Landlord ordinance gets first reading

AN ORDINANCE meant to address derelict rental properties, believed to be a source of neighborhood blight, got its first reading at the May 21 meeting of the Savannah City Council.

Council members have called for strong city action that would compel the owners or operators of rental property to keep their properties maintained. That means keeping them in compliance with housing and property maintenance codes.

The ordinance was put together by City Attorney James Blackburn. Prior to the meeting, some aldermen expressed concern that the ordinance wasn’t strong enough and wouldn’t stand up in court.

Under the ordinance, a property could be considered derelict if it has property maintenance violations, criminal activity or cut-offs of utility services, including electricity, water and sewer, for more than 60 consecutive days. While the ordinance acknowledges that property owners do have certain rights, it says those rights don’t supersede the obligation to keep the property free of health and safety violations.

After several violations, property owners could be put on “probation.” They also would be fined $100 per rental unit for each month the property remains derelict.

Owners would be required to provide ongoing inspection reports to the city to prove it is no longer derelict. A property that remains derelict for more than 60 days or has been considered derelict two or more times during a two-year period would be deemed chronically derelict rental property,

Then, owners would have to pay a $50 per month fee per unit for 36 months, even after the violations have been corrected. They also would have to provide inspection reports and verify the property is in compliance with codes for that three-year period.

In other action, the council:

• Approved the purchase of a tract of land in the Hudson Hill neighborhood that would be used for housing development in West Savannah. About $202,000 of the city’s revolving property acquisition fund will be used, $2,000 of which would go towards closing costs.

The Chatham County/City of Savannah Land Bank Authority had requested that the city provide the money in the form of a repayable grant. The 2.65-acre property is located just north of W. Bay Street with frontage on Hudson and Graham streets.

From 19 to 21 new infill houses would be constructed on the site. Similar houses have been constructed in West Savannah, including some that can be seen across from the Moses Jackson Community Center.

The grant would be repaid to the city as the lots are sold. Environmental site assessments were conducted and indicate the property is suitable for residential development.

The project is part of the city’s effort to revitalize West Savannah and provide affordable single-family, detached housing. It also is designed to prevent encroachment of the Bay Street commercial district into the Hudson Hill neighborhood, which consists of predominantly single-family housing. In fact, a stockade fence will be built along the southern boundary of the property to help screen Bay Street from the new housing development.

• The council approved a 60-day continuance to allow the Coastal Heritage Society to purchase two endangered historically significant houses. On Feb. 14, the CHS requested a 90-day continuance to appeal a decision by the Historic Review Board that would have allowed the owner of the houses to demolish them. .

The houses, which are located near the Roundhouse Railroad Museum, are considered historic because they were built to house railroad workers at the historic rail yard. The houses are located onnnn Purse and Jones street.

The CHS is buying the houses so they can be preserved. The property owner has agreed to sell two parcels along with the houses. While the terms of the purchase have been reached, more time is needed to finalize the transaction, so the extension was approved.

• The council approved the placement of a historical marker in front of the Beach Institute at 502 E. Harris St., which was the first school in Savannah built specifically to educate African-Americans. Land for the school was purchased by the Freemen’s Bureau, American Missionary Society and the Savannah Educational Association.

Newly freed slaves built the school and a teacher’s house at the site shortly after the end of the Civil War. The school was named for Alfred E. Beach, a philanthropist, inventor and editor of the Scientific American, who gave money for the construction of the school. Today, the building is an educational and cultural center operated by the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation.

• The council approved the one-time purchase of night vision goggles and accessories from U.S. Night Vision Corp. at a cost of $76,600. The goggles will be used by the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department Special Operations Division.

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