Neighbors calling for change as Columbia grappled with hundreds of neglected building cases over the summer

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Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 6:25 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After hearing complaints of blight, fires, and vandalism, a WIS Investigation has found Columbia had hundreds of neglected property cases as of mid-June.

Neighbors and city leaders raised concerns about the buildings and how they’re changing their communities.

WIS researched Columbia Code Enforcement data, Columbia Police Department crime data and walked the communities that are grappling with the issues.

The situation on the ground

A string of summer 2021 house fires in the Booker Washington Heights neighborhood happened in buildings that were described as vacant by the Columbia Fire Department.

Neighbors pointed to the buildings as targets for crime, creating opportunities for accidental fires or arson.

RELATED: CRFD investigating fourth fire in Booker Washington Heights neighborhood

RELATED: CPD investigating several fires in Booker-Washington Heights neighborhood

Residents raise concerns about vacant buildings after string of unsolved fires

In the aftermath of the fires, WIS filed a Freedom of Information request with the City of Columbia to get a sense of how many abandoned buildings there were in the city. The data sent back is accurate as of June 15, 2021.

The city sent back spreadsheets which split building cases into four categories:

  1. Residential demolition cases (139)
  2. Residential boarded building cases (112)
  3. Commercial demolition cases (18)
  4. Commercial boarded building cases (45)

The grand total of the cases is 314. This does not directly translate to 314 buildings, as some addresses have multiple cases attached to them.

The data reflects 256 individual addresses.

Columbia Housing Official David Hatcher sent WIS this explanation:

Yes, it is possible to have multiple cases at each address. For instance, it could be vacant, boarded and up for demolition. Those are all different case types with different tracks. There could also be instances, especially with older cases, where there have been multiple inspectors assigned over time and they may have created a new case for their records or had to start over with change of ownership.

The demolition cases represent buildings which are going through the legal processes of a demolition. Similarly, the boarded cases reflect homes that are boarded or slated to be boarded.

WIS took the data and superimposed the information onto an interactive map you can find here. It includes the address, the code official the case is assigned to, and when the case was opened.

WIS also broke down the data by zip code. The 29203 zip code leads all zip codes with 144 cases as of June 15, 2021. That area runs near the Bull Street District in the south to the northernmost part of the city.

WIS requested trespassing data from the Columbia Police Department by zip code for the month of June 2021, to correspond with the code enforcement data.

29203 is higher than most zip codes, but 29201 led the month with documented trespassing incidents.

To see the situation on the ground, WIS went to the Golden Acres neighborhood in Columbia. It’s located in the 29203 zip code.

As of June 15, 2021, city code enforcement data shows there were four residential demolition cases and a boarded residential case either in its neighborhood or within 1,000 feet outside it.

Active Golden Acres Neighborhood President Sandra Ricks has lived in the community for 21 years, but her grandmother lived in the community for “60 to 70 years.” She spoke with WIS in October about what the neighborhood used to be.

“We had people with flowers in their yards, I mean the streets was clean, stayed clean it wasn’t empty houses where people could go in and squat in,” she said.

A short walk from her home is a house with a caved-in roof and damaged wall at 4913 Jones Street. Columbia Code Enforcement data shows as of June 15, the building was a residential demolition case that was opened in July 2020.

House with a caved in roof and damaged wall at 4913 Jones Street.
House with a caved in roof and damaged wall at 4913 Jones Street.(WIS)

Ricks expressed frustration with all parties involved.

“This is our home, Golden Acres is our home and we love Golden Acres. We just want the people to fix their houses up and if they can’t fix them let the city come in and tear them down,” she said.

She said she is hoping to see the run-down homes replaced with better buildings and not empty lots.

Neighbor Deborah Mitchell echoed Ricks’ frustration with the landlords, saying they take the money and “keep moving.”

She said the properties are left as crime magnets.

