Columbia’s plan to demolish blight is months behind schedule

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Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 5:45 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Eight months and half a million dollars later, some of Columbia’s most run-down buildings are still standing.

In April 2022, the Columbia City Council set aside $571,000 in American Rescue Plan funds to expedite the demolition of “vacant, abandoned, & hazardous” properties in the city.

The investment came after a Nov. 2021 WIS investigation found abandoned buildings spread across the city, becoming eyesores and safety concerns for neighbors.

Columbia’s April 2022 press release announced the ARPA funds would be used to level 77 already-identified buildings. It would be split into two rounds.

The city aimed to have the first round of 52 building demolitions put to bid on May 1, with the council approving the bids in June. The press release announced demolitions would follow “approximately 90 days from the solicitation.”

Press release for Columbia’s plan to demolish blight
Press release for Columbia’s plan to demolish blight(City of Columbia)

If the timeline had been held, 90 days from May 1 would have resulted in demolitions around July 30.

The second round of 25 buildings was slated to begin solicitation by September 2022.

As of Dec. 15, the city has not demolished any of the targeted buildings with the ARPA funds.

Demolition contract bidding didn’t begin until November and is slated to close on Dec. 20.

The bids require the contractor’s work to be completed 60 to 90 days after approval, depending on the bid.

As of Dec. 15, the bids include 33 building demolitions.

Columbia Code Enforcement leadership attributed the delayed timeline to unforeseen asbestos surveys. Additionally, the process is complicated by a shifting list of properties to demolish.

A WIS investigation found that asbestos surveys are mandated for large-scale public projects and are part of standard procedure.

Additionally, there have been limited changes to the list of buildings ready for demolition from September to December.

Where these buildings are:

Blight is found in all corners of the city.

The Nov. 2021 WIS investigation found the city had cases for 256 commercial and residential properties which were either boarded or slated for demolition as of summer 2021.

In a Dec. 1 interview with WIS, Columbia Housing Official David Hatcher estimated there are 900 vacant buildings in the city.

The task of managing which homes are eligible for demolition falls on Hatcher and his team of code enforcers.

They operate under the Columbia Police Department.

Hatcher provided WIS a list of 54 properties which code enforcement was targeting for ARPA-funded demolition as of Dec. 1.

Here’s an interactive map showing the status, presence of asbestos, and size of the buildings as of Dec. 1.

What was originally a two-round plan was expanded into four rounds.

In an email to WIS, Hatcher broke down the rounds into the following categories. He gave the caveat that the list changes due to additions, removals, and changing circumstances.

  • Round 1A and 1B are out to bid now. Anticipate them to go to City Council in January for approval and to be demolished about 60 days afterwards
  • Round 2 is ready to go out to bid now and will posted soon and follow Round 1 shortly thereafter.
  • Round 3 are ready for us to demo, however we need to get the asbestos surveys completed first. Seems to be about a 90-day turnaround.
  • Round 4 are the ones that are currently in the final stages/waiting period before we can move forward. I anticipate this number to grow as we add additional properties over the next few months.

As of Dec. 1, round 1 contained the most properties. 18 properties were evenly split between 1A and 1B, the two groups are differentiated by the presence of asbestos in the buildings.

Here’s a breakdown of the properties by round:

24 out of the 54 properties are located in the zip code 29203. The 29203 zip code also contained the most demolition track and boarded buildings as of the summer of 2021.

District 1 City Councilwoman and former Columbia Deputy Director of Community Development Tina Herbert said there are multiple causes for blight.

“I really do believe that we’re moving to a point where the next generation doesn’t really care for older homes and older stock,” she said.

Herbert also pointed to a property owner’s indecision on the future of the property, shortage of funds, or death.

“If you think about it, if they had the money to fix it up and earn some money off of it they would have,” she said.

WIS spoke with North Main Street resident Charles Mills. He lives across the street from a home that the city is targeting for demolition.

The property has holes in the roof, loose shingles, a damaged entryway, and an overgrown yard.

Area Columbia plans to demolish
Area Columbia plans to demolish(Chris Joseph)

“It’s time to ride down North Main Street and see something better. See a beautiful community and not just some ran-down homes and things that need a lot of fixing,” he said.

Meadow Street resident Elliott McDuffie Jr. also lives across the street from a targeted-for-demolition building. That home has a collapsed roof and damaged windows.

“We try to keep our yards and stuff looking good and everything, and then to look across the street and see that, it just gives you the feeling that stuff is just going downhill,” he said.

