SUNDAY FOCUS: Derelict homes and buildings more than just an eyesore in the city

Published 8:08 pm Saturday, August 4, 2018

Vicksburg has a problem, and it’s growing.

The problem is the number of derelict buildings in the city; vacant buildings that have been neglected to the point they are a hazard to the people around them and have to be razed, either by the property owner or the city.

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As of July 1, there are 125 homes on the city’s demolition list going back to 2010, according to information from the Community Development Department. Every month that list grows, community development director Victor Gray Lewis said.

“Demolitions are approved at every meeting by the board (of mayor and aldermen),” he said. “We put them on the list. We are trying to bring them down and reduce that number.”

City ordinance requires property owners to keep their properties cut and clear of debris and their homes repaired. A violation results in a letter from the city ordering the property owner to clean the property or demolish the dilapidated home, or the city will do it at the owner’s expense.

Most complaints about problem properties come from neighbors, who call the city’s Action Line, officials said. Complaints are sent to the inspection department, and an inspector goes out to look at the property. Inspectors, who have a certain area of the city to cover, also report violations.

Once a violation is determined, the city sends a letter to the property owner giving them 30 days to clean the property or demolish the building, or attend a hearing on the problem held by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

And sometimes finding the property owner can be a problem.

“A lot of the property we deal with is heir property,” said North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield, who oversees community development. “We try to contact the person in charge and try to get them to step up and take care of the property. A lot of the problem, I’m sorry to say, is in the North Ward.

“We try to give people the opportunity to renovate the property or take it down and replace it with a new home, but people won’t step up and do it, and sometimes we can’t find anyone.”

Demolition last resort

In other cases, investors who have purchased the property either from the owner or during Warren County’s annual tax sale, have to be notified. One of the more recent cases is the Kuhn Memorial Hospital, which has two buildings set to come down. City officials had to deal with four separate parties before city could acquire the property in November 2016.

City officials said demolition is a last resort, adding they prefer to have the property owners clean and take care of the property. But if demolition is necessary, city ordinance and state law allows the city to use its employees or hire a contractor to demolish a building.

Gray-Lewis said the city hires contractors to do the demolition and later bills the property owner for reimbursement. If the property owner does not pay, a lien is placed against the property on the county tax roles.

In some cases, the demolition is postponed through a “hold” placed on the property. Gray Lewis said there are several reasons for hold; it can come at the request of an alderman or at the request of the property owner, who wants to try and renovate the building, or the property has been sold to another person or company.

If the property is sold, he said, “The process starts over.”

And one of the landholders in the city is the state of Mississippi, which acquires property that is unclaimed at tax sales. In 2015, the Secretary of State’s office, which is responsible for keeping the unclaimed property, held an auction in Warren County that sold 38 parcels for $46,070.90, which was returned to local government. The office has held online land auctions since 2016.

“We have made it as easy as possible to bid on tax-forfeited land,” Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said. “All parcels in the state’s inventory are online with details about market value, legal boundaries, and other information. Everyone wins when properties are returned to the tax rolls — our communities improve and we have more money for schools.”

owners responsibility

What local officials want is to see property owners with derelict homes and properties determined to be a nuisance clean them and put new homes on them.

City officials hope a new program will begin reducing the number of derelict homes and replacing then dilapidated homes with new ones.

The city has received a $165,000 blight elimination grant from the Mississippi Home Corp. that will cover the cost of razing 11 homes and clearing the properties so new homes can be built by nonprofit agencies like Habitat for Humanity to provide affordable housing.

“I hope that program helps out,” Mayfield said, “Because we need to put homes back on the tax rolls.

“We’re asking people to step up to the plate and clean up their property or tear down the dilapidated buildings and replace it with a new home.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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