“People are living in there, sleeping in there, eating in there, they’d go in there, they would steal stuff and put stuff that was stolen in the house. They would take stuff that was there and take it out of the house,” she said.

Mitchell said the properties are also serving as habitats for vermin.

“You used to walk up the street not being afraid of whether a snake is going to come out and then if you see a snake, by the time you turn around and run over it, it’s gone,” she said.

Similarly, neglected houses can be found at 2319 and 2329 Waites Road.

They’re both open residential demolition cases as of June 15 and were open since May 2019 and June 2017 respectively.

Homeless No More operates St. Lawrence Place, a transitional housing program yards away.

CEO Lila Anna Sauls said they pose a safety risk to her residents and the neighborhood at large.

“When you look in the windows and you can see where people are squatting or where there have been fires to keep warm. We’re coming up on cooler weather, so during the summer you’re not as concerned about a building burning down, but now we will be,” she said.

Sauls said she’s attempted to make an offer on the 2329 property, but without success.

“It’s easy to see who owns the building, you can go online, you can see what taxes are owed. The issue then becomes making contact with that owner,” she said.

Working with landlords

Richland County Tax Assessor records show the 2329 Waites property is owned by Thomas Global Ventures, LLC.

S.C. Secretary of State records show the initial agent and organizer of the LLC is Demetrick Thomas, and he lists himself as CEO on his LinkedIn.

He said he bought it with cash in an estate sale in 2015.

Thomas said his “endgame” was to personally fix the house and rent it out. However, he said he deployed with the U.S. Army overseas just months after his purchase and has been abroad ever since.

He said he’s in the process of negotiating with a contractor to fix-up the home but has faced issues finding a business to do it.

“Most contractors in Columbia want all or nothing, they do not just want to come in and do the carpentry work, and then maybe come and do the drywall later. They want to do the whole project all at once,” he said.

He said his inability to secure contractors has kept the building run-down and has impeded his ability to work with banks on the project.

Thomas said his uncle is keeping tabs on the property and said he has not personally seen the property recently.

“I think I have a big responsibility [to the community] knowing that there are squatters, the first thing is to see what I can do to get the house back up to code and standard. I don’t think anybody should buy a property and just leave it abandoned,” he said.

He said he needs to communicate with his uncle about if and how squatters could be getting in.

“If they’re getting in, I need to find out how they’re getting in. He said he screwed in some boards over the window and nobody can get in and so first I have to do is get him to take some pictures and let me kind of see where a squatter could possibly be getting in,” he said.

Thomas said he is open to a sale if he gets an offer.

WIS was unable to contact the owner of the 2319 Waites Road property.

During an interview with neighbors, WIS found Jim Hiott while he was working on his family’s three properties on Monticello Road in October.

City code records show as of June 15, two of the properties listed as boarding cases.

He said it’s not an issue of neglect.

“I’ve worked one to two jobs my entire life to pay the taxes on these things. Even when they were rented they weren’t hardly paying their weight, but as people moved out of them, it took a lot to fix them up. That’s why they’ve fallen into disrepair,” he said.

He said he’s facing two issues. The first is that the properties have been regular targets of crime, slowing the process.

“The problem with making headway is you see a lot of broken windows. I didn’t break them. People will break a window to come in and sleep or to get in and steal something,” he said.

The second is trouble with the code enforcement process. The city’s code enforcement unit is under the police department.

“I fully intend to get these in good shape and going again, but it would be helpful to me if the city would enable that instead of nit-picking me with a code enforcement write-up every time I turn around,” he said.

He suggested facilitating contacts between homeowners and contractors who will fix homes for a reasonable price.

“We don’t want to let these properties go, we want to fix them and get good tenants in them, but it doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.

What the city can do

Columbia Housing Official David Hatcher leads a team of 25 employees in enforcing the building codes of the city.

In his interview with WIS, he said homeowners who are absentee, financially struggling or even dead can lead to vacant buildings with code violations.