He said he’s hopeful the city will “speed it up” on demolishing the property.

Area Columbia plans to demolish
Area Columbia plans to demolish(Chris Joseph)

Why the delay?

At the April 19, 2022 council meeting, Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson thanked the city council for its allocation of the ARPA funds and expressed a desire for speed.

“We’re trying to move this forward pretty quickly,” Wilson said.

On Dec. 1, Hatcher said the demolition process is “extremely urgent” for his team.

“These abandoned houses and code violations in general effect people’s quality of life, so we take it personally,” he said.

Hatcher said that at the time of the ARPA allotment, his code enforcement team had the original list of 77 properties in line for demolition.

“[The 77 properties], those were the ones that were most likely to go forward, we were ready. I didn’t see any obstacles at the time, the title searches were clear, we’re clear, we’ve done all the property notification and they were ready to go forward,” he said.

In Oct. 2021, Hatcher provided WIS with a flowchart for Columbia’s demolition process. It requires a series of legal hurdles which can restart in the event the property changes hands.

Alternatively, the process could be halted if the property owner fixes the building.

Hatcher said unforeseen asbestos surveys slowed down the process.

“We reached out to [the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control] to find out what requirements would be required. We did find out that we’d have to do asbestos surveys on each of the properties, and that took a little time,” he said.

DHEC requires an asbestos survey of a property before it can be demolished. If asbestos is identified, it then must be removed.

As of Dec. 1, city data shows 25 of the 54 properties contained asbestos. Another 19 properties were awaiting the results of the surveys.

Hatcher said the timeline is subject to the availability and speed of asbestos contractors.

“I think it added about 90 days, the asbestos surveys were done in August, and we’re just now getting them back,” he said.

Hatcher said he learned the asbestos surveys were needed “shortly after” the ARPA funds were allocated.

WIS reached out to DHEC about its communication to the city on the demolitions, and a spokesperson sent a statement which read in part:

“…these asbestos surveys are a routine/required part of the demolition process and that we’ve worked with the City of Columbia on demolition projects many, many times…”

Additionally, DHEC pointed to EPA regulations which have required large-scale public demolition projects to be subject to asbestos surveys/abatement since the 1990s.

WIS reached back out to Hatcher about why asbestos surveys weren’t expected or accounted for in the April timeline.

Additionally, WIS asked if Hatcher was aware or approved of the original timeline released in April.

Hatcher sent a statement reading:

They weren’t necessarily unforeseen. SCDHEC exempts single-family residences from the requirement of Asbestos Surveys. At the beginning of the project, I was under the impression that these demolitions would also be exempted considering they are single-family residences.

Additionally, he said:

The timeline was the one that I provided to the City Manager based on my experience with the previous demolitions. Again assuming that this project was exempt from the asbestos surveys.

During the Dec. 1 interview, Hatcher also said a property changing ownership or attempts at building rehab complicate the process.

“We might bump it down the priority on the list, it would still be on the list until it’s been abated or rehabbed, but that all kind of factors into how we prioritize our list and what’s on the list,” he said.

He said the list changes daily.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, WIS obtained the city’s working list for first-round demolitions as of Sept. 9.

The list featured 37 properties. As of Sept. 9, all 37 were awaiting an asbestos survey.

35 of those properties ended up on Dec. 1 list, representing the entirety of December’s rounds 1 and 2.

The buildings compromised 64.8 percent of the Dec. 1 list.

The remaining 19 properties in rounds 3 and 4 are either awaiting asbestos surveys or working their way through the demolition process.

WIS also followed up with CPD about the presence of the round 1 and 2 buildings in both lists.

Hatcher sent a statement reading:

I may have been misunderstood. The list in itself is not the delay for the overall project. There are however individual properties that can be delayed if we encounter any title issues, if the property changes ownership, or if we have an owner reach out to us interested in repairing the property. Generally, those properties can be removed from the list while we work through those issues and sometimes can make it back on the list.

Hatcher said some things are out of his team’s control, including a contractor’s timeline. However, the city’s bids do require all work to be completed 2 to 3 months after the bids are approved.

WIS asked Hatcher how long he envisions it will take for all the properties on the list to be demolished.

“Ideally I’d like to have them all done in six months to a year, but again I can’t control all those obstacles we’ll run into,” he said.

Herbert said she’s been communicating to her residents she was hoping to see houses begin to fall in December and January.

“I also know that it took us years to get some of the properties on the list. So I never had a real expectation that it took us years to go through this process and now it’s going to be a quick, get them turned, get them knocked down,” she said.

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