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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

DeKalb hunts vacant property owners, aims to publish their digits

A broken mailbox sits on the ground in front of a vacant home with overgrown grass in DeKalb County. County officials have created a registry that requires the owners of vacant homes to register their contact information or be fined.
  • Joeff Davis
  • A broken mailbox sits on the ground in front of a vacant home with overgrown grass in DeKalb County. County officials have created a registry that requires the owners of vacant homes to register their contact information or be fined.
Ever been frustrated with a vacant house on the block, watching both the grass and the creepy factor grow higher while the property value sinks lower? DeKalb County feels your pain. They're telling all owners of vacant property as of June 1 to send in a real contact number for someone to fix the place along with $100.

The just-opened DeKalb Vacant Property Registry requires all owners of such places in unincorporated DeKalb to name a local agent who's in charge of fixing broken windows, cutting the grass, and other code violations.

That's meant to supplement current ownership records, which, especially on many foreclosures, just names a bank and gives an out-of-state phone number.

"This is another tool that were trying to use as we come out of the recession" to clean up neighborhoods, said south DeKalb District 3 Commissioner Larry Johnson.

He and other county officials marked the opening of the registry last week in front of an abandoned District 3 house where police said they had found evidence of squatters, criminals, and drug use.

"The end goal is to get these properties cleaned up," said Tonza Clark, registry manager.

County spokesman Burke Brennan said especially in bank-owned cases, it can take a huge amount of manpower for the county to find the right person to, say, get grass mown grass that's two feet tall.

But with a human on speed dial listed for every property, "then hopefully we never get to the point where it is four feet tall and people can hide in it."

The program is similar to Atlanta's. Since 2012, it has registered about 3,000 houses and collected about $300,000.

The phone numbers will be public information, said Johnson. It's not just Code Compliance who will be using the numbers - neighbors will be able to as well.

"It's a sense of empowerment that we would like to create," said Johnson.

About 10,000 homes in unincorporated DeKalb are thought to be vacant, he said. Homeowners who fail to register face a $1,000 fine.

"The fee structure was based on a best guess what it would cost to administer the program," said Brennan.

But due to the way government accounting works everywhere, all the $100s collected for the registry go to DeKalb's general bank account, not directly to Code Compliance and its roughly 30 officers. It's up to the county commission, in the annual county budget, to decide the budget for code enforcement.

That being said, the fund is definitely meant to offset operations of Code Compliance, said Brennan, calling the passage through the general fund a mere "accounting procedure."

If the house is so long-gone and forgotten that it looks like a good candidate for demolition, that still requires a long judicial process that resets every time a property is sold.

Worth noting: DeKalb's vacant property registry is not to be confused with a separate foreclosure registry county officials launched in late 2011. That registry now has between 6,500 and 7,000 houses. The vacant property registry captures more houses than the foreclosure registry because not all vacancy is caused by foreclosure.

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