School scandals aside, Mayor Kasim Reed should be walking with a bit of spring in his step.
Less than two years after taking office, he's basically fulfilled his two biggest campaign promises. The city's once-shuttered rec centers have been reopened and the administration, with the help of private donors, is creating cultural and educational activities for afterschoolers and young teens. And last week, the Atlanta City Council unanimously approved reforms to public employees' pension programs, freeing up an estimated $215 million over the next 10 years. By and large, the mayor has adhered to an overall philosophy not to pursue scatter-dash initiatives every five minutes, spreading resources thin, confusing staffers and testing taxpayers' patience. Reed wanted to do a few things well. Quibble with the specifics, but he's done just that.
So what comes next for the mayor who's proven it's possible to tackle unsexy, complex problems? He'll continue to woo federal officials to fund the deepening of the Savannah Port and beat the drum for next year's 1 cent sales tax that could generate billions of dollars in funding for new road and transit projects in metro Atlanta. Maybe he can find a way to lower Atlanta's sky-high water bills, which last week rose by another 12 percent.
There's also talk that the mayor might now pursue quality-of-life issues. Might we suggest something specific?
Drive through neighborhoods in southwest and the western sides of Atlanta and you'll find streets lined with empty homes, many of which sit open, becoming safe havens for squatters, crackheads and others who don't have the community's best interests in mind.
"We're going to have an aggressive standard for maintaining these properties because of their negative impact on neighborhoods," Reed said in March of last year.
But cracking down on the problem has proven nearly impossible. In many cases, the city doesn't even know who owns the structures. Code enforcement violations simply pile up. And efforts by state lawmakers from some of Atlanta's most beleaguered neighborhoods to push a bill that would allow the city to create a registry of vacant homes — at Reed's request — have been stymied by bank lobbyists.
The best way to solve this problem is to foster an environment where businesses could flourish, creating jobs for nearby residents, which could help people move into the houses. (A proposed Wal-Mart near Vine City, though controversial, might help on that front.) But such projects take years. In the meantime, the city must do everything in its power to seal up, and, when all other legal options have been exhausted, demolish these buildings. If the state is dragging its feet on allowing vacant-home registries, which could help code enforcement officials issue citations about unkempt lawns, broken windows and litter, Reed, who as a state senator built strong ties with state lawmakers, must show them the light.
No one wants to hold photo ops in front of boarded-up buildings. And there's no political benefit in cleaning up half-empty neighborhoods. But the residents of these historic and predominantly African-American communities who've remained in these houses next door either by choice or necessity, deserve better.
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