Council.
Speaking of prayers: Another concern, however, is one of Savannah’s little secrets:
Many of the City’s most severely blighted properties are owned by churches.
Which are tax-exempt and therefore unlikely to fall under the new Blight Ordinance at all.
Bell addresses that issue: “Property maintenance has not mentioned any churches that fit this criteria. A number of churches lease storefronts. In these cases, the landlord is the one we cite, and that person is likely not tax-exempt.”
I think the Blight Ordinance is a great start. We’ll see if it survives political realities at the next Council meeting Feb. 18.
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