“A lot of times with our vacant buildings, they change ownership a lot. Whenever it changes ownership, we have to re-notify the new owner, so that slows down our process,” he said.

“Starts all over.”

In 2019, Hatcher spear-headed the creation of the city’s vacant building ordinance and gave multiple presentations to city council leading up to its passage.

The Columbia City Council passed it in October 2019.

It establishes:

  • A requirement the buildings be registered within 120 days of becoming vacant and renew the registration on a yearly basis with graduated fees up to $1,000 for non-residential structures/ $500 for residential structures
  • A requirement owners submit a vacant building plan
  • A requirement the owners pay a $50 inspection fee annually
  • A requirement for a local point of contact for the properties
  • Creates exemptions for some buildings (i.e. actively renting, for sale, extended absence by owner if primary residence, etc...)

Hatcher said the city is still in the education phase of enforcing the ordinance.

“A vacant building is not vacant by definition until 120 days, which put us right in February 2020, right when the [COVID-19] pandemic started. So, that literally put it on the backburner for a little while and we’re just now diving into it this year,” he said.

He said he is “hoping within the next six to eight months” his team will be ready to be more proactive on the ordinance.

His team does have the ability to demolish buildings once the case goes through a complicated legal process. He provided WIS this flow chart:

Hatcher said in “an ideal world” a demolition process could take seven months.

In reality, he said the process can take three years.

“You can see how it can literally go in circles on a demolition project,” he said.

City Attorney Teresa Knox declined an interview request on that legal process and city’s ability to use eminent domain.

If the demolitions are approved, Hatcher said city funding is a bottleneck.

“If there’s 50 houses on the list, we obviously can’t demolish all of them. We’ve got to find the ones that are most in need, based on the nuisance or structural integrity,” he said.

He said he does work to get grant money to help speed the process, and occasionally the city collects on liens.

Hatcher reported the budget for his unit has gone up over the last three fiscal years:

  • FY 2022: $1,931,581
  • FY 2021: $1,881,972
  • FY 2020: $1,861,283

When it comes to financial assistance for homeowners, the city does not offer grants to individuals.

However, its Community Development Department does facilitate grants for neighborhood beautification.

State law offers tax credits for homeowners who work to rehabilitate their homes.

Hatcher sent this statement on a grant earned to address the Booker Washington Heights community in response to the fires:

It is a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) that CPD applied for and was awarded for demolition of substandard structures within certain target areas of the City. When I requested the money, I specifically identified the Booker Washington Heights area as my target area to address all the vacant substandard structures, especially with all the recent fires in the community. The grant amount is for $115,997. With this grant I am seeking property owners who are willing to consent to demolition at no cost to them. Typically we place liens on properties in which we demolish the structures, however we will not be filling a lien since we have the grant money. I have until May 2022 to spend the money.

WIS interviewed then-District 1 City Council candidate Tina Herbert on the issue of neglected buildings in October. Herbert is a former Deputy Director of the Columbia Community Development Department and ran on her record in the role.

Herbert won the race for the seat and will be sworn in in January, representing a district which falls predominantly in the 29203 zip code.

She said she’s looking to determine if a city-based response or efforts by community members to help rehab the properties will be more effective.

“There’s so many reasons why people don’t invest or keep up their properties. It may be a cash issue, it may be not wanting to do the work to find the tenants. I do want to know the why,” she said.

She suggested working with homeowners of buildings in “decent” condition to help market for tenants and also argued take a block-by-block approach to the problem.

“I know the problem is that everyone says, what about me? What about me? What about me? But if you really want to see an impact and really want to see a change, you start with two blocks of commercial and deal with the residential that’s immediately associated with it,” she said.

She said when it’s come to absentee homeowners, the city should investigate facilitating sales to local buyers and strengthen penalties.

When it comes to the 2019 ordinance, she said she is hoping the city will act soon but wants to learn more about what resources are available.

Copyright 2021 WIS. All rights reserved.

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